Europe's legacy airlines are quick to complain about the new competition from the big three Persian Gulf carriers. But they are facing what could be an even more serious threat much closer to home: Turkish Airlines.

Star Alliance member Turkish Airlines is, at least in some respects, in an even better position than that of Emirates, Etihad Airways or Qatar Airways in that it enjoys a significant home market with a main base in Istanbul—the center of Turkey's fast-growing economy. From there, Turkish Airlines can reach all key destinations in Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East and even most of Africa using narrowbodies, whereas Emirates does not even own a narrowbody. Etihad and Qatar predominantly operate widebodies, which are much more expensive to purchase and difficult to fill.

Trip-cost containment is only one of Turkish's advantages; the ability to serve much smaller markets is another. Emirates flies to four destinations in Germany, Turkish serves 12. From the point of view of European airlines such as Lufthansa, Turkish is siphoning the traffic that the German flag carrier needs to feed its hubs in Munich and Frankfurt. The feed not only supplies the long-haul services, it also sustains Lufthansa's European network. As competitors move into increasingly more of its final destinations, its business case becomes even tougher. The fact that Lufthansa also is a Star Alliance partner does not seem to stop what it perceives as Turkish's encroachment into partner territory.

The only weakness now hampering Turkish Airlines is Istanbul Ataturk Airport, which it is outgrowing. But the Turkish government has plans in place to build relatively soon what will become one of the world's largest airports near to the city center.

Temel Kotil, Turkish Airlines' CEO, is the key person behind the turn-around of the once struggling airline. Kotil was appointed in 2003, when the carrier was still fully state-owned and more of public authority than a private entity. But the airline's partial privatization (Turkish is still 49% state-owned) led to a changed corporate culture over time.

Both Turkish and its CEO have long been underestimated by peers in Europe, but it is no coincidence that it is Kotil who will be leading the Association of European Airlines (AEA) as its next chairman for a one-year term.

The airline's strategy is clear: “We are trying to change the flows,” says Kotil. Traffic that has historically been routed through other hubs is to be increasingly channeled through Istanbul. The aim is to expand the airline's network to around 300 destinations before leveling off.

To accomplish this requires a massive investment in the fleet. Ahead of any major orders expected to be completed over the next few weeks, Turkish has already been exploring further interim leases that would help fill the capacity gap between now and the time the newly ordered aircraft are delivered.

Turkish's fleet of 202 aircraft flies to 217 destinations, and is slated to rise to 250 by the end of the year. “We are not the largest airline in the world, but we go to many different places,” Kotil says. “It looks like a crazy strategy,” he says, referring to the number of markets the airline serves. Nevertheless, Turkish wants to create an even larger self-sustaining hub-and-spoke network centered in Istanbul before shifting to frequency growth on existing destinations. “We now have 1,000 daily flights, but the existing network could sustain 2,000.” The only thing standing in the way of the quest for more frequencies is the lack of aircraft. The airline plans to boost its fleet of 202 to 375 by 2020, and 20 aircraft are scheduled for delivery this year.

Turkish is in the process negotiating an order for around 100 narrowbodies, which should be announced this month. Last month, the airline stated that it had a smaller follow-up commitment for five Airbus A330-300s on top of 15 yet to be delivered. It is also taking delivery of a further 15 Boeing 777-300ERs. Turkish has not yet placed an order for either the A350 or the Boeing 787, nor for the A380 or 747-8. Kotil is noncommittal about whether the largest widebodies will have role in his airline. “The A380 is a lovely machine, but aircraft types are not the most important factor,” he says. But given the anticipated size of the Istanbul hub, the aircraft looks equally suited for it as it is for Dubai.

Because Turkish's narrowbodies are used in a different role than for other airlines, and fly much longer average stage lengths, the airline is also in the process of upgrading the cabin. Newly delivered A320s are being retrofitted with a proper business-class cabin similar to domestic first-class setups in the U.S. European carriers typically use the same seats for business cabins that are used for economy, but leave the middle seat free and offer upgraded catering. That concept does not work if one competes with widebodies and long-haul cabins.

On the other hand, the longer stage length is a key advantage, Kotil explains. When the aircraft are operated on 3-4-hr. sectors, which is the case for most of the European, Central Asia, Middle Eastern and African markets, the otherwise higher unit costs decline to a level comparable to what would be typical for widebodies. In other words: Turkish can operate narrowbodies at nearly the same unit costs as long-haul jets'. Those, by contrast, are used in a suboptimal role because stage lengths between Europe and the Middle East are relatively short.

Africa has become a key growth area for Turkish. “There is endless demand in Africa,” says Kotil. The airline wants to change historical travel patterns, which saw travelers from Africa mostly connect via Paris, Brussels, London or Frankfurt. Istanbul is much closer, particularly if customers want to go to Asia.

The Turkish carrier has recently started flying to Mogadishu, Somalia, a market most others avoid for security reasons. But although it is high risk, it is also high yield, and the carrier will soon boost its weekly frequencies to seven from three.

A key precondition for the airline's further growth is the construction of the new international airport in Istanbul. A tender for the facility is due to be released in May and Turkish hopes the first stage of the airport will be opened in 2017, which would be a very aggressive timetable. The new location is designed to have an initial five runways and ultimately enough capacity for 150 million passengers per year.

This year, Turkish expects to carry 46 million passengers, up from 38 million last year. Approximately 13 million are expected to transfer—most of them at Ataturk Airport. But because of constraints there, Turkish has already introduced domestic and international services from the city's other airport, Sabiha Gokcen International, which is mainly used by Turkey-based low-cost operators such as Pegasus or Sun Express.