As anyone who’s flown into or through either of Istanbul’s two international airports recently can testify, the city is no longer a marginal destination on the fringe of Europe. Rather, it’s grown into a major destination for both business travelers and tourists, and an increasingly important transit hub on the route to East Asia.
No surprise then that both the city’s airports, Ataturk and Sabiha Gokcen, are busy to the point of congestion. International airlines are already queuing for over-subscribed and in-demand slots before being able to commence flights.
While by no means the worst airport at which to arrive or change planes, Istanbul’s main Ataturk airport is most certainly one of the largest in Europe – and has begun to creak a little at the seams.
The 20 million passengers it was handling 15 years ago ballooned to 64 million last year, with an additional 31 million passing though Sabiha Gokcen, and further traffic growth is anticipated.
However, overcrowded waiting areas and long queues at check-in and passport control will soon be a thing of the past. The planned opening on October 29 of a major new international airport marks another modern milestone for this ancient crossroads. For the time being the enormous facility is simply called Istanbul Yeni Havalimani (“Istanbul New Airport”). Its strategy is to serve both the city’s fast-growing tourist traffic and also the anticipated growth in transit traffic.
Carved out of marshlands and derelict mine workings to the northwest of Istanbul, with a total area of nearly 30 square miles, the new airport promises to be the largest by area in Europe, and one of the biggest in the world (the only ones that surpass it are Denver International at 52 square miles, and King Fahd International in Saudi Arabia, which covers a whopping 300 square miles).
Once completed the new airport will boast six runways – five running north-south, and one east-west as a hedge against possible inclement weather. Plus there will be a seventh “emergency” runway, designed to handle problems that could otherwise block the operational runways and cause delays.
With an eventual capacity to handle 200 million passengers a year, flying to as many as 350 destinations, planning officials claim the new international airport will spell an end to the take off and landing delays that have been an all too frequent occurrence at Istanbul’s two existing airports.
The rationale for such an enormous facility is the ongoing change in the European aviation market, where the main growth area has been long-haul flights aimed at both tourism and business markets from northern Europe to the Far East. Turkish officials insist Istanbul is better positioned than existing hubs at Dubai and Doha to act as both refueling stop and transit for onward connections.
Full capacity will only be reached over the coming decade through staged expansion. The second phase of construction will proceed as demand increases.
Although not complete, the new Terminal Two and control tower are already impressive, and between them have won a slate of design awards. With its sculpted ceilings, the cavernous T2 interior is the work of UK-based Grimshaw Architects, and takes its inspiration from the domes of Istanbul’s ancient Byzantine churches and Ottoman mosques.
The uniquely styled control tower was designed around the theme of the tulip, the historic symbol of Istanbul. This was done through a partnership between Italian design studio Pininfarina and US engineering and construction giant Aecom.
Although much work still has to be completed by October, most of the terminal’s 600 escalators and moving walkways are already operational, along with many of the 77 boarding gates and 143 passenger boarding bridges. Sites for lounges, seating, cafés and shops are marked out and ready for occupation.
Once completed the terminal will boast no less than 500 check-in positions arranged around 13 islands and 228 passport control desks. This should ensure rapid passage through to the departure area. Departures will have 237,000 square feet of lounges, seating for 20,000, 345,000 square feet of food and beverage courts, and over a million square feet of retail space. Those planning longer visits have the option of a 450-bed hotel. Also under construction is 100,000 square feet of office space.
If the sheer scope of the facilities promises to be daunting, the designers have included a number of hi-tech solutions aimed at simplifying things. For example, passengers will be able to pre-order duty-free online, while flight monitors will allow passengers to pinpoint the location of their baggage in real time.
Similarly, a phone app will be available to track the location of vehicles parked in what will eventually be the world’s largest parking lot, which will be capable of holding 40,000 vehicles 18,000 indoors and 22,000 outdoors (the existing world record size for a parking lot is 20,000 in Edmonton, Canada). Valet and maintenance services will be available, along with refueling and charging facilities.
Reportedly the first-phase construction is 95 percent done, and the five-company consortium developing the airport is confident that it can be completed and open on time.
Officials say that by the planned opening day of Oct. 29, two of the six runways and one half of the terminal space will be operational, giving the airport an opening capacity of up to 90 million passengers a year. This will allow it to take over all of the traffic currently handled by Ataturk, which will stop scheduled passenger flights. Cargo flights will for the time being stay put at Ataturk.
Expansion of facilities is already scheduled with a third runway slated to be completed within 16 months of opening, and the three remaining operational runways and the emergency runway to be finished after a further 27 months.
All approach roads, drop-off points and parking are also scheduled to be operational, although access by public transport will be limited to service buses for the first year. An under-construction metro link (called the M11) from Istanbul’s central Gayrettepe metro station will have only nine stops, 24-hour service and make the journey end-to-end in around 25 minutes – less than half the time of metro journeys from central Istanbul to Ataturk.
More transport links are planned, with a proposal already in hand to extend the Marmaray metro line that links Istanbul’s European and Asian halves, allowing connections to the city’s second airport Sabiha Gokcen on the eastern side. Five major new roads will link the airport to regional motorways.
Preparations are also underway for development of a high-speed train link to run across the recently completed third Bosphorus bridge, called the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge. This will allow direct rail connections to the Turkish capital Ankara and other major cities in Anatolia.
With Ataturk airport slated to remain open only for cargo flights, all of its existing passenger operations will be moved to the new airport over a 48-hour period, with full operations to commence on opening day.
This 48-hour race, the culmination of two years of intensive planning, will involve the coordination of airport staff, airlines, the Turkish police, the military and Istanbul city authorities, as well as a flotilla of private moving companies in what promises to be the largest peacetime logistical operation that Turkey has ever seen.
Airlines operating at Ataturk will be moved one at a time, with each move scheduled to allow them to service flights departing from Ataturk one day, and to receive the returning flight at the new airport the following day. The national carrier, Turkish Airlines (THY), is to be the last to leave its historic base.
With so much effort having gone into planning it seems that the one thing the planners and politicians in Ankara have overlooked is the name of its new airport.
To date officials have declined to confirm rumors that it will be named in honor of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, saying only that the name won’t be announced until opening day. That could prove to be a wise decision given the political upheaval which continues to rock the country. Although President Erdogan is widely expected to hold onto power, surprises in Turkish politics are not unknown, and officials may wish to postpone ordering signage until dust settles a bit.