Civil aviation experts concerned about Istanbul’s new airport

Istanbul’s third airport became fully operational in April, however discussions on the construction quality, location, design, and technical aspects of the airport continues, while some still question whether this mega-project should have ever been built in the first place.

Hamdi Topçu, the former board chairman of Turkish Airlines (THY), in a book published in April, told the story of the Turkish flag carrier under his management and also shared his thoughts about Istanbul’s new airport, one of the many mega-projects of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan opened after a grand inauguration ceremony in October.

According to Topçu, the Atatürk Airport, which is closed now, could have handled the increasing air traffic of Istanbul with some more cost-effective minor changes, but the former Minister of Transport and Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım objected that plan and supported the construction of the new $11-billion hub.

“I do not have data on the new airport’s contribution to the economy or the financial burden it comes with. I had some reservations about its location, but time will provide the answers to those questions,” Topçu said.

The Turkish carrier’s former top man said Turkey would discuss in the future the financial burden of the new airport, adding that he did not think that the five Turkish companies, with close ties to the Turkish government who won the contract to build and operate the airport, would be under risk.

“The main risk will be its consequences on the economy. From my perspective, on the other hand, the risk is the possibility that this will be a ‘hub with expensive services’. And this could limit chances in achieving the target of making it a ‘mega-hub’,” Topçu said.

In his book, Topçu also criticised the design of the airport for prioritising commercial spaces rather than the comfort of the passengers.

“The design of the airport, in a way, directs the passengers to shops as if its a shopping mall, rather than directing them to their planes in the fastest way possible,” Topçu said. “This could also decrease the airport’s international quality and competitiveness.”

Passengers walk by high-end shops at Istanbul's new airport.

“Another aspect [to consider] is the serious financial burden it places on the THY and other private carriers,” Topçu said, adding that airline companies had to invest a considerable amount to establish operational facilities, technical services, hangars, and to ensure accommodation for their staff.

Topçu said that there was also no data about the operational quality of the airport, such as taxiing durations, logistic structure of terminals, and the amount spent to take the passengers to aircrafts. “If such durations are not better than those of the Atatürk airport, then they may mean serious expenses especially for a hub. And this may lead to considerable drop in the competitive power of airline companies, especially THY,” he said.

Recent news reports on the new airport seem to confirm Topçu’s concerns. Bloomberg reported last month that Turkey’s budget Airline Pegasus, which operates from the Sabiha Gökçen Airport on the Asian part of Istanbul, has been benefiting the most from the opening of the new airport.

According to Bloomberg, Pegasus outperformed Turkish Airlines by more than 95 percentage points this year as passengers looking to avoid any inconvenience are now choosing Sabiha Gökçen.

In the first five months of the year, passenger traffic at Sabiha Gökçen rose 2 percent compared to the same period a year earlier, while the number of international passengers increased by 19 percent, Bloomberg reported based on data from the Turkish airport authority. Meanwhile, traffic at the now closed Atatürk airport and the Istanbul Airport dropped by 4 percent over the same period, with international passengers increasing by a mere 0.3 percent. 

Meanwhile, Cumhuriyet daily reported this month that moving its headquarters to Istanbul’s giant new airport increased Turkish Airlines’ rental costs by nearly 500 percent in the first quarter of 2019, to $25 million from $4.2 million a year earlier.

Yet, Topçu might have been a bit optimistic about the financial burden on the contractors of the airport pooled under the umbrella firm İstanbul Grand AirPort (İGA), which is building and operating Istanbul New Airport. One of the partners – Kolin Insaat –sold its 20 percent stake earlier this year. After borrowing of 5.7 billion euros ($6.4 billion), IGA has the highest corporate debt load in Turkey. Payments for the 25-year lease total 1.1 billion euros a year.

Turkish authorities decreased and postponed deadline for fees for operating Istanbul Airport last month, after reports emerged that IGA was looking to sell a stake. U.S. Investment bank Lazard was instructed to find buyers for shares in the asset, Bloomberg reported in late May.

Foreign airlines started flying to the airport in May, while some important civil aviation authorities, like the British UK-CAA, have not yet signed a contract with the new airport management, sources in Turkish civil aviation sector told Ahval. The officials of the British authority sent a delegation in February to inspect the new airport’s facilities like check-in counters, passport checkpoints, passenger lounges, and aprons.

An official at the Turkey’s Civil Aviation Trade Union said foreign civil aviation authorities usually waited at least a year to strike contracts with newly opened airports, after observing their performance both in winter and summer time.

Those authorities mainly focus on four criteria, the official said. “The first one is security and safety. The second one is the sufficiency of the equipment. The third is practicality and functionality. And the fourth is prices and profit margins,” he said.

Two Turkish Airlines airplanes came close to catching fire at Istanbul’s new airport as a result of uneven tarmac on taxiways in May.  Unnamed Turkish pilots told T24 news site that they had to use the brake system of the planes more than necessary because of uneven taxiways, which put additional pressure on the wheels. “We sometimes wait for 20 minutes for them (the brakes) to cool down before take-off,” one pilot told the news site.  

In May, a Turkish Airlines passenger plane travelling to Ankara hit a power pole at Istanbul airport during taxiing, while a series of flights were diverted to nearby Çorlu due to bad  weather conditions earlier in the month. A pilot with a 40-year expertise told Duvar news site that the new airport did not have meteorology radar and its approach systems were flawed.

The official from the union told Ahvaz that all those incidents raised suspicions about the airport’s safety. “From the perspective of practicality and functionality,  we are not in a good place considering taxiing durations, waiting durations, and delays,” he said.

According to pilot Bahadır Altan, another component measured by civil aviation authorities is the distance between runways and the amount of time spent while passing from one runway to another.

“They never share the results of their inspections,” Altan said. “If they have a positive opinion, they wait for a while and sign an agreement. Otherwise they just say ‘we will not work with you’.”

But Altan said the foreign authorities did not base their decisions solely on technical issues; politics also play a role and they may act according to the wishes of their own governments.

According to Altan, such authorities might also negotiate some terms like shortening taxiing durations before signing a deal.

According to a civil aviation expert, who wanted to remain anonymous, some foreign authorities asked from the airport management to make available cooling systems for wheels and brakes after their inspections.

The same expert said that both the government and the opposition should work together to address the shortcomings of the airport.

“Whether we like it or not, the airport is now built. If a plane crash happens there, it will hurt people who support the government or opposition parties alike. If the airport suffers losses, it will hurt the pockets of 82 million living in the country,” he said.


The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.