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INA pushes Istanbul on to world stage

Posted 5 December 2018 · Add Comment

The opening of one of the world’s largest airports brings a new competitor for the existing Gulf hubs. Alan Dron reports.

By the time these words are read, the passenger terminals at Istanbul Ataturk Airport should have closed their doors for the last time.
The once-thrumming concourses will be eerily quiet, the aprons empty of aircraft, and the homeowners of the nearby residential districts will be adjusting to the unaccustomed sound of silence.
If everything has gone according to plan, at around 2pm on October 31, a Turkish Airlines captain will have opened the throttles of his Ankara-bound aircraft and become the first pilot to fly a scheduled commercial service from Istanbul New Airport (INA).
On its opening, INA will instantly become one of the world’s busiest airports. With an initial two terminals and two runways (a third will open by the end of 2018) it will have a passenger capacity of 90 million annually. More importantly, it will have the space to double its runways to six and to more than double its passenger throughput to 200 million by 2030, if demand requires.
When its predecessor, Ataturk, opened its main terminal in 2000, nobody could have predicted it would need to be replaced so quickly.
Its short lifespan is due to several factors, but a major one has been the explosive growth of its main occupant, Turkish Airlines.
Some 63 million passengers used Ataturk in 2017 – well above its design capacity and, with the national carrier continuing to expand rapidly, the airport that contributed greatly to its growth is now constraining it. Turkish is aiming to carry 74 million passengers this year and is targeting 120 million by 2023 – an astonishing rate of growth.
“Unlike the current airport that is not capable of advancing the future growth of our company in the medium to long term with regard to slot restrictions, our new home will be one of the most important factors in reaching our targets,” said Turkish Airlines’ CEO, Bilal Ekşi.
There will be an immediate boost in moving from Ataturk’s two runways to INA’s three, he added. This will allow the airline both to add new routes to its network and to increase frequencies on existing ones.
The additional capacity will also help improve Turkish Airlines’ on-time performance, he added. This has become an increasing problem at Ataturk due to the growing congestion there.
A further factor in improving efficiency will be the greater number of airbridges used to board and disembark passengers. At INA, 80% of passengers will be able to emplane directly from the terminal through around 90 airbridges, rather than having to be bussed to remote stands.
“Turkish weren’t able to put peak arrivals on top of peak departures for the banks of flights they were trying to put together,” said Kata Cserep, vice-president of airports at international consultancy ICF. Whereas some countries have tried to increase airport capacity by expanding their existing airports, Turkey decided to go for a completely new site; this will set up Turkish Airlines for long-term growth, she added.
Much of ICF’s work involves behind-the-scenes ‘number-crunching’ and Turkish and the ‘Middle East 3’ of Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways “have grown spectacularly in the past 15 years”, noted Cserep. “By historic standards, it’s unprecedented growth.”
She added that her understanding was that expansions to INA’s basic 90 million passenger capacity would take place when ‘traffic triggers’ were reached: “For example, when the new airport reaches 80 million per year, they may start constructing the next phase to take it smoothly over the 90 million mark.”
However, despite the greater number of airbridges, some airlines – particularly low-cost carriers – will prefer to continue to operate from remote stands, as this entitles them to reduced airport fees, she said.
As for Ataturk, the fate of the old airport is currently uncertain. In the past, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has talked of the government building a large ‘people’s garden’ on the site. However, given its location close to densely populated Istanbul, Cserep thought it more likely the site would be redeveloped for residential or business purposes.
Although the ceremony formally opening INA was due to take place on October 29, the switchover of operations from Ataturk to INA was scheduled to begin at 3am on October 30 and end at 11.59pm on October 31.
Thousands of airport vehicles travelled by road to their new home, the climax of months of logistical training sessions covering more than 50,000 people and several increasingly large training scenarios over September and October that built up to using 5,000 volunteer ‘passengers’ and more than 1,000 airport staff to test INA’s new systems and procedures.
The last of these tests included putting 10,000 items of luggage through the 42km-long baggage handling system that will, at maximum capacity, be capable of handling 30,000 items an hour.
“The move to İstanbul New Airport will be the biggest ever airport transfer in the world,” INA’s CEO and general manager, Kadri Samsunlu, told the Turkish press in September. “There have been no airports transferred further than 45km in the world. At this point, we have finished the training of airlines, particularly Turkish Airlines, ground services and other stakeholders, all in order to ensure their orientation to the airport.”
During the switchover, more than 170 of Turkish Airlines’ 300-plus fleet were scheduled to transfer without passengers from Ataturk to INA and other airports. Aircraft that departed Ataturk before the switchover began were due to land back at INA on their return flights.
However, the first passenger aircraft to officially land on INA’s runways did so in June, when a Turkish Government Airbus A318 executive jet, carrying president Erdogan, touched down to the traditional water arch salute. The president disembarked, thanking airport workers for their efforts in readying the huge facility so quickly, and declaring that INA would be of benefit not only to the country but also to the world’s travelling public.
The airport’s operating company says that once all four phases of airport construction are completed and the facility is operating to its full potential, it will contribute 5% of the nation’s GDP.
Does this make INA a major competitor to the major Gulf hubs – Dubai International, Dubai World Central, Abu Dhabi International and Hamad International? “Without a doubt,” said Cserep. “If you speak to Turkish Airlines, they already consider themselves as part of a ‘Middle East 4’. They operate exactly that model and that vision of connecting the world over their hub.
“Their top market is western Europe; long-haul, it’s into Asia and Africa, and they are at least as well-located, if not better located [than the Gulf airports], for some of those larger flow markets.
“They do differ, in that they have a much higher proportion of short-haul aircraft than the Middle East 3. They have many more destinations in the Middle East and near East, including the very large Turkish domestic market. That’s a key differentiator to the Middle East 3.”
With more than 30 regional airports and a large, young, population of more than 80 million, aviation has been replacing long-distance buses as the preferred means of long-haul domestic travel over the past decade.
Supplying the airport with enough fuel for the huge number of flights it will handle has seen INA adopt the unusual solution of creating a dedicated marine terminal. Tankers will offload fuel at the terminal, from where it will be piped 12km to the airport. If this method had not been adopted, more than 300 fuel tankers would have to travel by road to INA every day.
Generally, Cserep added, the international travelling public were “quite indifferent” regarding which hub they used to connect for long-haul flights. They looked first and foremost at the price of tickets and the shortest total journey time. So Gulf airports enjoy no particular advantage, despite their high standard of facilities.
In Turkish Airlines, the Gulf carriers already have a formidable competitor. Now their hub airports have one, too.

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