Published in May 2015 issue

At Istanbul Ataturk, excavators work day and night to make space for a new apron with 24 additional parking stands. The Turkish capital airport is in desperate need for places to park airplanes after they land and before they take off again. The existing 128 parking positions, 38 connected to the terminals through boarding bridges, will soon be insufficient for an airport growing in passenger traffic at a pace of 10-15% per year.

By Matteo Legnani

When the existing international terminal opened, back in January 2000, it had been built to accommodate 20 million passengers per year. And, with IST recording less than 10 million travelers the previous year, the new building seemed more than adequate to cope with future growth. What DHMI (Devlet Hava Meydanlari isletmesi—the State General Directorate of Airports Authority) had not foreseen, at the end of the Nineties, was the imminent boom of resident-carrier Turkish Airlines (TK).

Traditionally known for its poor service, frequent delays and old aircraft, the Turkish flag carrier was, at the dawn of the new millennium, on the verge of transforming itself into one of the leading airlines of the world, directly competing with the much-celebrated Gulf carriers in terms of fleet, worldwide network, connecting passengers and onboard service. In 2004, TK had a fleet of 73 aircraft serving a total of 102 destinations. 10 years later, in November 2014, it had become a monster airline, operating 266 airplanes over a network of 258 destinations, 220 of which were outside Turkey. The numbers recorded by Ataturk in the last decade reflect those of Turkish Airlines. In 2004, the airport registered 15,600,601 passengers, with a growth of 29% over the previous year, beginning a rush that has not stopped since. Five years later, in 2009, the figures had doubled, with almost 30 million travelers. In 2013, IST set a new record, registering 51,2 million passengers (13.8% over 2012), ranking 18th in the world and 5th in Europe—just behind Amsterdam Schiphol. At the end 2014, however, with over 55 million passengers, Schiphol has been surpassed, putting the Turkish capital airport just behind London (LHR), Paris (CDG) and Frankfurt (FRA) among the European hubs.


With an average of approximately 1,400 daily movements through 2013, all the infrastructures (runways, apron and terminals) are working well beyond their maximum capacity. This situation had not been foreseen when the airport was inaugurated 60 years before, on August 7, 1953, on a plateau in the suburb of Yesilköy, 16 miles (24 km) southwest of the city center. The location, where the Westinghouse International Company and the IG White Engineering Corporation had been working for four years, starting in 1949, allowed little space for expansion because of the lay of the land. Things were made worse by Istanbul’s overwhelming growth during the 1960s and 1970s; the city (today the largest in Europe, with around 17 million inhabitants) surrounded the airport on three sides, the fourth being the Mediterranean coastline. The initial aerodrome consisted of a 10,000 square foot terminal building with a single 8,456 feet long runway oriented 06/24 (now 05/23).

At the end of the Sixties, with wide-body aircraft appearing on the horizon of commercial aviation, DHMI decided to build a second 9,843 feet long runway. Completed in 1972, its 18/36 (now 17/35) orientation allowed independent operations, with landings generally on Runway 06 (now 05) and takeoffs from 18 (now 17). The north-south runway was duplicated at the end of the 1970s, the two assuming their current designations of 17L/35R and 17R/35L. The third runway was part of a master plan developed from 1971.

The project, by architect Hayati Tabanlioglu, included Turkish Airlines maintenance hangars, a cargo center, a new ATC tower, aircraft fuel facilities and, most of all, a new 678,150 square foot terminal. The latter opened its doors in October, 1983, and was situated in the “V” shaped area enclosed by the runways. Still known as Yesilkoy, the almost-entirely-new airport was dedicated, in 1985, to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey.

At the end of the Nineties, DHMI’s decision to build a new international terminal came together with the privatization of the airport. The consortium formed by the Tepe and Akfen Groups and Vienna Airport (hence the acronym “TAV”) won the tender by promising to start airport operations within three years, 8 months and 20 days, and by investing a total of $390 million for a 20 million ppa-terminal and a 7,076-vehicle, multi-story car park (one of the largest in Europe). Today the TAV conglomerate also manages Turkey’s Ankara Esenboğa (ESB), Izmir Adnan Menderes (ADB) and Gazipasa–Alanya (GZP); Georgia’s Tbilisi (TBS) and Batumi (BUS); Tunisia’s Monastir (MIR) and Enfidha–Hammamet (NBE); Macedonia’s Skopje (SKP) and Ohrid (OHD); Saudi Arabia’s Madinah (MED); and Croatia’s Zagreb (ZAG) airport.

