Turkish Airlines: A Brief History

Turkish Airlines has seen some impressive growth since it was founded in 1933. It started as a government-owned airline and has expanded gradually domestically and regional. Major international expansion started after the 1980s, with further government backing. This has led to it being the most connected airline today with one of the largest fleets.

turkish 777
Turkish Airlines has grown over nearly 90 years to be one of the largest airlines today. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Domestic focus in the early years

Turkish Airlines was founded in 1933 as a government-owned airline, known then as State Airlines Administration. It started in the first years operating domestic flights with a small but growing fleet of  Curtiss, Junkers, and Tupolev aircraft. It started in 1933 as a division of the Defense Department, moving to the Ministry of Transportation by 1938.

Regional international flights started in 1947 (with the first services to Athens), but domestic flights remained the focus. As Turkey is such a large country, this included plenty of long sectors. It introduced the DC-3 in 1945 (starting a long relationship with US manufacturer Douglas). By 1951, the airline operated 33 aircraft and had added Nicosia, Beirut, and Cairo as international destinations.

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Changes in the 1950s and 1960s

Turkish Airlines saw many changes in the 1950s, but its main focus remained domestic and regional. It moved to become the airline we know today, with a name change to Turkish Airlines in 1955. Its logo – the white flying goose – followed in 1959. A new airport, Yeşilköy Airport – later to be renamed Atatürk Airport – opened in 1953.

It introduced five Vickers Viscount aircraft in 1958 – its first turboprops. And it entered the jet age in 1967 with the DC-9. Fleet expansion soon continued with the DC-10, Fokker F28, and the Boeing 707 entering service over the next five years.

Turkish Airlines DC-9
Turkish Airlines entered the jet age with the DC-9. Photo: Turkish Airlines

Expansion under a new government in the 1980s

The airline suffered several setbacks during the late 1970s and 1980s. It was the victim of several hijackings and a fatal DC-10 crash in 1974. It developed a poor reputation for customer service and reliability.

Improvements followed, though, and a new Turkish government in 1983 prioritized the growth of the airline. It increased its capitalization and invested in security and new aircraft. And as a demonstration of its commitment to growth, it opened an aircraft maintenance center at Yeşilköy in 1984.

As for the fleet, manufacturer diversity increased. It stuck with Boeing and introduced the 727 in the early 1970s – this went on to be a major part of the fleet with 14 aircraft in total, and the last retired only in 1996 (according to fleet data from ATDB.aero). With McDonnell Douglas, it already operated the DC-9 and DC-10 (the DC-9s remained in service until 1994, later adding the MD-80 and MD-90).

Airbus joined the fleet in 1985 with the A310. It went on to operate 16 passenger and five freight aircraft. By the early 1990s, it was also operating the Boeing 737 (it’s first 737-400 entered service in February 1991), Airbus A340, and the BAe 146.

Turkish Airlines A310
Turkish Airlines added Airbus to the fleet with the A310 in 1985 – it remains split Airbus and Boeing today. Photo: Luc Verkuringen via Wikimedia

Developing as a hub airport

With its government backing and fleet expansion, Turkish Airlines also moved from just a regional airline for Turkey to a larger, hub-based strategy – taking advantage of its location to offer east to west connections. A major new international terminal at Atatürk in 2000 helped this expansion, as did codeshare agreements and alliance membership. It joined the Star Alliance in 2008, offering a major boost to connection options and passenger services.

The major Middle Eastern carriers of Emirates, Etihad Airways, and Qatar Airways have done the same with a hub model, but Turkish Airlines started earlier. Turkish, however, serves more countries and has a larger fleet than these airlines.

Growth continues in 2021

Like all airlines, Turkish Airlines has had its challenges during the pandemic. But services have resumed quickly in 2021. By January 2021, it was already serving 208 destinations (compared to 317 before the pandemic).  By February 2021, it was the largest carrier in Europe by passenger volume, ahead of previous leaders Air France-KLM, Lufthansa, British Airways, Ryanair, and easyJet.

Turkish Airlines today serves more countries than any other airline (US airlines beat it for the total number of destinations served due to their domestic networks). And it has a mixed Airbus and Boeing fleet of 374 aircraft (as of August 2021, according to data from ch-aviation.com). Coming up, it has orders for both the 787 and A350 still outstanding, plus a large order for the A321neo.

Turkish Airlines Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner TC-LLM (3)
Turkish Airlines currently operates 15 787-9 aircraft and has 10 more on order  Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

There is still space for the airline to grow its routes and destinations, and the new Istanbul airport offers plenty of scope for this. South American and Australasia, in particular, are underserved compared to other airlines. For example, in South America, Turkish only currently flies to Venezuela, Colombia, Argentina, and Brazil.

Turkish Airlines has expanded continuously since its founding almost 90 years ago – particularly after it began its hub strategy.  There is still room for it to grow, but we are likely to see further shifts away from hub popularity post-pandemic. How do you think this will work out for Turkish Airlines? Feel free to discuss this in the comments. 

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