Society Insights: SunExpress Plans Ahead

The third and final edition of our Society Insights series puts SunExpress in the spotlight. Wilken Bellmann, Head of Network Planning, Scheduling and Airline Partnerships at SunExpress, is based in Germany, but part of his team and the majority of his colleagues are in Turkey. Wilken tells us how forward focus is helping to keep the team optimistic in uncertain times.

Sophie: Wilken, we’ve been dealing with this pandemic for a long time now. What is daily work like for you these days?

Wilken: One thing that hasn’t changed in all these months is the level of uncertainty. To be honest, I had expected that at a certain point, we would have a bit of certainty about the number of flights that would be going out week to week. But regulations keep changing. So my team and I are constantly building up a schedule, and then breaking it back down to accommodate new circumstances, regulations or passenger movements. Our home market is Turkey, and we’re used to being flexible to accommodate slightly jumpy travel behaviour in that market, but we’ve never had to be as flexible as we are right now.

Sophie: I know that uncertainty is one of the most stressful challenges for Network Planners right now. How is your team dealing with it?

Wilken: We’re looking ahead to a time after COVID. We’re making schedules and planning for the recovery periods from summer 2021 onwards, and well into the future, when we’re fairly certain this will be over. Being able to work on schedules for the time after COVID is helping keep our team optimistic and positive. We’re looking well into the future, but into a future when travel will be similar to the way it used to be.

It goes against a Network Planner’s nature to destroy a plan she or he has just made. Usually, we only make small adjustments, but now it’s like we start from scratch every day. If I can offer a bit of advice to my fellow Network Planners: looking and planning a bit further into the future can help keep spirits up and optimism flowing.

Sophie: Besides trying to bring regularity and predictability to your schedules, what else will SunExpress be working on this year?

Wilken: Sustainability continues to be a key priority here, so we’re working on our portfolio and continuing to try to improve non-stop flights. We’re investing in new, sustainable aircraft and new fuel-saving technology to help us optimise our schedule for sustainability.

Sophie: Part of your team is based in Turkey. Is it challenging to work with the different travel regulations in two different regions like that?

Wilken: It can be a challenge to balance the two sets of regulations. We’re a Turkish airline based in Turkey and Germany. Turkey isn’t part of the EU, and has a different strategy and approach to their regulations. But overall, it’s about keeping people safe. Sometimes, regulations change so quickly, we don’t have time to respond and scheduled flights get impacted. And because of the multitude of markets in which we operate, predicting demand and setting up and optimising flights can be a real guessing game. We have to be able to change quickly, which can really affect the motivation levels on the team. But we do the best we can.

Sophie: The next Network Planning Society event is coming up. Even though it will be online, is there anything we can do to help boost that positive feeling?

Wilken: There’s no doubt that there will be a lot of COVID talk at the event – obviously it’s the biggest thing in our industry right now. But maybe Schiphol can add some ‘Happy Place’ moments – content that isn’t focused on COVID and is just for fun and entertainment. The events are always a great moment to connect and enjoy the company of other Network Planners, so it would be great if we can inject some of that fun into the online event!

Sophie: SunExpress will celebrate its 20th year at Schiphol in 2021. What has your experience with Schiphol been like?

Wilken: That’s funny! We celebrated our 30th anniversary as an airline last year, which means that Schiphol has been part of SunExpress for two-thirds of our existence.

One thing that makes Schiphol really special is that, even though you’re one of the biggest airports in the world, you’ve never made us feel like a ‘small’ airline. There are much bigger carriers that operate at Schiphol, but you have always treated us equally. We get just as much attention and care as the bigger airlines, and we’re always in close contact with Wilco and Marcel, and the other team members we need to make our plans. You are so responsive to our needs and never make us feel less important than the big guys. I can tell you, not every airport is that way, so we are especially grateful for the relationships we’ve built at Schiphol.

Sophie: That’s so great to hear, Wilken. It’s what we always strive for. Every airline is important, and deserves our full attention and support, no matter their size. So, how can the Network Planning Society and Schiphol help you right now?

Wilken: Well, you guys are already doing everything you can. Your update newsletters and alerts about new COVID regulations are of course essential to our business. Sometimes, I know things change quickly for you too, but your speedy communication does make things easier. Recently, we were all caught a little off guard by a government regulation that required incoming passengers to the Netherlands to provide an antigen test taken within four hours before the flight. That came in rather suddenly, and we had to shuffle a lot. But I’m sure you did, too.

Sophie: What would you like to say to your Network Planning colleagues? Do you have any advice for them?

Wilken: Try to focus on the fact that all of this will come to an end. In fact, it will be over fairly soon. If you work on your recovery and long-term planning, you can keep your teams engaged and looking ahead towards life after COVID. I know it’s helped us a lot.

Sophie: And why should they join the Network Planning Society?

Wilken: Well, you know that slots are always going to be a hot topic, and the Network Planning Society helps keep planners informed about slot availability and other important news at Schiphol. But it’s also a great way to engage in nice, open discussions with other airlines. It’s a laid back and open environment where Network Planners can share their challenges and find great information. I really recommend it.

Sophie: Will we see you at the 2021 Network Planning Society event?

Wilken: Of course! Since Schiphol pays such great attention to us, it’s a pleasure to give that attention back. That’s how we’ve built such a strong and friendly relationship that benefits both of us. I look forward to the event this year, and hope it’s as much fun as it usually is, even if it is only online.

Want to hear from another Network Planner colleague?