One of my favorite travel bloggers, Ben Schlappig, wrote in June 2021 about his perplexity over Turkmenistan Airlines’ purchase of the last-produced passenger 777-200LR after it made the long delivery trip from Lake Charles, Louisiana to Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan.
I shared his confusion. After all, why would an airline whose longest route is around one-third the range of a 777-200LR need such a long-range plane, especially since they already have two? The 777-200LR is expensive, and cheaper aircraft would ostensibly suit Turkmenistan Airlines better.
Figuring it out
Naturally, I wanted to fly Turkmenistan Airlines’ newest acquisition, ideally in business class. It’s an airline that has long fascinated me, due mostly to a lack of reviews, and I thought that they might have refreshed their outdated 2-3-2 business class layout on this brand-new aircraft.
When I went to Flightradar24 to look for routes it flies, I saw that the new plane, EZ-A780, has been flying to a series of destinations not serviced by Turkmenistan Airlines. Additionally, many of these flights don’t show an origin or destination, which happens periodically with ad-hoc cargo or repatriation flights. It also happens occasionally for military or government planes that don’t send ADS-B information (the current positioning technology used by ATCs and commercial flights around the world) and fly above civilian airspace, using what’s called Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) transponders.
My interest was piqued. One flight that caught my attention was a journey on January 5th of this year from near Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital, to Beijing (at the very bottom of the picture above). The plane returned the next day from Beijing to nearby Ashgabat. I’m a bit of a China buff, and I recalled that Beijing hosted a flurry of state visits earlier this year, including Turkmenistan’s new totalitarian leader, Serdar Berdimuhamedow, who I’ve been following ever since John Oliver’s hilarious coverage of the country’s former leader who recently stepped aside, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov. I dug deeper and news articles confirmed that a state visit to China by Serdar, the country’s current leader, occurred on January 5th-6th earlier this year.
I wanted to corroborate further my theory that this new 777-200LR was being used by government VIPs and saw that the plane had made a trip from Turkmenistan to Abu Dhabi on February 11, as well as a couple of sub-30-minute flights between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Sure enough, the country’s former leader (and the subject of the hysterical John Oliver bit) arrived the same day in the United Arab Emirates for a meeting with the UAE’s president.
I’d say that this clears up my confusion about Turkmenistan’s purchase of the last-produced 777-200LR, though it’s still not clear why they decided to replace their barely 10-year-old VIP-configured 777-200LR with a brand-new, expensive, and identical model. Thankfully, there’s a silver lining: even though I won’t be able to fly on this plane anytime soon, the current pace of presidential aircraft replacement means I’ll be able to step on board by 2030 when Gurbanguly and his son upgrade to the newest model.