Discovering the real Turkish delight

The Travel Adviser: Relations between Israel and Turkey have been upgraded from frigid to tepid in recent months.

June 15, 2013 22:52
Great Ararat mountain in Turkey.

turkey mountain 370. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Relations between Israel and Turkey have been upgraded from frigid to tepid in recent months, with ambassadors from the two countries soon to be exchanged. Israeli and Turkish Tour operators have been salivating since the dramatic announcement a few months ago of a historic phone call. In a makeshift trailer set up on the tarmac at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called Erdogan and apologized for the nine deaths that resulted from the boarding by Israeli soldiers of the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara.

Social media exploded with reports that Turkish resorts would soon be filled with Israelis eager to partake of the excellent properties and great value that they had come to expect during the previous decade. While too close to the dual holidays of Easter and Passover, when Israelis travel in droves, it was assumed that all efforts would be aimed at the start of the summer season.

The largest, most coveted groups of travelers this summer are those privileged employees of large companies.

Whether it is workers at Bank Leumi, the Israel Defense Force, the Dead Sea Works, Egged or others, these working stiffs pay monthly stipends so they can take an annual vacation. Calculated at over $500 million dollars, their purchasing power has tourism ministries around the world trying to woo them. So when the most recent survey of all workers’ committees found that almost across the board, these companies have voted with their feet not to visit Turkey, it came as quite a shock.

Cyprus and Greece, along with cities such as Prague and Budapest, with a small minority electing to vacation inside Israel, led the list. Many were still hesitant about rushing back to Turkey, and the dearth of rock-bottom prices led these nine-to-fivers to spend their hard-earned shekels elsewhere.

Turkish Airlines, though, need not worry. In fact with 35 flights a week to Istanbul, it has emerged as the dirty little secret causing havoc for all other airlines that fly in and out of Israel.

First the facts: Turkish Airlines is the national airline of Turkey. It operates flights to almost 200 international cities and 35 domestic cities inside Turkey. It carried in 2012 39 million passengers, exceeding $9 billion in revenues. With over 15,000 employees, one of its most attractive features is being a member of the Star Alliance network, which it joined over five years ago. Being able to tap into other airline members of the Star Alliance, such as Lufthansa, Swiss, Austrian, Brussels Air, United Airlines and SAS, to name a few, has allowed them to attract frequent fliers from throughout the world.

Bold moves are becoming the hallmark of Turkish Airlines, one of the world’s fastest-growing carriers. At a time when many airlines (think El Al) are struggling to stay aloft, Turkish Airlines is expanding aggressively. It now flies to 98 countries, more than any other airline. In the past 10 years, following Turkey’s deregulation of its airline industry, Turkish Airlines quadrupled its number of passengers and tripled its aircraft. Its fleet of planes is half the average age (six years) of its European competitors.

Flat-bed business seats (still waiting for El Al to enter this category) and a commitment to excellence have earned in many surveys the title of Best European Airline.

Many analysts are beginning to compare Turkish Airlines to Gulf carriers Emirates and Qatar Airways, which pride themselves on customer service. Three years ago it unveiled a slick global marketing campaign featuring Laker great Kobe Bryant with Barcelona’s Lionel Messi. They are on the right path; their profit for 2012 climbed by over $650 million dollars.

The airline has benefitted from a growing economy and a rise in tourism; whether recent demonstrations will stop this growth remains to be seen. Last year 35 million travelers visited the country.

The airline is being marketed to capitalize on Turkey’s advantageous geography, as a hub carrier for international travel. Last year, the airline added routes to 22 new cities, and has increased its network of routes by 43% since 2009. It’s managed to keep operating costs relatively low with its newer, more fuel-efficient planes and the country’s cheap workforce.

Competitors say the airline has been helped along by the government, particularly in terms of infrastructure investment. Turkey is gearing up to build a brand-new airport in Istanbul, reputed to be one of the largest in the world. The airline’s short-term goal is to fly 2,000 flights a day, double its current level. United Airlines, by comparison, operates 5,000 flights a day. And while Turkish Airlines is no longer a government-controlled entity (it was privatized in 2006 with the government retaining a 49% share), there is no doubt that the government takes great pride in its success. It has the product, the capacity and top senior management.

So how does it fill five daily flights between Tel Aviv and Istanbul? By offering prices that undercut the competition by hundreds, if not thousands of dollars! Dan and Miri are flying with Turkish Airlines to Helsinki this summer for $499 per person. Ronen is flying to Washington next month in business class for $3400.

This summer season, which is now upon us, will see prices higher than they ever have been. It’s not just the airfares; with over $6b. in revenues earned by US airlines in 2012 for baggage and change fees, the consumer is well aware that the costs of flying only start with the ticket.

Hot spots this summer will be Greece and Cyprus for the budget-conscious; Eastern Europe for those with more coin. Scandinavia and the large capital cities of Europe – London, Paris and Rome – will attract many more. North America will still be the number one destination for Israelis, taking advantage of a weak dollar as they shop their way from coast to coast. With almost all airlines only letting leisure passengers check one bag, the fact that Turkish Air permits two never fails to elicit a wide grin from clients.

It’s not just the leisure client who has discovered Turkish Airlines. The Israeli road warrior flying to Mumbai or Beijing elects to fly via Istanbul rather than nonstop on El Al, and pocket the huge differential in the airfare. Airline executives in Israel moan that they cannot fathom how Turkish Air has such low prices. They offer such theories as huge government subsidies, cheap Turkish labor or illegal Iranian oil that’s piped into Turkey and siphoned off by the airline.

I honestly don’t know the truth. I simply enjoy watching a well-run airline kick sand at their competitors.

While the recent history of insulting remarks made by the Turkish prime minister leaves an astringent taste in my mouth coupled with his parochial patter, the fact that Turkish Airlines is the largest foreign airline in terms of passengers, operating out of Israel, leads to the obvious conclusion: Israelis, like so many others in the world, enjoy their Turkish delight.

The author is the CEO of Ziontours Jerusalem.

For questions & comments, email him at

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