The Middle East’s Big Three, Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways, are among some of the most recognizable airlines. This status suggests that they are unrivalled in the world, but it also means that the companies are often likened to each other. But how do the aviation giants compare with other carriers?

Turkish Airlines, another airline located near the Middle East, also enjoys creating large publicity campaigns and aligns its brand with luxury. So, could Turkish Airlines be a possible contender for the ME3? Perhaps if Etihad fell away, or even merged with Emirates. But it could be that the carriers are too different.

Luxury is, obviously, subjective. A more objective comparison between airlines is based on data. So, what can the figures tell us about Turkish Airlines and its similarity to the ME3?

Size comparison

One of the main selling points of Turkish Airlines is its sizeable network. The carrier boasts the largest number of destinations, which, arguably, makes it the biggest airline in the world.

Indeed, the sheer number of destinations is impressive. In fact, in 2019, Turkish Airlines’ network doubled Emirates and Qatar and was three times bigger than Etihad Airways. Additionally, before 2020, the carrier was growing faster than any of the ME3.

 

Then, in 2020, Turkish Airlines’ network experienced a steep decline. The graph above depicts the number of destinations included in each carrier’s network at the end of the year. For ME3 carriers, AeroTime used the data calculated in our earlier reporting, which was carefully selected from company press releases. But the official data, which was provided by each airline in its financial reports, was noticeably different.

For example, Emirates claimed to have a network of 157 destinations at the end of 2020. But AeroTime data shows the final figure at 2/3 less. Qatar Airways claimed 170 destinations in December 2020, while we calculated that only 107 were active.

However, it was not possible to check Turkish Airlines’ 252 destinations, which means that the figure used should be eyed with caution. In reality, the pandemic might have affected Turkish Airlines’ network even more than this data shows.

So, while Turkish covered a larger section of the globe than any of ME3 carriers, its coverage declined significantly. However, even after losing 1/5 of its network, Turkish Airlines remained substantially larger than any of the ME3.This is evident in the number of its aircraft as well.

In contrast to Emirates and Etihad, Turkish Airlines increased its fleet during the pandemic and kept introducing both wide-body and narrow-body airplanes to its line-up.

 

Turkish Airlines’ fleet also became younger, while ME3 carriers cancelled much of its new aircraft orders in 2020. Aircraft that got delivered, such as Etihad’s Airbus A350, were often placed into storage. In comparison, Turkish Airlines delayed its orders, choosing to accept aircraft, and pay for them, when, and if, the financial situation improves.  

It’s worth noting that the data presented above is incomplete and Qatar Airways is yet to present its FY2021 report. The company’s fiscal year ends in March. 2019 data shows a period between April 2019 and March 2020, right before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The same problem persists through further graphics, and, unfortunately, cannot be avoided.

While it is fair to say that Qatar fared better than Emirates and Etihad in 2020, its performance is far from extraordinary and is likely to be comparable to that of its main rivals.

The traffic

The number of planes and destinations mean little if there are no passengers to fly. In this regard, the available data is vague. While all companies publish their traffic numbers (the total amount of passengers that flew on their aircraft through the year), most do not specify the exact distance or the price. In other words, the metric called revenue passenger-kilometers (RPKM) – an important and essential measure one – is missing from their reports.

But much can be gleaned from the total passenger number. When we consider its entire fleet and the destinations, Turkish Airlines only flew slightly more passengers than Emirates before 2020. Although, its traffic remained larger than Qatar’s and Etihad’s combined.

 

In conclusion, and if we discard the incomplete Qatar data, Turkish Airlines secured prime position during COVID-19. Statistically, the carrier lost almost as many passengers as Emirates in 2020. But proportionally, the fall was much smaller.

But what about freight? Well, Emirates was a clear leader as its fleet of cargo aircraft is comparatively large. Turkish Airlines increased its capacity in 2019 but could still transport only half the amount of freight Emirates carried.

 

2020 was a goldmine for cargo carriers. The price skyrocketed and all four airlines reported historically high cargo revenue. But the amount of cargo carried dropped. This was largely due to the lapse in belly cargo capacity, which was only partially compensated by passenger-to-cargo conversions. For Turkish Airlines, the drop was comparatively low. However, Qatar boasted an increase in capability during 2020, so it is entirely possible that the carrier overtook Turkish Airlines again. This won’t be confirmed until the financial results are revealed.

The bigger picture

But size and capacity are only one part of a bigger story. Despite possessing the largest fleet and carrying more people, Turkish Airlines only generates a modest amount of money. Prior to 2020, its revenue was on par with Qatar Airways (and, prior to 2017, on par with Etihad Airways), which is a significantly smaller company.

 

This shows the real limitations of such a comparison. After all, Turkish Airlines is not a hub-to-hub carrier, and its fleet is predominantly composed of narrow-body families of Airbus A320 and Boeing 737. While the carrier does possess a bigger proportion of wide-body planes than some other flag carriers, ME3 airlines almost exclusively fly wide-bodies.

So, while owning a smaller fleet, ME3 transport proportionally more people and make more revenue. If we add the price of tickets, which demands a comparison of its own, we get a clear answer. Turkish Airlines differs significantly from ME3 carriers, and the data reflects that.