In this exclusive interview, Dr. Max Kownatzki, SunExpress CEO, told us about the airline's current position and future plans.
Aviation Turkey: Firstly, thank you for your time. Can you briefly provide some information about SunExpress' history and the way it is structured? Sun Express was established in 1989 as a joint venture company of Turkish Airlines and Lufthansa and has since become one of the top leisure airlines in Europe and indeed the world and has also been awarded prestigious Skytrax awards multiple times. How has SunExpress become so successful?
Indeed, you have already summarized our success story very well. Of course, there is plenty more to add about this subject. As you mentioned, SunExpress was founded in 1989 as a joint venture of Turkish Airlines and Lufthansa. At first, SunExpress focused on touristic services between Antalya and Germany but has now become an integral part of the Turkish tourism industry.
What started with one Boeing 737-300 aircraft and 59 staff, has now evolved into a team of 4000 employees operating 51 aircraft to 52 destinations in 27 countries. In 2019, SunExpress received the award for Turkey’s Best Leisure Airline, and the award for World’s 5th Best Leisure Airline by SkyTrax, and a SAFA award for Turkey’s Safest Airline. It is also worth mentioning that SunExpress is recognized as Turkey’s Second Biggest Service Exporter.
SunExpress with its unwavering dedication to Turkish tourism connects Antalya and İzmir to more domestic and international destinations than any other airline and also connects 13 Anatolian cities to 17 European destinations with direct flights. The dedication of our team and our unique company culture which combines Turkish and German elements are the most important factors behind our success; the support and know-how of our shareholders are also crucial.
At SunExpress, we continue to strive for maintaining our position as one of Europe’s most innovative and leading leisure airlines.
Aviation Turkey: Since the start of the 2021 summer season, SunExpress has been flying to 52 destinations in 27 countries across Europe directly from Turkey. What are your plans for increasing the number of flights in 2022? Can you tell us more about the activities and developments that SunExpress has planned for the near future?
This summer, despite the industry-wide setbacks due to the pandemic, we are once again proving our commitment to Turkish tourism by utilizing our entire fleet at pre-Covid levels. As the pandemic has constituted the biggest crisis in the aviation industry ever, I am extremely proud of my team members for their substantial achievements such as having the flexibility to increase our offered capacity from 25 percent to 100 percent in just one month.
Given the strong rebound capability of Turkish tourism, we will resume our growth strategy in 2022. Several new destinations, for example in the UK and Eastern Europe, are on our radar as well as frequency increases on existing routes, offering even more options for our customers.
However, the industry still faces multiple uncertainties; the fight against Covid-19 is still ongoing and despite vaccinations being rolled out globally, new virus variants may impact our current progress. There are still many travel restrictions and quarantine requirements in place, partially reducing travel demand.
Additionally, pre-Covid industry challenges such as current natural disasters occurring in Turkey and all over Europe are becoming more prominent and are calling for a well-thought sustainability concept.
Aviation Turkey: What is the current status of the SunExpress fleet? Will there be new aircraft joining the fleet in the near future?
We currently have 51 Boeing 737 800 NGs aircraft in our fleet. We are operating 39 of these aircraft for our own SunExpress operations, and 12 aircraft are being operated for AnadoluJet as a part of our wet-lease agreement.
During these challenging times, flexibility is key for limiting negative financial impact and serving available travel demand; this includes reducing the fleet by a couple of aircraft to minimize fixed costs. Nevertheless, our intention to provide strong support to Turkish tourism is at the heart of our crisis strategy.
We have enabled constant access to Turkey's beautiful attractions, and we have provided the Turkish community throughout Europe with considerable opportunities to visit their families in Turkey.
Even during the strict lockdown period, we reduced our capacity less than many other airlines in the Turkish market and we always ensured that we supported Turkish domestic travel as best we could. This allowed us to realize additional business opportunities and, even more importantly we were in a good position to ramp up our activities quickly when demand started to pick up in June 2021.
We currently have 42 737 MAX aircraft ordered, 9 of which will be added by the end of this year, boosting our capacity for the 2022 summer season.
We are deeply aware that the airline industry has an impact on the environment; this is why we need to grow responsibly and do our utmost to contribute to its conservation. A key component in our strategy is the employment of modern, low Co2 emission aircraft like the 737 MAX. This outstanding model provides the highest efficiency and passenger comfort in the single-aisle market, with a 20% lower fuel consumption than its older Boeing predecessors.
Aviation Turkey: SunExpress is one of the only airlines that have direct flights from Anatolia to Europe; this might be the main reason customers are choosing your airline. What other reasons influence customers' decisions to fly with SunExpress? What other significant services do you provide so your customers can fly safely and comfortably?
As the first and only airline operating direct scheduled flights from 13 Anatolian cities to 17 cities in Europe, we are proud to rejoin Turkish citizens living in Europe with their home country and their loved ones.
