Turkish leader attends signing of $2.8 billion plane contract

BERLIN (AP) – Turkey’s prime minister yesterday oversaw the signing of a contract for his country’s national carrier to buy 36 jets from European manufacturer Airbus for almost $3 billion – a deal in which Turkey balanced friendship with the United States with its effort to build links to Europe. The ceremony at the chancellery in Berlin was the centerpiece of PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s brief visit, during which he met with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac. Both back Turkey’s ambitions to join the EU, and leaders of the 25-nation bloc are to decide in December whether to open membership talks with Ankara. The three leaders, along with French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, smiled and applauded as Airbus Chief Executive Noel Forgeard and Turkish Airlines Chairman Candan Kerlitekin signed the contract. Turkish Airlines is buying five wide-bodied Airbus A330-200s, 12 Airbus A321-200s and 19 Airbus A320-200s in the deal, valued by the German government at about $2.8 billion. The Airbus order makes up the lion’s share of an expansion drive that Turkish Airlines announced in July, when Erdogan and Chirac attended the signing of a preliminary agreement in Paris. They will be joined by Schroeder as representatives of Airbus and Turkish Airlines sign the contract yesterday. Citing a strong increase in demand for seats, Turkish Airlines said it also would purchase 15 737-800 jets from Airbus’s US rival Boeing, and that the 51 new aircraft would be added to the current fleet of 65 planes between October 2005 and 2008. The last time the company expanded was in 1997. Turkey was forced to put new purchases on hold following a deep economic crisis in 2001. Turkish Airlines says it carried some 10.5 million passengers last year. It expects to carry 12 million by the end of this year and some 20 million after the new planes join its fleet.