In the barren landscape of the district of Arnavutköy (40 kilometres from downtown Istanbul) there bulks an enormous future terminal where thousands of labourers and hundreds of machines are working frantically to have all the infrastructure ready for its inauguration, scheduled for Turkey’s Republic Day of October 29. This third airport for Turkey’s biggest city, which from its very start will be classified as one of the busiest airports on the planet thanks to its capacity to service 90 million passengers annually, is vital for the growth ambitions of Turkish Airlines, the flag carrier which in less than two decades has become one of the biggest companies in the sector.
In 2003 when the Islamist Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power, nobody had been expecting this destiny for the then nationalized THY airline. Choked by economic recession and the plunge in air traffic due to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Iraq war, the company had been rescued by the government only two years previously.
But the Turkish aviation market was developing at full speed, driven by the tourist boom and economic recovery. The traffic at Mustafa Kemal Atatürk Airport on the European side of the city passed from 25 to 60 million passengers. In 2011 Sabiha Gökçen Airport (founded in 2001 on the Asian side to cater to the growing low-cost market) projected 25 million passengers in 2023. It reached this target only four years later and closed last year with over 31 million.
But that’s not just local tourism. Turkey’s geographical position permits direct flights to practically the entire planet, a characteristic shared with Gulf countries. And it’s a trend which will continue.
“With the growth of China and India in recent decades, aviation’s centre of gravity is shifting east,” maintains Turkish Transport Minister Ahmet Arslan. “Turkey’s geographic situation is perfect for taking advantage of it, both as a destination and for transit passengers.”
And like its Gulf counterparts, Turkish has constructed a network which permits passengers to reach almost any city with a single stop in Istanbul. And towards that end it has been helped by Erdogan’s international ambitions. In the last two decades Turkish diplomacy has set out to explore the world, including previously virgin territory such as Latin America and Africa. And the very first thing the Turkish president does on landing is to offer to open a consulate or embassy and to establish a Turkish Airlines flight to his native city.
In 2012 THY became the first international airline to land in Mogadishu after 20 years of civil war in Somalia. Just five years have sufficed to increase African destinations fivefold and fly to over 50 cities.
In Latin America, to which it only started flying a decade ago, Turkish have opened eight routes, the latest being Caracas (via Havana) following several visits to Erdogan by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Some of the routes lose money (and in fact international airlines are generally abandoning Venezuela because of the inability to obtain fuel) but Turkish Airlines marketing director Ahmet Olmustur justifies them: “We have to look at the profitability of the system in general instead of just one route.”
This unprecedented expansion has prompted Turkish to multiply its fleet fivefold (to 329 aircraft), its freight tenfold (to 1.12 million tons annually), its number of destinations threefold (to 302) and the number of passengers sevenfold – to 68.6 million. However last year’s net profits of US$ 223 million look modest for a company invoicing US$ 11 billion.
Furthermore, it has launched a high-powered promotion and marketing campaign (which cost a staggering US$ 1.1 billion last year) which scales down the airline’s Turkish identity and promotes events like European basketball, the film “Batman vs. Superman” and sports starts like Lionel Mssi, Kobe Bryant and Caroline Wozniacki.
But in contrast to Dubai, Doha or Abu Dhabi, Atatürk Airport has no open desert spaces inviting expansion. Squeezed between millions of houses and the Sea of Marmara, reaching 60 million passengers was already a dream “which seemed impossible,” in Arslan’s words.
With the new airport, the sky’s the limit. And for Erdogan’s government, not even the decline in Western tourism which Turkey has undergone in recent years has cooled the optimism.
“Why not think that the new airport will have 200 million passengers? It’s only a matter of a few years,” maintains minister Arslan.
Deregulating with success
In 1996 10.8 million passengers flew within Turkey but only a decade later that figure had more than doubled to 28.7 million. And 10 years later (in2016) domestic flights reached nine digits with 100 million passengers despite an attempted coup that midsummer.
Economic development (with Turks more in a hurry and moving by air) and the increase in the number of domestic airports (from 26 to 55) have contributed to this growth at local level. But the key factor behind this expansion has been the rise of low-cost airlines such as Pegasus ((owned by the Sabanci family, one of the richest in the country), Corendon and Onur Air, which specialize in transporting passengers between Istanbul and the tourist resorts on Turkey’s south Mediterranean coast. A market which Turkish Airlines also taps via its subsidiary SunExpress (50/50 with Lufthansa).