Interview with Dr. Max Kownatzki,  SunExpress CEO
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Interview with Dr. Max Kownatzki, SunExpress CEO

Issue 18 - 2023
Interview with Dr. Max Kownatzki,  SunExpress CEO

Aviation Turkey: First off, thank you for taking the time. You hit around €1.5 billion in revenue in 2022 which is actually higher than pre-pandemic levels. How do you evaluate the numbers for 2022?

Max Kownatzki: Once the pandemic related travel restrictions were lifted, 2022 was a great year with demand increasing significantly. At SunExpress, we not only met the challenge of the time by making it through the pandemic successfully, but also took bold steps towards further growth. 

We saw a record-breaking 10.7 million passengers, our highest ever. Our load factor was 85% for the full year, exceeding pre-pandemic levels. We continued our growth in terms of fleet, capacity, and network in response to the increased market demand. We added 8 more aircraft for the summer season and introduced 25 new routes in 2022, the largest network expansion in our history.

The demand for Türkiye remained strong even after the summer season. We leveraged our flexibility and met this demand by ramping up capacity. We added more than 2,000 additional flights from September to December 2022. 

As travel ramped up post-pandemic, the industry faced serious operational challenges across Europe last summer. We overcame these challenges with prompt actions and did not cancel have to cancel a single flight due to lack of ground handling staff at our European airports. 

All of this contributed to our revenue of €1.5 billion, exceeding pre-pandemic levels and surpassing our profitability targets. Some airlines aim to return to normal levels by 2024, but we are already ahead, operating at 135% of our 2019 ASK. We are in a better position than ever before. And when I say "we", I mean the entire SunExpress family. We pulled together and I'm really proud of my team. 

Aviation Turkey: SunExpress has revealed its biggest network expansion with 26 new routes set for summer 2023. Can you tell us more about the new destinations and your plans for increasing the number of flights in 2023? What can we expect from SunExpress in the near future? 

Max Kownatzki: The demand for Türkiye remains strong, especially for the summer season. We are going all out with the largest fleet growth in SunExpress's history by adding 17 aircraft, instead of 5 planned initially, which will bring our total fleet number to 66 aircraft for the summer.

And with that comes our most ambitious network expansion. We are introducing 26 new routes and 5 new destinations including Bristol, Newcastle, Tbilisi, Venice, and Barcelona. We now offer non-stop flights to 60 destinations in 30 countries, with over 185 routes from Türkiye.

We have also increased our overall seat capacity by 13%, which means we are aiming to carry a record number of over 12 million passengers in 2023, up 22% ASK from 2019.

For the Turkish Riviera this comes with 15 new routes this summer, with flights from Antalya, Izmir, Dalaman and Bodrum-Milas airports to a total of 58 destinations. We are determined to maintain our strong position as the market leader in the Riviera in terms of destinations and frequency.

Our focus on Anatolian cities in Türkiye continues as well. Offering direct scheduled flights from 16 Anatolian cities to 18 cities in Europe. We added 11 new international routes to our Anatolia-Europe flight network this summer. 

Aviation Turkey: Let’s talk about Q1/23 and bookings for the Q2/23 and Q3/23. How do you assess the numbers?

Max Kownatzki: In the beginning of 2023, we faced a devastating earthquake that claimed thousands of lives in Türkiye and Syria.  

From the very first day of the earthquake, we worked closely with the relevant authorities. We operated more than 400 special flights to transport search & rescue and medical teams to the region, and to evacuate people affected from the disaster. We flew more than 8,000 search, rescue and medical teams to the region and helped evacuate more than 18,500 people. We also provided free cargo services delivering over 400 tons of aid materials to the affected region.

Additionally, we partnered with DPD, FIEGE, time:matters, CB Customs Broker GmbH, and Lufthansa Cargo to establish an air bridge between Germany and Türkiye. Together, we transported urgently needed relief supplies to the earthquake region, bringing over 1,000 tons of relief goods and around 250 volunteers within a month.

Despite the terrible tragedy, the demand for Türkiye has not substantially changed, apart from minor booking declines for a short period of 10 days. The number of guests we welcomed in the first quarter of this year increased compared to the same period of last year. The strong demand for Türkiye also continues for the summer period, with advanced bookings by international passengers for the second and third quarters up around 15% compared to last year. 

Regular travelers are actually booking Türkiye even more this year because travelling here also means supporting the country after the earthquake. As SunExpress, in our role as Türkiye’s tourism ambassador, and along with our strong partners, we are continuously encouraging people to visit Türkiye and get more and more people to enjoy this unique and beautiful country.

Aviation Turkey: Could you give us an update on the SunExpress fleet? What are your plans for new orders and fleet expansion in 2023?

Max Kownatzki: We are growing our fleet in line with our expansion strategy. We operate a pure Boeing 737 fleet which continues to expand every year. 

For the upcoming summer season, we will be operating a peak fleet of 66 aircraft.  This means eleven additional aircraft compared to last year’s base fleet, plus six damp leases. Approximately 20% of our current base fleet are Boeing 737-8s. With 33 additional aircraft on order, we continuously strive to increase this share in the future.

Aviation Turkey: SunExpress has been named the World’s Best Leisure Airline at the prestigious 2022 World Airline Awards. How do you evaluate this achievement? 

Max Kownatzki: We always place our customers at the heart of what we do and strive to provide them with the best possible experience at every touchpoint of every step of this journey, every single day. This achievement at the World Airline Awards, especially after two of the most challenging years for the aviation industry is a testament to our efforts and we are very proud of it. 

Receiving this award, based on direct feedback from 14 million passengers, is not only gratifying but also a fantastic recognition of our exceptional team. They represent SunExpress with utmost professionalism, passion, and hospitality day in and day out. 

There is a lot of talk about the sense of “togetherness” in companies, but at SunExpress it is truly tangible. We live and breathe this SunExpress family spirit. I've never experienced a spirit like this anywhere else. Let me share an example from one of my first SunExpress flights: An elderly lady gets on the flight and was struggling with her luggage during boarding. A flight attendant had her sit down in the front, brought her a glass of water, then stowed her luggage and when boarding was completed, walked her to her seat. The flight attendant had no idea that I was nearby, watching her help the passenger. It is just how SunExpress operates. Helpfulness, hospitality, and sincerity are ingrained in the Turkish culture, and when combined with German precision and thoroughness, it creates a wonderful mix.

This award further reinforces our commitment to enhancing customer care making the overall journey more enjoyable. We will continue to listen carefully to our customers and invest in our products and services on the ground and in the air.

Aviation Turkey: What can you tell us about SunExpress's contribution to Türkiye tourism?

Max Kownatzki: In 2022, SunExpress brought 10.7 million passengers to Türkiye, aiming for 12 million this year. In addition, we are also putting a lot of effort into growing tourism beyond the summer season.  With its rich history, culture, and unique cuisine, Türkiye offers so much more than just summer sun and beach. For the 2022/23 winter season, we have increased our capacity by 35%. We have also introduced 15 new routes for the winter marking the largest route network expansion in our history. 

Looking ahead to the 2023/24 winter season, we are actively working on expanding our network even further. Our goal is to make Türkiye a year-round destination, extending tourism beyond sun and beach holidays.

We are committed to contributing to Türkiye’s target of attracting 60 million tourists target this year. As Türkiye’s tourism ambassador, we are dedicated to promoting Türkiye and Turkish tourism abroad with even more intensity, heart and passion 

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