Turkey to open new Istanbul airport but runways mostly empty

Plans to reroute national and international flights to the new venue on opening day were postponed.
Sunday 28/10/2018
An aerial view of Istanbul’s new airport. (AP)
Risky rush. An aerial view of Istanbul’s new airport. (AP)

ISTANBUL - As Turkey prepares for the grand opening of Istanbul’s new mega airport on October 29, delays mean the occasion will be something less than the triumphant demonstration of Turkish power President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been after.

Erdogan is to lead celebrations at the $25 billion airport on the Black Sea coast north of Istanbul during a formal opening planned to coincide with Turkey’s Republic Day. Two days later, there are to be very limited number of regular flights for what has been billed as the biggest airport in the world.

In its initial phase, to be completed by 2023, the airport will have a capacity of 90 million passengers. Once finished, before the end of the coming decade, the airport is designed to have six runways and will be big enough to service 150 million passengers a year, which would make it the busiest in the world. Some reports say the airport will be named for Erdogan.

Plans to reroute national and international flights to the new venue on opening day were postponed because the Istanbul Grand Airport (IGA), as the project is known, is not ready. Most flights will continue to be conducted via the chronically congested Ataturk Airport closer to the city centre at least for another two months. A smaller airport on Istanbul’s Asian side, Sabiha Gokcen, will also remain open.

“They couldn’t make it on time,” economist Mustafa Sonmez said. He said the Erdogan government placed great emphasis on the airport project but delays meant that the opening would not be the intended show of strength. “It could actually lead to a loss of prestige,” he said.

The new airport is one of several big infrastructure projects that the government hopes will showcase Turkey’s economic prowess and demonstrate the country’s self-confidence despite a financial crisis. Two new motorway bridges in and near Istanbul that are in operation and an artificial waterway running parallel to the Bosporus in Istanbul, which is scheduled to be built in the coming years, are other ventures.

“This airport is the most concrete expression of our country’s technological vision,” Erdogan said during a speech at the airport in September. The president’s plane was the first to land on the new runway during a campaign event two days before parliamentary and presidential elections in June. Pro-government media have praised the elegance of the architecture and the speed — three-and-a-half years — with which the giant airport was built on 7,600 hectares of land.

The government’s ambition comes at a price. Thousands of the 30,000 workers at the construction site staged protests in September, saying they were not getting paid and were working under life-threatening conditions. Following that first wave of unrest, workers at the construction site went on strike only days before the scheduled IGA opening, saying nothing had changed despite promises of improvements.

An opposition newspaper reported this year that up to 400 workers had died at the airport. Opposition politicians say the government has been tolerating “slave-like” conditions and hushing up deaths, charges that Ankara denies. Opposition media have reported that construction workers had to work 100 hours a week.

Still, the IGA will not be ready on time. Only weeks before the planned opening, airport CEO Kadri Samsunlu admitted that there would be delays. In a meeting with a small group of journalists from major Turkish newspapers, Samsunlu said that “we have postponed the big change-over from Ataturk Airport to December 31.” The opening on October 29 would be only a “partial” one, he said.

One reason is that road and subway connections between Istanbul and the airport, 40km north of Istanbul, have yet to be completed. Samsunlu confirmed reports about the collapse of a part of the taxiway at the airport during work on the subway.

From October 31 through December, the national flag carrier Turkish Airline will conduct a small number of domestic flights as well as flights to Azerbaijan and northern Cyprus from IGA, while thousands of other connections continue to use Ataturk Airport. “It’s a chaotic situation,” said Sonmez.

Some observers say the start of major operations should be delayed until spring. “How wise is it to move [to the airport] under snow, ice, heavy rain and the rough winds blowing from the Black Sea? To what degree is it appropriate for pilots to make a landing there for the first time?” Ugru Cebeci, a columnist for the Hurriyet Daily News newspaper wrote.

“I do not want to think about it but God forbid if there was an accident due to this rush, the third airport will have to live with a taint that it does not deserve,” Cebeci added, proposing an opening of operations in May instead.

Such a delay was unlikely to happen, said Sonmez. “This is a very symbolic project, especially for Erdogan himself,” he said. However, Sonmez also said December might turn out be too optimistic a date for the start of major operations.