Our recent experience with Turkish Airlines shows it has the fundamental ingredients for a leading passenger experience, however with just a few small tweaks, the airline could have the perfect recipe. Sat in their existing ‘Lounge Istanbul‘ we conduct an exclusive interview with Arif Ali Gezmisoglu, Turkish Airlines’ Customer Experience Manager, finding out that the airline still has grand plans to stay ahead of their competition.
Hi Arif, thank you for spending the time to speak with us. Can you tell us a little about your job role, how long you’ve been with Turkish and your experience prior to working with the airline?
I have been working at Turkish Airlines since 2004. I’ve worked in many areas, including sales, inspection and engineering. After this, I was mainly in charge of station management and the sales offices. I spent a total of 11 years in the sales department and we usually responded to problems that the customer has experienced. In the last three years I have been working as Turkish Airlines’ Customer Experience Manager.
We manage the customer experience closely following sector trends utilising our expert human resource teams. The first year of my role was mostly in the establishment of the department and the last two years were full of experience practices realized throughout the customer journey.
This sounds like an exciting new role.
I think that we have a very powerful capability and experience in working in aviation as the CX team.
Literally just stepping off a long haul flight just a few hours ago and experiencing the Bosphorus Tour, we can tell that Turkish are doing things a little differently, can you explain what makes the Turkish Airlines experience so unique?
We take the customer experience very seriously. We have some assets that support the experience creation, the most important one is the unique location of our hub – Istanbul. Flying via Istanbul to the world’s largest number of destinations, we place our city at the heart of many new experiences. We really are at the heart of three continents. Some of our experiences include the Istanbul Bosphorus Experience, Stopover in İstanbul and Tour Istanbul, but you can expect many more to come.
The location of Istanbul means it is well positioned to connect all the corners of the globe, is this the reason why Turkish has such a global route network?
It is one of the reasons definitely. The second reason is our courageous growth strategy. We open new routes in some unexpected destinations and it nurtures our main routes. As we are able to present a fully-fledged journey in both Business and Economy Class in comperatively affordable prices the demand supports our ambitious growth.
Your prices certainly are competitive, at least every time we’ve done a fare search. Is this because the airline has a fairly simplified fleet compared to the likes of American or United? Does the fact you use just a few types of aircraft help create a standardised cabin experience for your passengers?
It has its advantages in production planning and of course the customer experience. But as the technology advances with new generation aircraft models, we cannot just not opt to not add them to our fleet. So recently we ordered 50+10 wide body aircraft, half of these B787 and half A350. We are going to use this opportunity to introduce novelties in the cabin experience. But to ensure standardization, the rest of our existing fleet will follow suit with a retrofit programme.
That sounds interesting, I mean currently the airline is one of the few carriers still to offer an older business class configuration (2 x 3 x 2 seating), why has Turkish not followed suit of so many other carriers and opted for a more private LOPA on their long haul product?
We will be announcing a new business class product soon in conjunction with the launch of our new aircraft orders.
That’s amazing! So how will Turkish Airlines continue to compete with the likes of Qatar, Singapore, Cathay etc who have already invested in new cabin products?
We have the Istanbul hub acting as the crossroads of airline traffic globally. It is our natural competitive advantage. Connecting passengers in the shortest total trip time is one of the things we need to keep in mind and make efficient production planning. This is why our wide body cabins in Business have a comparatively higher density configuration right now.
But it does not mean we are not planning any other configurations in the upcoming years. We will continue to present a fully-flat seat in our long-haul flights and on terms of the onboard products like the DENON noise cancelling headphones, sleeping sets, luxury amenity kits and unparalleled culinary experiences on board we are constantly benchmarked in the industry.
What makes the Turkish Airlines business class experience so special?
Other than the privileges throughout the journey, its a combination of several strong assets. Namely, our departure lounge “Lounge Istanbul” [which will be reimagined in our new airport], our award winning catering on board, rich content IFE and of course hospitable cabin crew serving exclusively to Business Class.
