The Sunday profile | Ilker Ayci: Waiting to take off

ON JULY 15, 2016, a faction of the Turkish military attempted to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. By dawn on July 16, it was clear that the coup, one of the bloodiest in Turkish political history, had been repelled. But it has caused considerable collateral damage, in particular to the country’s tourism sector, its flagship company, Turkish Airlines, losing nearly a quarter of its reservations in one week.

But from there, the airline, led by then-president Ilker Ayci, embarked on a recovery path, which culminated in September 2016 with a press conference in Istanbul. With more than 100 journalists from across Europe in attendance, Ayci proclaimed Turkish Airlines the “King of Returns”.

While many saw it as a bombshell prediction then, airline revenue fell from $9.79 billion in 2016 to $10.96 billion the following year.

It is this story of turnaround, along with his role in the growth and expansion of Turkish Airlines during the nearly seven years he led its operations, that is considered one of the key factors that led Ayci to appear on the Tata Group’s shortlist when it was looking for someone to run Air India, the loss-making public behemoth it took over in January.

On February 14, Ayci, 51, was appointed CEO and Managing Director of Air India.

From the day the Tata Group was announced as the successful bidder for Air India, it began the process of finding a leader who would not only be able to come up with a turnaround plan but, more importantly, would also be ready to stay to see the execution until the end.

Among the crucial factors that brought Air India to the point where it was a ‘sell it or shut it down’ call for the government was the lack of consistency in the airline’s leadership. Those who have held senior positions within the carrier point to the long-term nature of the planning required to run any airline that Air India’s bureaucratic chief appointment structure has failed to adhere to.

“One of the problems is that the post of Chairman and CEO of Air India, which was held by a non-technical bureaucrat, was rotated every few years. In the airline business, a few years is too short. The post of CMD would be shorter than the airline’s aircraft delivery schedule resulting in myopic decision-making,” a former senior Air India executive told The Indian Express.

This is what Air India hopes to change with the appointment of Ayci.

Alumnus in 1994 of the Department of Political Science and Public Administration of Bilkent University, the first private university in Turkey, Ayci carried out a research stay in political science at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom in 1995 He also completed a Masters program in International Relations at Marmara University. in Istanbul in 1997.

Since the beginning of his career, Ayci has worked with Erdogan, having served as an advisor when the latter was mayor of Istanbul between 1994 and 1998. Between 2005 and 2011, Ayci held several positions in the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality and served as CEO large insurance companies. In January 2011, he was appointed Chairman of the Investment Support and Promotion Agency of the Prime Ministry of Turkey, an official body responsible for promoting Turkey’s investment opportunities globally. In February 2013, he became Vice President of the World Association of Investment Promotion Agencies.

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In 2015, he was first appointed as a director on the board of directors of Turkish Airlines and was later appointed chairman.

Under his leadership, Turkish Airlines has increased the number of destinations served by 69 airports and 20 additional countries, making it the sixth largest airline in Europe.

One of the main aspects of Ayci’s leadership has been the airline’s expansion into the United States, despite the difficult relations between the two countries. In 2003, Turkish Airlines served just two destinations in the Americas, which grew to seven in 2011. But today, the airline flies to 208 destinations in the United States alone, including major hubs such as Atlanta , Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles. , Miami, New York, San Francisco and Washington DC.

He is also credited with the airline’s financial turnaround after the pandemic. For the period from January 1 to September 30, 2021, Turkish Airlines reported a net profit of $734 million, compared to a net loss of $786 million for the same period last year. Much of this turnaround is attributed to an aggressive freight strategy that Ayci has instituted. In addition to making full use of the airline’s freighter fleet, the airline has deployed 15 wide-body passenger aircraft for cargo operations, a strategy that has catapulted the company’s revenue in the first nine months of 2021. to $2.73 billion, from $1.88 billion a year ago.

The airline went through this phase without laying off workers or taking any bailouts from the government.

Speaking at an aviation industry event in December 2021, Ayci said: “It’s a philosophy – the most important asset of an airline is the crew, its dedicated staff. Our slogan is that together we are stronger. Together we are a family”.

Married to lawyer and sports commentator Tugce Saatman, the couple have a three-year-old child.

The choice to hire a Turkish national to lead the airline is an unconventional choice, even taking into account the Tata Group’s history of expatriate appointments – from former Tata Motors CEO Guenter Butschek to former CEO of Tata Tele Services Darryl Green and Indian Hotels MD & CEO Raymond Bickson. But those familiar with the hiring process pointed out that Ayci’s lack of experience managing a Western-based airline could prove to be an advantage.

“The other candidates Tatas looked at have also done great things in their careers, but if they’ve gone for someone from a former airline, there’s a tendency to say ‘that’s it. that we do things. But here you are Air India – loss-making for decades, union expectations etc. That’s what the Tatas liked about Ilker Ayci,” a source said.

While Ayci is expected to assume his responsibilities at Air India no later than April 1, what stands between him and his future office at Airlines House is a technicality – a Home Office security clearance.

This is one of the main obstacles before Ayci, besides the challenge of having to put the company back in order.

In January, when Tatas took control of Air India after 69 years, the Rs 18 lakh-crore salt-software conglomerate faced an uphill task of overthrowing a bleeding carrier that was losing Rs 20 crore a day, to struggling with a bloated balloon, an uninspired workforce and a declining market share.

Speaking to Air India employees on February 16, Tata Sons Chairman N Chandrasekaran set out a roadmap with four main areas for the new management to focus on: providing “best in class customer service » ; making Air India the “world’s most technologically advanced airline”; the modernization of aircraft, the arrival of a new fleet and the expansion of the airline’s network; and providing in-flight and off-flight hospitality that is “the best”.

Despite the challenges, industry experts say Air India has inherent strengths that Ayci will be well equipped to exploit. The airline currently controls more than 4,400 domestic and 1,800 international landing and parking slots at domestic airports, as well as 900 overseas slots. In addition, the Tata Group has access to Air India’s 49 wide-body aircraft, 128 narrow-body aircraft and 25 Air India Express narrow-body aircraft.

For now, Ayci has clearly plotted her flight path.