On the eve of the Estonian presidential visit, the almost picture-perfect relations between EU-member Estonia and EU-hopeful Turkey are potentially set to be marred by an unfulfilled pledge made by visiting Turkish President Abdullah Gül in Tallinn two years ago.
During his presidential visit in October 2008, Gül promised his counterpart, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, that Turkish Airlines (THY), Europe’s fourth largest airline, would start direct flights in 2010. The promise was also repeated at the Turkey-Estonia Business Council meeting in which Gül addressed the business community in Tallinn.
Later THY officials announced that Tallinn would be added as a new destination to the ever-expanding flight network of Turkish Airlines, which has posted huge profits quarter after quarter. In an interview with Today’s Zaman last year, Aivo Orav, the Estonia’s ambassador to Turkey, said he expected flights to start in March 2010 and said he got the confirmation from Temel Kotil, the president of THY.
Kotil also repeated THY’s intention to launch direct flights in a 2009 meeting with visiting Foreign Minister Urmas Paet in İstanbul. Paet said at the time that this would broaden travel opportunities for residents of Estonia and Turkey. “The opening of a direct Tallinn-İstanbul flight will create new opportunities for intensifying economic, tourism and cultural cooperation,” he stated. Over 20,000 Estonian tourists come to Turkey every year to spend vacations, especially in the sunny south.
Yet March is over and Turkey has so far failed to deliver on that promise. No announcement was made by THY as to when direct flights to Tallinn would begin, if ever, or whether the plan has been scrapped altogether. With the Estonian president due in Ankara soon, the issue will be the only sore point in the discussions during which EU support for Turkey’s bid will be reiterated once again.
Estonia is eager to see THY as an international airline touching down on the runway in Tallinn to help boost the trade between Turkey and Estonia. With İstanbul increasingly becoming a transfer hub, officials don’t expect it to be difficult for THY to fill the seats on the plane. National flag carrier Estonian Air is struggling to keep afloat with four aircraft, and the country relies on foreign airlines to keep the airport in Tallinn busy. It has posted losses for the last three years and is seeking strategic partners to survive. In 2010 Estonian Air started cooperation with KLM, announcing a new Tallinn–Vilnius–Amsterdam route.
Officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said that in Tallinn some regional airlines operating flights to and from Tallinn do not want to see a new competitor coming into the market and that they are lobbying hard to block licenses to allow foreign airlines to operate in Estonia. The Estonian government is keen, however, to bring as many foreign airlines to operate in the country as possible in a bid to diversify flight options for passengers whose numbers are rallying after the global economic crisis.
Ilves’s visit to Turkey risks being marred by Turkey’s unfulfilled promise