Aviation has always been a political affair and nowhere is this more evident than with state-owned airlines. According to Bloomberg, Turkey’s president has said that the country may “rethink” Turkish Airlines’ order for Boeing aircraft. The statement comes amid significant defense-related procurement developments concerning the U.S. and their NATO ally, Turkey. Here, we examine the issues at hand from a commercial aviation and geopolitical standpoint.
Turkish Airlines Boeing orders
Turkish Airlines is one of the world’s largest airlines when measured by fleet size and countries served. To fuel such an operation, the airline, which is 49% owned by the state, operates a mixed Airbus and Boeing fleet.
According to Boeing, the airline made a firm order for 50 737 MAXs and 20 737 NGs in 2013, with options for an additional 25 MAXs. Moreover, the airline finalized a deal for 25 787s and five further options, only five years later.
With the recent delivery of the airline’s first 787, just under half of the Turkish Airlines fleet consists of Boeing aircraft.
NATO, Almaz S-400s, and F-35s – a question of defense and geopolitics
On one hand, Turkey has been a NATO member since 1952, and as such, has been a close U.S. and European ally. The largely NATO-sourced, fighter-dominant strategy made Turkey an ideal Joint-Strike-Fighter program partner.
However, since Turkey’s initial involvement with the F-35 program in 2002, the country, like many others, has raised concerns on technical and cost grounds.
On the other side of the equation, Turkey and Russia share geopolitical imperatives in the Caucasus, Mediterranean and Middle East. Additionally, the Turkish Air Force, perhaps partially aggrieved with the F-35 program and strategy, has also sought to increase its defensive capabilities through the purchase of Russian S-400s.
The first component of the Russian S-400 missile air defense system was delivered to Turkey on the 12th of June 2019. According to the Financial Times, the modular system can carry missiles with a range of up to 400km and can intercept anything from stealth fighter aircraft to ballistic missiles.
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Commercial and political backlash
Although the purchase of S-400s and F-35s are separate acquisitions, NATO has been displeased with the developments. The U.S. led alliance is particularly concerned about the mixing of Russian air-defense systems and Western fifth-generation fighter technology.
As a result, the U.S. stopped all deliveries of the Lockheed-Martin built aircraft to Turkey. Additionally, all Turkish companies have been removed from the F-35’s supply chain.
Considering these defense and geopolitical-related developments, it’s almost no surprise that Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has said that the national airline may “rethink” its Boeing order.
Taken all together, the possible loss of Turkish Airlines’ commercial orders, and the Turkish Air Force’s F-35s, could have a significant impact on U.S. aerospace manufacturing. That is, in addition to the challenges the sector may face amid rising trade tensions with both China and the EU.
Simple Flying reached out to both Turkish Airlines and Boeing for a comment. Neither company has responded by the time of publication.