Will Turkey delay opening of Istanbul’s third airport again?

Aviation experts and members of parliament doubt Turkey will be able to open its third Istanbul airport by March, after authorities already delayed its full launch late last year, and some say the site is prone to frequent flooding.

An opposition party lawmaker has said several legal complaints over the construction of the new mega airport in Istanbul have gone unanswered.

When the new Istanbul Airport held its soft opening in November, concerns remained about workers’ conditions at the construction site and when it would fully open to air traffic. In recent days, heavy rains have left airport shuttles and buses under water, renewing questions over whether the project was rushed.

Uncertainty remains about when the full transfer of equipment from the city’s existing Atatürk International Airport will be completed. The project timeline was originally set for November, but the General Directorate of State Airports delayed that to March 3. Aviation experts say even that revised goal is also unlikely to be met.

“You saw the situation that happened due to rain,” said Haluk Pekşen, a deputy from the leftist main opposition Republican People’s People (CHP). “Who knows what problems lie ahead?”

The airport, set to handle 200 million passengers a year when its second phase is complete, is set north of Istanbul near the Black Sea and a large lake. Environmentalists have said that deforestation to build the airport and accompanying infrastructure, including the extension of a train line, will hurt air quality. The first phase of construction is expected to deliver an airport with capacity of 90 million travellers a year.

The project is one of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s mega projects. It is touted to become the largest airport in the world.

Pekşen said the foundations of the airport were another problem.

“That land was previously coal deposits. The site was not filled with the correct materials … Now, as construction is continuing, there were some collapses in the ground. New in-fill materials were brought in.”

The point was, he said, the airport had witnessed several fundamental issues while service for a few routes has slowly begun at the airport. He believes the full debut of the airport will be delayed up to another two years.

Another CHP member of parliament, Aykut Erdoğdu, said the airport ought to have been built at least 90 metres above sea level for air traffic safety reasons. “When it’s 90 metres, surrounding buildings can be built 30 metres,” he said. “You wouldn’t need to shorten the height of hills and roads … After the bid was made, the airport was lowered to 60 metres above sea level.”

Retired pilot Bahadir Altan said the lack of elevation was the reason for the floods.

“The joke is this: the ‘air’ left and only the ‘port’ remained,” he quipped. “Those who opposed the project said building this wasn’t possible. Ploughing that much earth into that project site isn’t possible in practical terms … If you don’t consider the consequences from the environment, this is the result.”

He said that due to the low level of the airport, pilots may have trouble during landing in the event of fog.

One employee at Turkish Airlines, speaking anonymously, said that cargo services would remain at Atatürk Airport for a long while.

“They did not give us a date as to when these services will be moved to the new airport,” they said.