The board of directors of Turkish Airlines has decided to pursue a nonstop flight between Istanbul and Atlanta “at the earliest convenience,” Global Atlanta has learned.
But the pursuit will be slow and calculated, as a spokesman for the airline gave no deadline for the flight and said it would likely be 2017 or 2018 before it would begin.
Turkey has an open-skies agreement with the United States, giving Turkish Airlines the ability to fly into the country without clearing any new regulatory hurdles. In fact, the airline in July announced plans to launch service between Boston and Istanbul starting in May 2014.
Serhan Yucel, a spokesperson, told Global Atlanta that opening flights to Atlanta would depend largely on the ability to allocate aircraft. The fast-growing airline already has 233 planes, up from just 65 a decade ago, but it also has plenty of other places to be, claiming more international destinations than any other airline (197 cities in 104 countries, including Somalia). It has reportedly ordered 274 planes from Boeing Co. and Airbus S.A.S. through 2020.
To launch a flight to Atlanta, the airline would have to enter into a use and license agreement with Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and receive approval from U.S. Customs and Border Protection to land here.
“We’ve been in talks with Turkish Airlines for several years regarding an Atlanta-Istanbul route and would welcome the opportunity to offer our customers the service. Atlanta is a destination of interest; however, no formal plans have been made,” said Atlanta airport spokeswoman Monica Fuentes.
According to a Brookings Institution report on air connectivity of metro areas 13,317 people used air itineraries bookended by Atlanta and Istanbul in 2011, an increase of 87.6 percent from 2003. That’s still less than half the traffic between Istanbul and Boston, which more than doubled to 29,376 passengers between 2003 and 2011.
But a nonstop connection to Istanbul would provide value beyond linking Atlantans with the Turkish economic center. They would also be able to go through Istanbul to other hard-to-reach locales, from Azerbaijan to Zambia, often with just one stop.
As of now, there would be no direct competition from Delta Air Lines Inc., which maintains a nonstop flight to Istanbul from New York and currently has no plans to start a flight there from Atlanta, according to a spokesman.
Turkish Airlines executives have started to play up their Istanbul hub. During a visit to Atlanta in October, a Turkish culture and tourism representative from the embassy in Washington said Turkey welcomed 31.7 million international visitors in 2012. Turkish Airlines carried more than 36.2 million passengers in the first nine months of 2013, a 24 percent increase from the same period last year.
But Atarturk International, Istanbul’s largest airport, handled only about 45 million travelers last year. A massive third airport with six runways and capacity for 150 million passengers per year is in the works, but construction has not yet begun as concerns have arisen over the ability of Turkish banks to fund the project.
Either way, Turkish Airlines, which is owned 49 percent by the national government, looks set to plow ahead. It recently won best airline in Europe for the third straight year from Skytrax, and the CAPA Centre for Aviation named it airline of the year in November at the organization’s 11th annual conference, which was held in Amsterdam.