TBY talks to Bahar Birinci, Country Manager of Emirates Airlines, on the Dubai-Istanbul route, encouraging trade, and passenger trends.

How have passenger numbers changed since Emirates Airlines first began its route between Dubai and Istanbul?

Dubai is, and will always be, the center of business in the UAE. There has to be a bridge and transportation facilities between two countries for any type of business relationship or tourism to grow. Usually, when airlines invest in a new route there is already a business relationship. Two years after Emirates was established in Dubai as the airline of the Dubai government, it opened an Istanbul route. Having two flights per week to Istanbul was a big challenge because there was very little awareness in Turkey about the UAE and Dubai. In 1993, five years after Emirates started operating to Turkey, Emirates only had two flights operating between Istanbul and Dubai, and those Boeing 727 aircraft were going to Frankfurt and then coming back, which gave Turkey a weekly 250-passenger capacity. Today, we have capacity for 5,000 people one way weekly. We are flying every day, in the biggest aircraft that Istanbul's airports can receive. Our load factor is an average 81% on the route, and we have 11 flights per week. Some days it is a single flight, sometimes a double. Istanbul to Dubai is the most profitable European route for Emirates in terms of cost-revenue ratios.

How has Emirates encouraged trade and business between Turkey and Dubai?

I started with Emirates in August 1993. I come from an export-import background and worked for British Airways and then Emirates. Dubai was really unknown, and so I spoke to the Chamber of Commerce, customs, the warehouses, and cargo villages to discover the export-import trends. Then I did the same thing in Turkey. We went to Turkish producers and exporters, and we made a booklet in Turkish that showed how to do business with Dubai, how to invest in Dubai in a free zone, how to set up a company in a free zone or outside it, and how to export. At the time, many exporters were trying to sell to Germany and the US, but these countries have quotas. In Dubai, there are no quotas. We gave exporters the contacts they needed. This was all before the internet of course, and this information is easier to access nowadays. For two years, my office was full of exporters looking to get contacts. Now, many people are doing business with Dubai, investing and engaging in the construction and finance industries. We were also telling people, especially white-collar workers who seek employment abroad, to try their chances in Dubai. In Europe, it is very hard to get a work permit. If you go there and try to find a job, you will find one since most of the population are expatriates.

“Dubai is, and will always be, the center of business in the UAE."

How did Emirates build the tourism relationship Turkey has with Dubai?

After we built up the business to a certain extent, we started to promote Dubai as the closest place with the nicest beaches and sea when it is freezing cold in Turkey. During the cold winter months the warmest place Turkish people used to go was Florida and the Caribbean, which is about 16 hours of flying time. Dubai is just four hours away offering luxury hotels, high market restaurants, good shopping, very high-quality service, warm weather, and very nice beaches. Two years later, there was a severe winter and one of the country's holidays fell on a very cold period. All the seats were full, but travel agents were calling us and asking for seats to Dubai. The next year, during the winter holidays, Dubai was the only demand that consumers were making to travel agencies by name. If they wanted to go to Europe, they asked for whatever was available and cheap, but many people expressed a desire for Dubai specifically.

What portion of your passengers travel for business and how many for leisure?

Approximately 60% travel for business purposes, and the other 40% go to Dubai for tourism. The level of repeat travellers is high for both the business and leisure segments. Also, expatriates and their families moving between Dubai and Turkey are repeat customers. Dubai is not a once-in-a-lifetime trip. If you go to Dubrovnik, for example, you see it once and think it is nice. In Dubai, you are not going to see historical ruins. You will sit in the sun, have good food, go shopping, and spend time with your family. It is a perfect place to have family vacation because you are on the beach all day and you don't have to rush around sightseeing.

Are most bookings made through travel agencies or online?

Around 70% of our bookings come through local travel agencies. We have direct sales from our offices and reservations centers that make up 12%, and the remaining 15% is from online sales.

E-commerce is really growing in Turkey. Do you encourage more people to book online?

When people go online they can get much more information about routes, fares, and services than they can get from any other source. Therefore, we recommend people go online and decide through which source they want to buy their tickets.

What trends can you identify in air travel?

Between Istanbul and Dubai and beyond, finding a business-class seat is one of the challenges that the whole network is facing because the services are excellent and people want to get what they pay for. Everyone who flies business class once with Emirates will not fly economy again. Also, once they fly with Emirates they try to fly everywhere with us. In the past three or four years, I believe that the trend is moving toward luxury. People with the money are ready to pay for it if they can get that luxury. Globally, when they go on business trips, they fly business class. When the same people go on personal holidays, they want to fly first class.

© The Business Year - August 2012