There are many brand partnerships such as Denon headphones or Do&Co, how are these partnerships selected?
We are keen to work with the bests in their class when we are to select our partners. There is a saying in Turkey, ‘Give the business to its master’. We follow this. We are good at air transport, and in order to make it a delightfully different journey, we bring the best partners together. You will see some more global partners adding value to our customer experience in upcoming months.
The airline used to offer a Premium Economy cabin, but you are one of a few to remove the cabin class, what was the reason for this, and would you ever bring it back?
We had ‘Comfort Class.’ It was so good that it started to eat from our Business Class demand. So we decided to focus our efforts on two main classes.
Turkish Airlines will soon move to their New International Airport, what kind of developments can we see to the airline’s ground product? (Lounges, check in etc?)
Yes we are vey excited about our new hub and work relentlessly to design our customer journey through many airport customer touchpoints. You can expect a more seamless experience as a whole. There will be more exclusivity for Business Class and top Tier FFP members throughout the airport journey. We are also designing the lounges from scratch. They will be the hub of many digital and realtime immersive experiences.
With the new airport being slightly further out than Ataturk, will Turkish continue to offer elements like the Bosphorus tour?
Yes we are working on some new models to let our transfer passengers enjoy one of best cities in the world. The service process of the tours can be revised as the new airport is located at the northern part of the city. Our strategy is to add even more value to the stopover / layover time of our passengers by presenting them with even more options. Istanbul offers unique sightseeing, shopping, wellness & spa, culture and entertainment experiences, so we will be harnessing richness of our hub with some new offers to our passengers.
Turkish is one of the only European airlines to offer a true ‘First Class’ seat in a medium haul fleet for business class, how is this seat received by passengers? Would Turkish ever look at flat-bed seats like Fly Dubai have opted for on narrow bodies?
There are many medium-haul destinations that we fly with narrow body that the target passengers would love to fly fully-flat. We have close relationships with manufacturers and we are closely watching the new products that can add value to our narrow body fleet.
What are the most important things for your passengers and how do you respond to their needs?
Inflight connectivity is one of the rising demands, we are keen to extend the wireless IFE / internet connection throughout our fleet. For the aircraft that do not have AVOD systems, we are offering inflight tablet IFE solution to our Business Class passengers. We are also working on the wireless IFE infrastructure for our passengers who want to access rich content from their own devices.
Especially for Business Class, our passengers expect more personal personal zones and privileges. Upgrading the experience in all customer touchpoints, we will pay extra attention to satisfy this need with more exclusive service to our premium passengers.
Does having such a diverse network mean a diverse passenger profile? If so, how do you respond to so many different cultures and languages and needs?
Sure, it does. To respond all of the passengers needs, we look deep into different cultural patterns of our passengers especially in our marketing efforts. In many customer touchpoints we need to address them in their languages. So we have increased the number of languages available on our website and IFE systems. In the airport transfer desks we serve to our passengers up to 12 different languages. To touch our guests’ hearts, our crew welcomes our passengers in their local languages.
What design and passenger experience elements do you admire in other airline brands? (such as chauffeur drive or the skylounge from Air New Zealand etc)
The business models are different for all of our competitors. All successful carriers have their stars in their experience. They should be evaluated in their context. So we tend not to admire any of the players in our industry and create our own unique story…
Outside of aviation, which brands do you look to for inspiration, and which consumer brand really believe gives excellent customer service.
In terms of innovation, Amazon; agile customer relationship management, Booking.com and high quality customer service, Starbucks perform well and inspire us in our research and development activities.
You’ve been amazing to talk to, finally, can we ask, what are the biggest challenges for Turkish Airlines?
As new aircraft, a new airport and new crew comes along it’s all about maintaining the standardisation of the passeneger experience while continuing our high speed growth. However, maybe for this year and next year the biggest one is moving the entire operation in the Istanbul New Airport.