DHMI handed the area over to TAV in February 1998, and, less than two years later, in January 2000, the new terminal started operations. The initial agreement was for a period of five years, but, in 2001, TAV negotiated an amendment to extend it in return for an extension to the international terminal. The $91million (€72 million) project, that included a 30% increase of floor surface with three new boarding bridges, was concluded in May 2004, giving the terminal an annual capacity of 25.5 million passengers per year, while the concession agreement was extended for another 15.5 years for an amount of US $4 billion. In December 2002, the M1 underground line station was inaugurated in the basement of the international terminal, enabling a 40-minute journey to the city center, situated 15 miles (24km) to the northeast.

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Today, IST features a 3.7 million square foot terminal area, handling approximately 1,400 flights and 140,000 passengers plus 107,000 pieces of luggage per day. The large copper-roofed domestic building sports 96 check-in counters, 12 boarding bridges plus nine bus gates on the departures floor, and five baggage carousels on arrivals, while the three million square foot international building has a total of 224 check-in counters divided into seven “islands,” 100 passport control counters and 110 security gates, plus 26 boarding bridges and 17 bus gates on departures level, with 11 carousels on arrivals.

The 2000-vintage international terminal has been judged by the Turkish Chamber of Civil Engineers to be, “One of the Fifty Architectural Wonders of Turkey.” It has also gained numerous accolades; the most recent being named “2013 Airport of the Year” at the Air Transport News Awards ceremony and “Europe’s Best Airport” in the 40-50 million ppa category at the 2013 Skytrax World Airports Awards.

Passengers and their luggage are screened by x-ray machines at the entrance before proceeding to the impressive checkin area, with its high-vaulted, steel-glass roof. Two different passport and security control areas divide the departing passengers in two streams, avoiding long queues even at peak times. Thereafter, travelers find themselves in a massive shopping mall, with its 28 stores and three different duty-free areas offering a total of over 100 brands and 50,000 products. A shop in its own class is the Old Bazaar, built to resemble a souk and offering traditional Turkish products (wines, cheese, sweets, and hand-crafted goods). TAV estimates that a total of 482 tons of lokum (traditional jelly sweets) are sold at the airport stores each month.

Dining opportunities include the ever-present fast foods chains situated in a food court. It also features restaurants like The Greenport and Kitchenette, offering international cuisine, plus the English-style pub, Efes Beerport, where visitors enjoy salads, sandwiches and Efes, the renowned Turkish beer. The Simit Sarayi kiosks offer traditional Turkish pastries and desserts.

On the arrivals (ground) floor, the eating opportunities are limited, but compulsive shoppers will find three more dutyfree stores. Leaving behind the chaos of the shopping area, passengers finally reach the relative quiet of the boarding concourse, which is probably the most beautiful part of the terminal, with its ample seating and the enormous windows that let in plenty of natural light and offer exceptional views of the ramp action.

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Justifying the awards won through the years, IST provides a wide variety of treats for its highprofile travelers: a total of nine lounges are available for premium passengers. Situated on two floors, the Turkish Airlines CIP Lounge is the largest. Refurbished at the beginning of 2014, it offers a wide variety of food and beverages, shower rooms, computers and printers, conference rooms, a library, a massage room, a mosque, a playroom for children, billiards and a golf simulator. Skyteam carriers and Emirates have their own VIP rooms in the eastern part of the boarding concourse, where their aircraft usually dock.

The Millennium Lounge is open to the First and Business Class travelers of a number of airlines, including Qatar Airways, Lufthansa, Iberia, Royal Jordanian, Iran Air, Air Algérie and Royal Air Maroc. Other lounges, like the Akbank Wings, TTnet Platin, Comfort and HSBC are reserved for VIP clients. Last, the Primeclass Lounge is used by British Airways passengers and by those who acquire the Primeclass CIP service—for $153 (€124) on departure, or $142 (€114) on arrival. This service guarantees being greeted by a hostess and a porter at the international terminal departures (or arrivals) floor, an exclusive security check point, check-in transactions (or baggage retrieval), fast-track passport control, assistance and a privileged payment point at the duty-free, and transportation to the flight gate (or from the flight gate to the passport controls counters) in special terminal vehicles.

During the last ten years, IST has become one of the largest connecting airports in Europe, with 25% of travelers continuing their journey beyond the Turkish city. After landing, some spend less than an hour at Ataturk before boarding another plane, while others have to wait for hours or spend the entire night on the ground. After dinner, it is common to see single passengers or even entire families asleep on the gate seats or even on the floor while waiting for their morning-after flight. Many (more fortunate) others prefer to take a nap or spend the night at the TAV Airport Hotel, located right inside the international terminal building. This 128-room, four-star facility has two different entrances: passengers who only need a room for a few hours can access it directly through the entrance situated in the boarding area of the terminal; those staying for the night have to clear customs, exit the terminal and reach the main entrance of the hotel by means of a complimentary shuttle bus. Fares start from $128 (€112) for a three-hour, single stay and from $208 (€182) for a night in a standard room.

