The Sunday Profile | Ilker Ayci: Waiting to take off

ON JULY 15, 2016, a Turkish army faction launched an attempt to unseat President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. By daybreak on July 16, it was clear that the coup, one of the bloodiest in Turkey’s political history, had been fended off. But it caused considerable collateral damage, especially to the country’s tourism sector, with its flagship carrier, Turkish Airlines, losing nearly a quarter of its bookings in a week.

But from there on, the airline, with its then chairman Ilker Ayci at the helm, set in motion a recovery path, which culminated in September 2016 with a press conference in Istanbul. With over 100 journalists from across Europe in attendance, Ayci proclaimed Turkish Airlines as the “king of comebacks”.

While many saw it as a bombastic prediction then, the airlines’ topline, which had fallen to $9.79 billion in 2016, expanded to $10.96 billion the following year.

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

On February 14, the 51-year old Ayci was announced as the CEO & MD of Air India.

Since the day the Tata Group was announced as the winning bidder for Air India, it commenced the process of looking for a leader who would be capable of not only charting out a turnaround plan but, more importantly, would also be willing to stick around to see the execution through.

Among the crucial factors that brought Air India to the point where it was a ‘sell it or shut it’ call for the government was the lack of consistency in the airline’s leadership. Those who have been in leadership roles with the carrier point to the long-term nature of planning required to run any airline that the bureaucratic structure of appointing Air India chiefs fell short of.

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

It is this that Air India would hope to change with Ayci’s appointment.

A 1994 alumnus of the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Bilkent University, Turkey’s first private university, Ayci had a research stay in political science at Leeds University in the UK in 1995. He also completed an International Relations Master’s programme at the Marmara University in Istanbul in 1997.

Since the initial stage of his career, Ayci has worked with Erdogan, having served as advisor when the latter was mayor of Istanbul between 1994-1998. Between 2005 and 2011, Ayci held several positions in the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality and served as CEO of top insurance companies. In January 2011, he was appointed President of the Prime Ministry Investment Support and Promotion Agency of Turkey, an official body 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 Turkish Airlines and was later made its chairman.

Under his watch, Turkish Airlines increased the number of destinations it flew to by 69 airports and 20 additional countries, making it the sixth largest European airline.

One of the headline aspects of Ayci’s leadership was the airline’s expansion into the US, despite rocky relations between the two countries. In 2003, Turkish Airlines flew to only two destinations in the Americas, which increased to seven by 2011. But today, the airline flies to 208 destinations in the US 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 turning the airline around financially after the pandemic. For the January 1-September 30, 2021 period, Turkish Airlines reported a net profit of $734 million, compared to a $786 million net loss for the same period last year. A large part of this turnaround is attributed to an aggressive cargo strategy that Ayci instituted. Besides fully utilising the airline’s freighter fleet, the airline deployed 15 wide-bodied passenger aircraft for cargo operations, a strategy that catapulted the company’s revenues during the first nine months of 2021 to $2.73 billion, compared to $1.88 billion a year ago.

The airline saw through this phase without making layoffs or taking any government bailouts.

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 rope in a Turkish national to run the airline is an unconventional choice, even going by the Tata Group’s history of expatriate appointments — from former Tata Motors CEO Guenter Butschek to former Tata Tele Services CEO Darryl Green and Indian Hotels MD & CEO Raymond Bickson. But those with knowledge of the hiring process pointed out that Ayci’s lack of experience in managing an airline based in the West could prove to be an advantage.

“The other candidates that Tatas looked at have also done great stuff during their careers but if they went for someone from a legacy airline, there is a tendency to claim “this is how we do stuff”. But here you are Air India — loss-making for decades, expectations from the unions, etc. This is what the Tatas liked about Ilker Ayci,” a source said.

While Ayci is expected to assume his responsibilities at Air India on or before April 1, what stands between him and his future office at Airlines House is a technicality — a security clearance by the Ministry of Home Affairs.

That’s one of the key hurdles before Ayci, besides the challenge of having to put the company back in order.

In January, when the Tatas took control of Air India after 69 years, the Rs 18-lakh-crore salt-to-software conglomerate faced an uphill task: turning around a bleeding carrier that was losing Rs 20 crore daily, saddled with a bloated, uninspired workforce and a sliding market share.

Addressing Air India’s employees on February 16, Tata Sons Chairman N Chandrasekaran laid down a roadmap with four core areas for the new management to focus on — providing “best-in-class customer service”; making Air India the “most technologically advanced airline in the world”; upgrading aircraft, bringing in new fleet and expanding the airline’s network; and ensuring 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 leverage. The airline currently controls over 4,400 domestic and 1,800 international landing and parking slots at domestic airports as well as 900 slots overseas. In addition, the Tata Group has access to Air India’s 49 wide-bodied planes, 128 narrow-bodied planes, and Air India Express’s 25 narrow-bodied planes.

For now, Ayci has his flight path clearly charted out.

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