The Sultan of the Skies - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Sultan of the Skies

The Sultan of the Skies

By Nathan Siegel



Because a little-known carrier out of Turkey is striving to be the biggest airline in the world by 2023.

By Nathan Siegel

It’s standard practice for the CEO of a major corporation to ask for forgiveness after a public slip. But even though he turned a lot of heads and upset some people, the CEO piloting Turkish Airlines, Temel Kotil, isn’t backing down from his recent claim — said at the height of the scare — that Ebola was “not as bad as it looks,” and that the traveling public had little to be worried about given airline and airport precautions. “It’s not so easy for passengers to be infected,” he told OZY.

For nearly a decade now, Kotil has stuck to a brazen form of leadership that has helped create one of the biggest airlines you’ve never heard of. Turkish Air currently serves more countries than any other carrier in the world (seriously) and it’s showing no signs of slowing. Profits so far this year are up almost 90 percent, and it’s leading the effort to build the world’s largest airport in its hub headquarters in Istanbul. “Their growth is just amazing,” says Peter Belobaba, principal research scientist at MIT’s International Center for Air Transportation. 

He’s a visionary.

— Nawal Taneja, professor emeritus of aviation at Ohio State University 

To be sure, Kotil has a key advantage running Turkish Airlines: It’s based in the Times Square of global travel, the perfect bridge between Europe and Asia, with Africa in its backyard. Still, in his own right, Kotil has many of the same bold leadership traits shared by a handful of airline CEOs that have taken flying to new levels, be it a Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic or Tony Fernandes of AirAsia. As a jet pilot must do as his aircraft races down the runway for takeoff, Kotil appears to rarely look back, no matter how concerned some analysts are about his rapid growth.

The airline he runs was once a tiny, majority-government-owned entity known, if at all, for having seven accidents and hijackings over a nine-year period in the ’70s and ’80s. It wasn’t until the middle of the last decade that privatization really took hold. That’s about when Kotil came on the scene, first as the chief technology officer and, since 2005, in the top spot. Passenger traffic has risen four times since the year he took the reins, thanks in large part to his own secret sauce: what experts call “organic” growth. Instead of relying completely on connecting international traffic, as airlines like Emirates and Qatar have, Turkish has focused heavily on local and regional demand. Luckily for Turkish Airlines, Africa is “regional” as well, and Kotil has bet heavily on growth there, while most carriers have moved there gingerly. “He’s a visionary,” says Nawal Taneja, a professor emeritus of aviation at Ohio State University. 

… optimistic at best, probably unachievable at worst.

Peter Belobaba, research scientist at MIT’s International Center for Air Transportation

Not all of this eternal optimism can be explained by Kotil’s past, but his bio suggests a hunger for personal growth. Raised in a quiet coastal town in Turkey, Kotil lived as modestly as his father, a manual laborer for hire who lived temporarily in Istanbul and Germany. (Dad was known as “Ant” for a strong work ethic, according to Kotil, who was interviewed by email.) Because the Black Sea town of Rize was home to a thriving artisanal textile trade, exposing Kotil early to industrial machinery, he says it was “destiny” he became an engineer. Kotil finally got a taste for international travel courtesy of a government scholarship to get his master’s, then Ph.D., in aerospace and mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan. He was welcomed home with a lauded professorship at Istanbul Technical University before punching his ticket into the big leagues with Turkish Airlines.

His destiny now, he says, it is to create a mega-airport capable of handling 150 million passengers in 2023, the year he says Turkish Airlines plans to become the largest in the world. Only time, of course, will tell. Kotil, along with the other Gulf carriers, have “plans that are optimistic at best, probably unachievable at worst,” predicts Belobaba.

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