With the Middle East in turmoil, it wouldn’t seem the most auspicious time to launch two new competing flights to Atlanta from that region.
But two fast-growing airlines from the neighborhood believe connectivity to their hub cities and beyond provides untold opportunity for business and leisure travelers from Atlanta and the broader Southeast U.S.
Turkish Airlines’ inaugural flight from Istanbul landed at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport’s international terminal May 16 around 6 p.m., welcomed by a water-cannon salute as it taxied to the gate.
The next morning Qatar Airways, the state-owned carrier in the oil-rich Persian Gulf nation, hosted a news conference headlined by its outspoken CEO, Akbar Al Baker, to promote a June 1 nonstop flight launch that will link Atlanta with its capital city of Doha.
As the Turkish flight arrived Monday evening, disembarking travelers cleared customs and walked into a press conference where a jazz band set the festive mood. A ribbon-cutting ceremony was attended by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, top airport brass including General Manager Miguel Southwell, Turkish Airlines officials and Turkey’s ambassador to the U.S., Serdar Kılıç.
The flight, they said, connects two dynamic economies, and the mayor hinted that he would soon travel to Istanbul, a city of some 14 million people that prides itself on its geographical position as a bridge between Europe and the East.
The city of Atlanta worked with the airport and local economic development agencies to court Turkish Airlines starting in 2014, sending a mission to discuss the possibility of a nonstop flight.
“Now the only thing left for me to do is to join you on this trip, on this flight, and land in Istanbul personally. I’m excited about that trip, and I’m so excited about what this means to the city of Atlanta and its relationship with one of the most dynamic economies in the world in Istanbul, Turkey.”
The mix of travelers arriving in Atlanta showed how the airline will blend traffic sourced in their local markets with strong transfer hubs to maximize passenger volumes. Some interviewed by Global Atlanta didn’t set out to fly Turkish Airlines but found it through Internet searches that revealed cheaper fares. They were pleasantly surprised by the service.
“Everything was perfect — the food, the service, everything,” said Athena Charitou, who arrived in Atlanta from Athens, Greece, to visit her granddaughter. “From now on maybe it’s only Turkish that I’ll fly.”
Josh Jaffe, a South Africa native working as a web designer in Jerusalem, said the airline pulled out all the stops, offering cupcakes, juices and Jaguar-sponsored toiletry bags on board to mark the occasion. Traveling with his wife to introduce his 5-month-old son to his great-grandparents for the first time, he chose Turkish Airlines over Air France based on price but said he’d definitely try it again, all things being equal.
“The flight was amazing. Service was amazing, staff were friendly. I was blown away,” Mr. Jaffe said.
Tim Cummins, an Atlanta resident wearing a colorful t-shirt and a Chattanooga cap on the nearly 12-hour flight, was coming home via Istanbul from a leisure trip, also to Israel.
“I’m glad they’ve added this. I think this is good for us,” he said.
At a gala dinner at the Four Seasons hotel in Midtown later that night, Turkish Airlines leaders said the flight marks a new era of connectivity for Atlanta: Turkish reaches more nations than any other airline in the world through its Istanbul hub.
Chief Marketing Officer Ahmet Olmustur even corrected his own marketing video shown at the event; instead of the 113 countries it cited, the count was now up to 115, he said. Atlanta is the airline’s ninth destination in the United States alone.
“Sometimes they can’t catch us, we’re expanding so fast,” Mr. Olmustur said.
Where Turkish highlighted where Atlantans can go, Qatar Airways focused more heavily on how they’ll get there.
Mr. Al Baker, the CEO, pointed to the airline’s “best in the world” ranking according to a 2015 Skytrax survey (Turkish is No. 4). He equated Qatar’s standard economy class with premium products now being rolled out by competitors and pointed out that Qatar was years ahead of most other airlines in introducing lie-flat seats in business class.
Asked why some American carriers couldn’t match his standards, he bit his tongue: “I could give you a 20-minute lecture about it, but I would rather stay with this one sentence: we have a very superior product, and people were craving for an airline to come here to give them the kind of product, hospitality, respect that we give to our customers.”
He kept his criticism of Delta Air Lines Inc. muted, but did launch a few minor jabs at the hometown airline, whose outgoing CEO Richard Anderson has joined other U.S. airline executives in a coordinated campaign accusing Qatar and United Arab Emirates airlines of using billions of dollars in government subsidies to undercut international competition in violation of Open Skies pacts with the U.S.
He did sarcastically rebut grim forecasts by his “dear friends” at Delta, whose executives recently noted that only four or five people travel between Atlanta and Doha in a given day. The inaugural flight on the world’s largest aircraft, the Airbus A380, is overbooked by 27 seats. Later flights (on smaller Boeing 777 aircraft) are nearly 80 percent full, Mr. Al Baker said.
“I think this route will be extremely successful, but you know, when you want to grow an airline, you have to have the guts to take risks,” he added, taking a tack he has pointed at Delta in the past. “It is not always about profitability the first day. It is a long-term investment, and this is exactly what Qatar Airways is doing, and this is why we are successful.”
Still, sustainability for both Turkish and Qatar will likely depend on the destinations accessible through their hubs rather than point-to-point traffic from Atlanta. Both carriers have extensive networks in India, a key point for Georgia and the Southeast, where the Indian diaspora community numbers 120,000 and 400,000, respectively, according to the Consulate General of India.
Asked about competition with Turkish, Mr. Al Baker said the airline was in its jet stream.
“Turkish Airlines is always following us because they know that wherever we go there is business,” he said, pivoting to praise the Doha airport, which his company also controls. “At the end of the day, will you go and use an inefficient hub or an efficient hub? I believe you will go and use an efficient hub because you want convenience.”
Turkish may have a bit of an edge, though, in terms of existing business connections with its home market. With a diversified economy of nearly 80 million people, it dwarfs Qatar’s 2.5 million population.
While it’s only the 18th largest economy, for instance, Turkey is the No. 10 market in the world for Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co., Turkey-born CEO Mukhtar Kent said at the gala. Coke also sources agricultural products from the country for its juice businesses — planting more than 4.5 million trees to alleviate a shortage of peaches, cherries, apricots and other “stone fruits.”
“We’re so happy. We have so much travel between Turkey and Atlanta that our associates and my colleagues do not have to change flights. We’re so thankful for Turkish Airlines for helping us in this way,” he said.
Murat Tokmak, whose Istanbul-based company machine company TTM is eyeing a potential operation in Georgia, said the flight would be an added benefit to the state’s aggressive incentive structures and proximity to the automotive industry.
“It helps, because maybe in the first or second year we will feel alone and want to go back and see our families,” Mr. Tokmak told Global Atlanta at the gala, emphasizing the hospitality he felt while visiting Atlanta.
That illustrates the airport’s goal in fostering new air service, Mr. Southwell said.
“It’s absolutely vital if Atlanta is going to continue to grow. At the end of the day, we need to boil this down to what it’s about really. In my mind, it’s a war for jobs.”
Although it has not yet applied, Turkish Airlines qualifies for an airport incentive that would waive landing fees for a year and provide funds for marketing the new route.