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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

Turkey's massive new Istanbul airport faces a rough take-off

Frenzied completion, a faltering economy and regional competition all pose problems for showpiece project

Workers walk in front of the control tower at Istanbul's new airport on October 6, 2018, weeks before its official opening. Getty Images
Workers walk in front of the control tower at Istanbul's new airport on October 6, 2018, weeks before its official opening. Getty Images

One day, perhaps a few months or even a couple years from now, Istanbul’s new 1.47 million-square-metre airport, billed as the world’s largest, will smoothly facilitate the travel of 200,000 or more passengers each day.

They will browse the sprawling duty-free shops as they await their flights, or head home or to hotels in the city on a sleek new 37-kilometre rail line built just to service the airport’s passengers and employees.

But until that day arrives, the new airport is causing headaches for the Turkish government, which is facing a severe economic crisis, as well as labourers, businesses and airlines forced to adapt to a project that is as much a major infrastructure upgrade as a symbol of the leadership and accomplishments of the country’s long-serving leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech after the first landing of his plane at Istanbul's new airport on June 21, 2018. AFP
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech after the first landing of his plane at Istanbul's new airport on June 21, 2018. AFP

“This airport is meant to show what the Republic of Turkey has achieved during the era of Erdogan, and represents the boldness and grandiosity of that vision,” said Heghnar Watenpaugh, a University of California scholar who researches the intersection of architecture and political power. “But everything we’re hearing about the economic downturn, the labour issues, shows how these grand projects are vulnerable to political and geopolitical issues.”

The new airport, estimated to cost $12 billion (Dh44bn), will be massive. The first phase will have a capacity of 90 million passengers a year, with further stages expanding the airport even further. It is planned to eventually accommodate 200 million passengers a year — nearly double Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport, currently the world leader — with 143 boarding bridges, a 42km baggage-handling system and parking for 25,000 vehicles.

The airport is also loaded with symbolism. It will replace the Turkish commercial and cultural capital’s main airport, which is named after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey. The transit hall is shaped like the Bosphorus Strait, and the control tower, like a tulip, a symbol of both Islam and Istanbul. The ribbon-cutting is scheduled for October 29, the 95th anniversary of the Turkish Republic.

The airport has not yet been named, but a front-runner is Abdul Hamid II, the Ottoman-era sultan revered as a forefather by Turkish political Islamists.

From a business perspective, the airport is aimed at helping Turkey edge out both the UAE and Qatar as Eurasian transit hubs, promote the flagship Turkish Airlines as a global aviation leader and help spread Turkish brands and services throughout the world.

“If you look at what the UAE is trying to do or what Qatar is trying to do, their major competitor is Turkey,” said James Dorsey, a Middle East specialist and senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University.

“If you subtract cash on hand from the equation, Turkey would win hands down.”

But several clouds have darkened Turkey’s grand vision. Mounting labour troubles at the airport site exploded last month, shining a harsh light on the treatment of tens of thousands of workers rushing to finish the airport. Protests broke out over a lack of shuttle buses meant to transport workers amid a torrential downpour but quickly escalated to include general working conditions, the quality of food served at the dormitories, and delayed wage payments by subcontractors. Dozens of employees have died at the site.

A protest in support of workers at Istanbul's new airport on September 15, 2018. AFP
A protest in support of workers at Istanbul's new airport on September 15, 2018. AFP

The labour action was squelched, with hundreds of workers arrested and dozens still in jail, but public sympathy lay with the workers.

“They intimidated the workers but they cannot prevent the crisis,” said a commentary in the leftist-nationalist newspaper Sozcu.

Labour rights leaders say the airport perfectly encapsulates what they call the convoluted development trajectory of Turkey under the AKP: more and more high-rises, bridges, malls, stadiums and mosques, fewer and fewer rights and advancement for those building them.

“The AKP has been ruling the country for 16 years,” said Arzu Cerkezoglu, secretary general of the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions in Turkey. “In that time, labour rights have gotten worse and worse by the day. Working hours are getting longer, salaries are getting worse, and accidents are increasing.”

Both Ataturk and Istanbul’s second airport, Sabiha Gokcen, are stretched to capacity. Transport officials say many international carriers have lobbied to fly to Istanbul, but there was no capacity to accommodate them.

But that may have been when Turkey’s economy was on the upswing. Many of the presumptions about the country’s short-term and medium-term future have been thrown into doubt by the recent financial crisis, with the Turkish lira dropping more than 40 per cent against the dollar this year. Many businesspeople are bracing for a slowdown, and that could affect the success of the airport.

“It’s very grand; it’s very expensive,” said Ms Watenpaugh. “But if the economy is as bad as people say, the whole economic basis is under question.”

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Turks say the airport will be able to make up for domestic shortcomings by serving as a transit hub, and change the rules of the aviation business across the Eurasian land mass. The Centre for Aviation said in a recent report that “the opening of the airport and its completion, in double-quick time, opens the door to much greater competition throughout the West Asia, Eastern Europe and Middle East regions”.

But it will face stiff competition from European hubs such as Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Paris, as well as Dubai and Abu Dhabi, which could merge their Emirates and Etihad airlines and increase capacity through the Dubai World Central Airport near the two emirates’ border.

“Depending on how Etihad restructures out of Abu Dhabi, the new Istanbul airport may compete there head to head, even with Doha, given the strangulation of Qatar,” said Saj Ahmad, chief analyst at StrategicAero Research. “However, it will not displace Dubai International or, later next decade, Dubai World Central either.”

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Still, Turkey has advantages that could help it get over some of the hurdles. Western European hubs are constrained by environmental regulations that hamper their growth, while few countries in the Middle East have the robust domestic air travel habits of Turkey.

“For the Middle East, there are problems with stagnant passenger numbers, excessive competition, military use of airspace and other issues,” said David Bentley, an airline industry analyst at the Centre for Aviation. “Turkey also has an advantage over these places in that it has a large domestic air travel market of its own, unlike the Gulf countries.”

One cause of the many stresses the airport is creating is the breakneck speed at which Turkey is trying to complete the project. The rush to open the facility before month’s end — before the rail and transport links are completed — has been criticised as unrealistic. Moving some aircraft and infrastructure piecemeal across highways from Ataturk to the new airport is a gargantuan feat in itself, to be filmed by National Geographic as part of a documentary.

Already there are reports that Ataturk will continue to operate perhaps for months into the new year as the new airport is tested, fine-tuned and prepped for service. A token flight will depart for Ankara on October 31, two days after the opening, Turkish Airlines announced last week. Limited daily flights will commence in November to Baku, Northern Cyprus, Ankara, Antalya and Izmir until the end of the year, when the entire operation at Ataturk is to be moved.

“The airport is a good idea, and it will eventually work out,” said one western diplomat in Turkey. “Why the mad pace and deadline? That’s what’s causing all the problems.”

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