Turkish delight, Qantas quandary, Virgin victory?

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When the Australian Government recently blocked a request for more flights by Qatar Airways, it was widely viewed as a win for Qantas, a setback for Virgin Australia, and a blow to travellers seeking more competition.

But a subsequent swift decision to approve up to 35 flights per week by Turkish Airlines could quickly have the reverse effect, significantly reshaping air services to and from Australia, and challenging the long and growing dominance of Mid-East airlines and their giant transit hubs.

With the gradual withdrawal since the 1980s of flights to Australia by European airlines – among them Air France, Alitalia (now ITA Airways), Austrian, JAT Yugoslav Airlines (now Air Serbia), KLM, Lufthansa, Olympic Airways, and (pre-Brexit) Virgin Atlantic – three major Gulf carriers, Emirates, Qatar and Etihad, have increasingly joined major Asian airlines connecting traffic between UK/Europe and Australia. British Airways remains, but has cut right back, as has Qantas over the years.

Qatar applied to double its 28 weekly flights between Australia and Doha, the airline’s home base and connection point to an extensive network, particularly in Europe.

Although Qatar and Qantas are both members of the global oneworld airline marketing alliance, they also share a mutually disdainful competitive relationship, with Qantas preferring to partner the unaligned Emirates.

Australia’s denial of extra flights for Qatar was a short-term win for Qantas and Emirates, and a longer-term loss for Qatar, now indefinitely prevented from growing its Australian presence.

Virgin, however, had just secured a major commercial partnership with Qatar Airways, enabling it to place its flight code on Qatar’s services. Impeding Qatar’s growth also impeded Virgin’s.

Most coverage of the Turkish deal focused superficially on the prospect of greater choice and lower air fares between Australia and Europe, a market in which seats are scarce and prices high.

But the scale and significance of the deal is way bigger than that.

Turkish has won approval to serve Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Perth, with flights from one of the first two likely to start as early as March.

Initially, the airline has approval to operate up to 21 flights per week, rising to 28 from October (the same number Qatar requested and was denied), and 35 from October 2025.

Put simply, from operating no services in this market today, Turkish could, if it wanted (and if airport access slots were available), operate as many flights by the end of this year as Qatar does now.

By the end of 2025 it could overtake Qatar.

And from late 2026, it also has approval to operate some of its 35 flights (perhaps more by then) to the new Western Sydney Airport.

The arrival of Turkish in Australia presents a serious, imminent threat to Qantas, while creating a juicy opportunity for Virgin Australia.

It is a far bigger airline than Qatar Airways, so in time is potentially a far bigger problem for Qantas than is Qatar, on which it has long been fixated.

Istanbul, home base for Turkish, has Europe’s biggest, most connected air hub, facilitating extensive flows of passengers between disparate and distant markets.

It is also a vast, exciting, and authentic city in its own right, half in Europe, half in Asia, divided by the Bosphorus River, and is the gateway to a country of diverse attractions, from coastal resorts to the extraordinary natural pinnacles of Cappadocia, and, for Australians and New Zealanders, the significant WW1 military theatre of Anzac Cove on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

As a stopover point, it’s no Doha or Dubai.

In the airline industry, Turkish has long been described as “the fourth Gulf carrier” after Emirates, Abu Dhabi-based Etihad, and Qatar Airways, each of which it dwarfs.

Turkish has high-quality in-flight product and flies 441 aircraft to over 300 destinations in 120 countries, including 121 locations in Europe. In 2023 it carried 84 million passengers.

It also has huge growth plans, having just ordered up to 220 new Airbus jets, including ultra long-range A350-1000s able to fly nonstop between Istanbul and eastern Australia. By 2030, it expects to have a total of 800 aircraft.

Additionally, its low-cost subsidiary Anadolu Jet (soon to relaunch as A-Jet) serves 101 international and 78 domestic destinations with 90 aircraft, and has plans to grow the fleet to 200 by 2033.

Turkish Airlines and another European giant, the Lufthansa Group, are also partners in the leisure airline Sun Express.

Crucially, Turkish is a member of Star Alliance, the largest of three global airline marketing collectives.

Virgin Australia is not a member of any alliance – but its commercial partners include Star members Singapore Airlines, United Airlines, Air Canada, Japan’s ANA, and soon Air New Zealand, which having exited as a partner and shareholder following a major difference with a previous management is now returning to Virgin.

Initially, Turkish plans to serve Australia via Singapore, before starting nonstop flights from Istanbul to both Melbourne and Sydney, which it has confirmed as new destinations once the ultra-long range jets arrive. Curfew-free Melbourne is expected to be first.

By codesharing with Singapore Airlines – which flies between Australia and Singapore more often and on more routes than Qantas – Turkish could also connect its passengers to and from other destinations in Australia via Singapore, broadening its antipodean reach.

And because Virgin is Star Alliance-friendly, it’s not implausible that it could partner with Turkish, perhaps in coming years diluting or even ditching deals with the UAE’s unaligned national carrier, Etihad, which was once a Virgin shareholder, and even with Qatar.

Such moves are not out of the question for Virgin, which coldly dumped its previous US partner, Delta, in favour of United, now the biggest operator on Australia-US routes with some 66 flights per week to and from Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane.

Virgin provides connections for its partners between destinations within Australia, and to neighbouring international points, and could easily do the same for Turkish, which in turn could reciprocate for Virgin’s passengers to Europe.

Qantas retains its strong partnership with Emirates, and its dominance of internal routes in Australia, but can’t rely strongly on international oneworld partners from which it has become estranged, particularly British Airways, with which it had a major Australia-UK joint venture before running off with Emirates.

Qatar is now closely aligned with BA, both commercially and as an investor, as well as through mutual membership of the oneworld alliance.

For the expanding Turkish Airlines, the Australian deal is nothing short of a delight.

For Virgin Australia, and consumers, it signals exciting possibilities.

But Qantas will be literally and increasingly Starstruck

The post Turkish delight, Qantas quandary, Virgin victory? appeared first on Brand TD.

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