ISTANBUL — The new Istanbul Grand Airport (IGA) will not open all its doors at once, scrapping the ambitious plans of transferring all operations from the current Istanbul-Atatürk Airport (IST), overnight.

Instead, the new airport will partially open with a handful of domestic and international flights, on-time for its planned October 29 (Turkey’s Republic Day) inauguration goal, set by Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Today, Erdoğan inaugurated the airport in what has been called a lavish ceremony. He announced that the new terminal met the proposed deadline of opening up on the 95th anniversary of Turkey’s establishment as a republic.

Erdoğan championed the €10.5 billion (US$12 billion) project in a bid to transform Istanbul into a world-class air transport hub while supporting the plans of flag carrier Turkish Airlines (TK) to become a global aviation powerhouse.

The Turkish president, during the ceremony, slammed critics who doubted that the airport could be completed on time. 

Kadri Samsunlu, director general of the Istanbul Grand Airport, told Airways in an event held last week that the airport would have a ‘soft opening’ on October 31, with a limited number of flights to five destinations.

Kadri Samsunlu, IGA Airport CEO (Author)

According to him, only three destinations in Turkey (Ankara, Antalya, and Izmir) and two international to Baku (Azerbaijan) and Ercan (Northern Cyprus), will launch from the new airport, all operated by national carrier, Turkish Airlines.

Contrary to what was announced at the Turkish Airlines Corporate Club in September, the airport will not be opening its doors all at once.

Turkish Airlines’ chairman Ilker Aycı, had said that his airline was about to go through “the world’s largest asset move” from Atatürk Airport to the new Istanbul Airport in the span of only 45 hours.

Chairman Aycı confessed that planning the move to the Istanbul New Airport had been “a pain in the neck,” as his airline was hoping to undertake the world’s biggest and most impressive move almost overnight.

“At the end of December, there will be the ‘hard opening’ or the ‘big bang opening,’ which means that the entire business at the Atatürk Airport will be transferred here,” Samsunlu added.

Airways was told that all the operating equipment was to be moved from the old airport to the new one over a period between December 28 and 31. The job would require 20,000 vehicles moved in a distance of 35km (22mi) between airports. 

Aircraft leaving Atatürk on December 29 will operate their flights as scheduled, with the return leg to the new airport.

Samsunlu said that the two-month period after the ‘soft opening’ will help authorities to identify “where we need to work a bit more,” he said.

But The Airport Is Not Ready

Atatürk Airport (currently the fifth busiest in Europe) was set to shut down as soon as the Istanbul New Airport opens by the end of October. Sabiha Gökçen Airport (SAW), located on the Asian side of the city, will remain open.

During the tour of the new airport, it was evident that it was not completely ready for opening all its doors, full-swing.

During a quick Q&A session at the new airport, Samsunlu hesitated to respond with details to questions about the strife between the authorities and the workers after labor rights and poor working conditions.

Commenting on the workers’ situation, Samsunlu said, “We are fixing the problems that they raised. I am always open to peaceful demands.”  

Since the beginning of the protests last September, authorities have arrested hundreds, according to labor unions. Most of them have been released without charges, but around 20 workers remain inprisoned.

According to IGA, 30 workers have died since the works began in 2015, although labor unions claim that the actual toll number is near 40.

An opposing Turkish journal claims that the number of deaths is much higher, however.

Even though some areas of the airport were shown to press, there was high scrutiny over which areas could be photographed. 

Shortly after the press conference ended, security staff impeded journalists to take pictures of the facade of the main terminal building. All press members were rapidly escorted back to the shuttle buses.

The Istanbul Grand Airport has not been free of controversy. There have been concerns about environmental issues, labor rights, and the weakening of Turkey’s economy.

But during today’s ceremony, propaganda posters plastered throughout the terminal said, “This is not just an airport. This is a monument to victory.”

For Erdoğan, the new airport’s initial goal of hosting over 90 million passengers during its first phase is paramount to his political goals.

When completed, the airport will move 200 million passengers—twice the amount that the current number-one, Atlanta-Hartsfield International Airport, handles in one year.

The airport’s development phases will continue while operations ramp-up with the first phase completed.

By 2028, the airport will have six runways and two terminals spread over 76 square kilometers (29 square miles).

The patterns applied to the design of the terminal are a nod to the Turkish and Islamic culture.

The airport will also rely on mobile applications and artificial intelligence to assist passengers, boasting a high-tech security system intended to minimize any potential threat.

Even though the Turkish president inaugurated the airport today, there’s plenty of disappointment that things didn’t go as expected.

In the meantime, Atatürk Airport has been given an additional lifeline until the end of this year, when its lights are now scheduled to shut down, once and for all.

Airways asked Turkish Airlines for comments on the sudden change of plans. As soon as a response is received, this article will be duly updated.