The aviation enthusiast transiting through IST cannot miss a drink at the bar or a meal at the restaurant of the hotel, located at ground floor, only a glass pane separates the patrons from the apron, granting a privileged view of the action on the ramp.


For decades, Turkey was a country that people left (mainly for Germany) in search of an occupation and a better life. However, more recently, the country boasts one of the fastest developing economies of the world, with a Gross National Product having grown from $196 billion in 2001 to $820 billion in 2013, thus attracting migrants from Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the former USSR provinces.

Not surprisingly, almost half the carriers (28 of 64) that currently serve IST year-round come from these areas.

Long-range operators include Air Canada, Asiana Airlines, Korean Air, Malaysia Airlines, and Singapore Airlines. In the summer of 2014, Delta Airlines had a Boeing 767-300 daily service to New York (JFK)—a service that still has to be confirmed for 2015)— while United Airlines codeshares with Star Alliance companion Turkish Airlines on all the local carrier’s services to the US, including JFK, Boston, Washington, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco (starting April 2015). With approximately 70% of the total traffic, the Turkish flag carrier is absolutely the dominant carrier at IST, from where it flies to 220 international plus 38 domestic destinations. Between the end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015, it added Bamako, Conakry and San Francisco. New routes expected to be operational within 2016 include Bogotá, Caracas, Havana, Mexico City, and Manila.

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To cope with the overwhelming growth in traffic volume, DHMI and TAV are working tirelessly. In February 2010, Runway 05/23 was closed for four months to allow its complete resurfacing and the construction of two more taxiway exits (for a total of five) enabling landing aircraft to clear the runway more quickly and allowing a 10% increase in hourly movements, from 40 to 45.

Moreover, the ILS category was raised to CAT III. A plan to build a second runway parallel to 05/23 has often been discussed; however DHMI eventually chose to use the area to build a new apron, inaugurated on November 13, 2014, with 26 additional aircraft parking stands. The work still in progress between the terminal area and the same runway will add 24 more parking stands, for a total of 152 to be ready within the first half of 2015. On November 17, 2014, TAV, for its own part, announced a new agreement with DHMI to expand the terminal area by 290,635 square feet, adding eight more boarding bridges, using the space on the eastern side of the building currently occupied by a former cargo area.

A new luggage and early baggage storage facilitiy will be realized for the increasing transit and a new check-in “island” will be built inside the terminal. Outside, the car parking lot will be expanded by 182,990 square feet. The investment will be of around $93 million (€81 million) with the work planned to be completed in 16 months.

“Ataturk airport has become one of the most important in the world and TAV has had a significant share in this achievement, beside DHMI and Turkish Airlines. In the next six years, we will continue in our investments without compromising service quality and passenger comfort,” said TAV Airport’s President and CEO, Sani Sener, at the presentation of the agreement.


TAV holds the rights to manage Ataturk Airport until 2021, and will be its last operator, since IST is set to close forever when Istanbul’s new airport becomes operational by the end of 2017.

On August 13, 2012, the Turkish government approved the location of an entirely new airport to be built in Istanbul’s Arnavutköy district, north of the European side of the city and near the Black Sea. The construction area extends for almost 824 million square feet (76 million m²)— the majority being State-owned forestland and old, open-air coal mines.

In May 2013, the Turkish joint-venture consortium of Cengiz-Mapa-Limak-Kolin-Kalyon (founders of SPV-İGA Havalimanı İsletmesi A.S.), won the tender for Istanbul’s new airport, committing to pay the government $27.69 billion (€22.15 billion) for a 25-year lease starting in 2017. The foundation stone was laid by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Completion of the construction’s first stage (of five) is set for 2017, with a main terminal capable of 90 million passengers per year, indoor parking with a 25,000 vehicle capacity, three independent runways, approximately 43 million square feet of apron and one ATC tower.

A second terminal is to be built when Terminal 1 will reach 80 million passengers, and a satellite terminal will follow to meet further demand. In its final stage, the $12.75 billion (€10,2 billion) project will include six runways, three terminal buildings with 181 boarding bridges, for a total floor area of 16 million square feet, and a 150 million passenger capacity.

The challenge to the European and Gulf Countries hubs has been set. Modern Turkey has both the ambition and the financial resources to compete, thus perpetuating Istanbul’s role of a bridge between East and West.