We are the first airline to receive the Orange Circle Certificate awarded by the Izmir metropolitan municipality for our safe and hygienic business practices. The Orange Circle Hygiene Certificate has been set up to ensure standards that will give travelers increased peace of mind throughout their journey. This has, once again, proven SunExpress’ expertise in providing a healthy and hygienic travel experience to all its passengers.
We are also offering tailor-made solutions by providing our passengers more flexibility during their travel planning; for example, we now provide our passengers with the opportunity to purchase empty middle seats in advance. Thanks to this service, our guests can benefit from extra space between them and other passengers allowing them to have a more comfortable and relaxed flight experience.
SunFlex, launched last November, offers passengers the opportunity to rebook their reservations with no additional fees up until a certain time before departure, depending on the fare selected during booking.
This year, we have launched the Corona Care Guarantee package, which allows our passengers to take advantage of free rebooking and cancellation options if they or their first-degree relatives are infected with Covid-19.
Aviation Turkey: Coronavirus has been affecting the aviation and tourism sector since it first emerged in early 2019. SunExpress has been taking serious actions to protect all their customers and crew. What kind of preventive, safety measures does SunExpress take? And what are your plans for the coming period?
Apart from what I mentioned previously, we are continuing to utilize well thought out, appropriate measures to provide a healthy and care-free travel experience for our passengers, such as continuing our strict face mask policy, disinfecting our aircraft, strict boarding and deboarding procedures, we provide sanitizers, and we use ultra-efficient HEPA filters which are used in surgery theaters in hospitals. Additionally, we have implemented government actions such as the requirement for passengers to declare their HES code on domestic flights: It is mandatory for all passengers booked on domestic flights to provide a HES code during booking; a PCR or rapid antigen-negative test result, a vaccination certificate or proof of recovery from Covid-19 is required for international flights. On top of this, around 80 percent of our crew have been vaccinated. Some may say, flying with SunExpress is safer than staying on the ground.
Aviation Turkey: The summer of 2020 was a bit slow in the tourism sector, but business started to pick up the following summer with the vaccination rollouts. How would you evaluate the summer of 2021? Did you reach the number of passengers you expected? When do you expect the number of passengers to return to pre-pandemic levels?
Although business in the sector started to build momentum late this summer, the wide rollout of vaccinations in many countries and the easing of travel restrictions have become key drivers for growth in the tourism sector. As of June 2021, we started to see a significant increase in bookings, partly even exceeding 2019 levels in some weeks; this shift allowed us to utilize the entire fleet.
People’s overall desire to travel again allowed us to achieve a record on August the 6th with over 36K passengers having flown with SunExpress on one day. By mid-August, we had flown 3 million international and domestic passengers to their dream destinations to see their loved ones. However, given the late start of the season, the strong performance during the peak months, will not be able to make up for the reduced demand before June.
Looking ahead, flexibility will remain a key necessity for airlines. Constantly changing travel regulations will require flexible capacity allocation during the coming periods. I am convinced Turkish tourism will reach pre-pandemic levels before in other tourism markets will.
Aviation Turkey: Currently due to global warming, wildfires are becoming more serious and widespread, not only in Turkey but also in many other countries worldwide. In fact, in recent years, nature has started to sound the alarm and call on humanity for more awareness and sensitivity. Some companies have initiated various positive actions to increase awareness to safeguard the environment. Has SunExpress developed any new projects to improve environmental awareness?
At SunExpress, we take this issue very seriously. As I mentioned before, our fleet development strategy is based on reducing fuel consumption. Soon we will have a younger and more modern fleet which will reduce our carbon footprint. We also replaced plastic products on all of our international flights with sustainable alternatives made of wood or paper.
It is very important for SunExpress as a company to contribute to sustainability. In 2019, we launched our very first forest project in Ankara by planting a large number of saplings. This is a small contribution towards leaving a greener Turkey for future generations. We are currently planning to replicate this sapling initiative in more Turkish cities in the near future. Especially after this year's devastating wildfires, we have decided to speed up our efforts.
Our industry will find solutions to reduce the impact of climate change. In that sense, we are collaborating with “right.based on science”, a start-up company specialized in developing science-based metrics and software solutions. They will help us in measuring and managing our carbon footprint. Looking ahead, we will see promising solutions and ideas materializing from this effort.
In addition, such a task requires alignment with all stakeholder beyond the reach of one single company. Two examples for that: Sustainable aviation fuel development, or the creation of a Single European Sky, ensuring more efficient utilization of airspace.
As with many topics, we wish for a level playing field. In an ideal world, these stakeholders pursuing carbon reduction, e.g. through using more costly sustainable kerosene, should not be penalized for going the extra mile by the usual commercial market forces.
At SunExpress, we work as an institution to raise awareness for the environment and contribute as much as we can; our approximately 4000 team members who make up this large family provide immense support and represent the driving force behind the realization of our company’s vision to continue to positively contribute towards the protection of nature