Istanbul’s new airport aims to be one of world’s largest

CNN  — 

It’s ambitious, award-winning and already hit with controversies. Istanbul’s new airport is officially fully functioning, following last October’s inauguration.

The swanky new airport aims to establish itself as a major travel hub and a key player on the world aviation stage, thanks to Turkey’s East-meets-West location.

Once completed, the airport will be pretty huge – the total project area is 76.5 million square meters. It’s supposed to have the world’s largest terminal under one roof, although it’s opening in phases and only limited flights will take off at first.

But the PR team says the airport is “built to grow” and they hope the airport will see 200,000 or more passengers passing through daily.

Controversial project

The tulip-shaped control tower.

The airport’s tulip-shaped control tower and striking design won first prize in the “Future projects – Infrastructure” category at the 2016 World Architectural Festival in Berlin.

Istanbul New Airport calls itself a “green” airport, thanks to its recycling capabilities and rainwater utilization capacity. However, some environmental groups have hit back – arguing the airport construction has caused mass deforestation.

There have also been accusations of poor working conditions and workers dying on site. Turkey’s Ministry of Labor has blamed “health problems and traffic accidents” for 27 worker fatalities on site, according to reports.

The total cost of the project is roughly $12 billion.

New aviation center

The design won first prize in the "Future projects -- Infrastructure" category at the 2016 World Architectural Festival in Berlin.

Ataturk International Airport has technically ceased operations and Istanbul New Airport is now the city’s aviation center.

There has also been widespread construction to connect the airport to the rest of the city – via metro, road and high-speed train.

The team hope the airport will become one of the world’s busiest within the next few years – igniting the Turkish economy and generating jobs – but time will tell whether the new project has a smooth takeoff or gets grounded in further delays.

The significance of Istanbul New Airport

The team hopes the airport will become one of the world's busiest within the next few years.

CNN Travel asked three European aviation experts to weigh in on how Istanbul’s new airport might impact the transport world.

‘The project is unprecedented’

“From an airport planning perspective, the project is unprecedented, both in terms of its size (the eventual plan is for the airport to accommodate 200 million passengers, which is nearly double the size of the current largest airport in the world, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport) and, in particular, the speed with which the project was attempted.

To complete an airport project of this size in just three and a half years was extremely challenging, not least in terms of ensuring timely operational readiness of all related facilities, systems, procedures and equipment needed to run the airport (Berlin’s Brandenburg Airport provides a stark example of what can go wrong with a new airport project like this).

Politically, it is important for Turkey, President Erdogan, and his party, opening on the 95th anniversary of the foundation of the Turkish Republic. Building a new airport is inevitably a vastly expensive undertaking (reportedly around $12 billion), and there have been concerns around the coincidence of this with a general downturn in the Turkish economy. There have also been ethical concerns raised about labor practices involving the thousands of workers needed to the complete the project on time.

While there will likely be challenges ahead, there are several factors acting in the airports favor, including the relatively strong existing domestic air transport market in Turkey (which rivals in the Middle East generally do not have to the same extent), and the fact that the airport is less likely to face the same degree of potentially constraining environmental legislation, which is generally the case for large airports in Western Europe.

Regardless, the airport will certainly have an impact (one way or another) for air transport both within the region and globally.” –

Dr Thomas Budd, Lecturer in Airport Planning and Management, Centre for Air Transport Management, Cranfield University, UK

‘Aviation demand in Turkey is growing rapidly’

Planes on the tarmac at Istanbul Airport on October 29, ahead of the inauguration.

“The new airport is taking over from Istanbul Atatürk Airport, which is already in the world’s top 20 busiest airports. So effectively it’s the same situation as if Atatürk (which is a congested airport with sometimes significant delays) was expanded. It’s quite unusual to see a large airport expansion in Europe but much more in line with recent significant capacity expansions in the Middle East and Asia.

Projected growth rates in aviation demand between Europe and and the Middle East/Asia are very high (for example Boeing projects demand in 20 years’ time between Europe and the Middle East to be 2.6 times what it is at present in terms of passenger-km, and 3 times for trips from Europe to China). So the new airport is trying to act as a hub for some of that traffic as well as serving increases in demand to and from Turkey (the Turkish aviation system has grown rapidly in recent years). In doing so it’s competing with other large hub airports in the Middle East and Europe for long-distance passengers.

In the short term the main impact will be smaller delays for passengers traveling to, from and via Istanbul and greater flexibility for airlines using the airport, which may in turn mean some increases in overall passenger demand. Longer term, the outcome is more difficult to predict. But capacity expansion is typically constrained in European airports and much less so for Middle Eastern airports, so we might see some European airport transfer passenger traffic switch to Istanbul.

As to whether the airport will become one of the world’s busiest: given that it is taking over all of the traffic from an existing airport that is already one of the world’s busiest, this seems very likely. Aviation demand in Turkey is growing rapidly and long-distance passenger demand which could use Istanbul as a transfer airport is also growing rapidly. So I would be very surprised if it was not (barring war, civil unrest, etc.).”

Dr Lynnette Dray, Senior Research Associate, Bartlett School Env, Energy & Resources, Faculty of the Built Environment, University College, London

‘It will directly compete with the current hub airports in the Middle East’

The terminal of the new Istanbul Airport, with a banner featuring Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“I think that the primary thought behind the new airport is that it will directly compete with the current hub airports in the Middle East such as in Doha and Dubai. I think it’s got a very, very good chance of taking market share off them when it comes to single-stop itineraries that go from Asia to Europe and Europe to Asia. But also I think Istanbul is generally better situated. It can also act as a hub to some parts of Africa and indeed the current airport that’s there, Atatürk, already does.

So direct flight is increasingly popular and of course a hub airport would have to compete with long-distance direct flights. So I think that might be an issue. And also the fact that this airport’s being relocated about 50 kilometers north of the city or north of the current airport means that, I would suspect, there might be a slightly subdued demand for flights to and from Istanbul itself. And also there might be competition from the other airport in Istanbul, Sabiha Gokcen, which is going to end up being slightly closer to the population centers.

I can’t see it struggling for passengers, given that the current airport that it’s replacing has something like 63 million a year and I’d imagine most of those will transfer to the new airport. So that’s already a substantial number of passengers that it’s kind of inheriting off the back of the reputation of the previous airport. I would imagine that – should they operationally run smoothly, so in other words should they have low connecting time, should they implement decent transport connections to the center of Istanbul – then I can’t see why they couldn’t hit some of their targets pretty quickly.”

Dr Khan Doyme, Research Associate, Bartlett School Env, Energy & Resources, Faculty of the Built Environment, University College, London