Operations began in earnest at Istanbul's new airport on 6 April, following a series of delays and a "soft" opening in October last year.

An initial capacity of 90 million passengers makes it already one of the biggest airports in the world – and there are plans for that figure to more than double.

But while there will be relief and celebration that the airport has finally become fully operational, the economic and political situation in Turkey suggests it might be a bumpy ride towards achieving any mega-hub aims.

Turkey's economy entered recession at the turn of the year, and president Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling party did surprisingly poorly in a recent set of elections. The rhetoric around the new airport means it is firmly tied not just to Turkish Airlines' strength as a flag carrier but also to the fortunes of the country as a whole – and to those of Erdogan, who has marked his presidency with a series of high-profile infrastructure projects.

During its official opening on 29 October last year – a largely ceremonial affair that involved just a handful of flights transfer from Ataturk – the airport was adorned with the slogan: "This is not just an airport. This is a monument to victory."

Sharing his thoughts about the first flight from the new facility on 6 April, Turkish Airlines chairman Ilker Ayci used the same terminology, describing the new hub as "our new home, this monument of victory".

Given the importance of the new airport to the country and the amount of money spent so far, the scale of ambitions is unsurprising.


Even the logistical exercise needed to transfer operations from Ataturk – an ageing facility that was bursting at the seams – is impressive in terms of its sheer size.

During the 45h transition, which started at 00:00 on 5 April and ending at 21:00 on 6 April, Turkish Airlines and other carriers move their operations 25 miles (40km) across the city to the new greenfield facility.

"We are conducting the biggest transportation operation in the aviation history," said Ayci. "The combined size of the equipment we are starting to transfer would cover the 33 football pitches."

During what the flag carrier called "The Great Move", equipment weighing approximately 47,000t was carried to the new facility from Ataturk.

At the same time, the Ataturk-based fleet was conducting ferry flights to the new airport.

During the first two weeks of its full operation, Istanbul airport is operating with reduced air traffic control (ATC) and slot-allocation capacity, in order to "provide safe and efficient ATC services and to adapt [to the] airport layout [and] new airspace structure".

Ataturk is now closed to commercial flights but remains open for cargo, maintenance/technical operations, general aviation, air taxis, business flights, and state and diplomatic aircraft.


The replacement of Ataturk airport is squarely in line with the infrastructure projects that have been a marker of Erdogan's time in power. And this is certainly a big project.

The new airport's capacity could rise to 200 million by 2028, based on current plans – a figure that would likely make it the world's largest airport.

Most estimates put the total project cost at around $12 billion – and work so far has been funded by a consortium of Turkish banks.

During its first phase, a more modest capacity of 90 million still places the new airport among the world's biggest.

That new capacity is a welcome development for the country's flag carrier, which has long coveted a shiny new facility from which to fulfil its dream of rivalling the Gulf hubs of Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways.

Istanbul's advantageous geographical position – which puts it within easy reach of great swathes of Europe and Asia – is undeniable.

The opening of a symbol of Turkey's global ambitions, however, comes at a time of uncertainty for the country.

There are already reports that progress on some of Erdogan's infrastructure projects has slowed in recent months amid concern about the economy. While there are no immediate indications that the airport development is affected by this, achieving the required rounds of funding is unlikely to be as easy as envisaged when the project was first launched.


Erdogan had overseen years of strong growth for Turkey's emerging economy – much of it underpinned by significant borrowing, particularly via foreign debt – and this new airport was imagined before the going got tougher.

Then, signs of weakness in the Turkish economy began to grow around 2016.

A failed coup in the country that year contributed to a difficult period for travel demand, coming as it did amid a series of security incidents, including a terrorist attack at Ataturk airport.

It has taken time to recover from the significant slowing in air travel to and from Turkey that followed those events.

Security concerns have reduced since then, as Erdogan has tightened his grip on power, although his methods and increasingly populist rhetoric have stoked disquiet outside the country.

The outlook for Turkey is also increasingly gloomy in other areas.

Amid a global economic slowdown – particularly in key European markets – Turkey's exports have been hit and consumer confidence is low. Among many consequences, this is hardly a good omen for the significant growth in cargo operations planned for the new airport or for airlines looking to sell tickets.

At the same time, businesses have been grappling with an ever-weaker Turkish lira, alongside reduced availability of foreign credit.

Among a string of negative economic indicators, Turkey's GDP fell in the last two quarters of 2018, meaning that by most measures it has entered recession.

The country's unemployment rate meanwhile increased to 13.5% in December 2018, from 10.4% in the same month of the previous year.

Inflation stands at around 20%.

Compounding the situation, Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party appeared to lose in Ankara and Istanbul during recent elections, although in both cases it is disputing the Republican People's Party victory.

Thus the environment is hardly optimal for opening and seeking to expand a new mega-hub.


But state-owned Turkish Airlines appears undeterred and has reasons for optimism.

It posted full-year net income of $753 million for 2018, a strong improvement on the previous figure of $223 million. Operating profit increased nearly 50%, reaching $1.17 billion, while revenue was up 17% to $12.8 billion, including a 25% rise in cargo income.

The airline was able to achieve these figures amid a relatively low exposure to the Turkish lira. In common with many businesses in Turkey, it has ensured this is the case after years of dealing with the currency's weakness.

Earlier this year, Turkish Airlines set itself the target of generating more than $14 billion of revenues in 2019 on the back of transporting 80 million passengers – an increase of 5 million from 2018.

It has other reasons for believing the mega-hub aim is achievable.

Unlike the Gulf hubs, Turkey has a huge local population – a large proportion of which has yet to fully embrace flying.

Turkey also has a relatively young population versus its European neighbours, for example, meaning it can theoretically count on a high proportion of locals' being in employment.

The carrier's fleet plans reflect its ambitions.

In widebody terms, early last year it firmed deals covering orders for 25 Airbus A350-900s and another 25 Boeing 787-9s, to be delivered between 2019 and 2024.

Ayci said at the time: "Goodwill agreements turned into firm orders, which we consider to be a very important initiative to meet our need for widebody aircraft at Istanbul's new airport.”

Later in 2018, it outlined plans to take almost 100 new narrowbodies over a similar time period – a mix of Airbus A320neo and Boeing 737 Max jets (though its plans for the latter will be on hold as the type's grounding continues).

In terms of its mega-hub ambitions, Turkish Airlines can also point to the fact that the big Middle Eastern carriers are hardly having a good time of it. Etihad is mired in a difficult transformation amid swingeing losses; Qatar Airways' network is still stymied by a blockade in the region; and Emirates has been talking down the short-term outlook.

The key question now is how much the less-than-helpful forces currently dominating the Turkish economic and political landscape will stifle the new airport's potential.

Source: Cirium Dashboard