Last week I travelled to Istanbul, one of the world’s most fascinating cities. But for the first time in about a dozen visits arriving wasn’t an enforced lesson in stress management and patience.
Anyone who’s ever flown into Ataturk Airport will know that the terminal was a congestion nightmare, with interminably long queues at passport control. My challenge was always to scan the queues and pick what I thought would be the fastest moving one – supermarket-style – and pray that I’d made a good choice. If I could get land side in under an hour I was doing well.
That was then. April 6th saw the official opening of the brand-new Istanbul Airport, about 50km northwest of the city centre. In just under two days, everything moved from Ataturk to its new premises, a feat of logistics planners called the ‘Big Bang:’ 10,000 separate pieces of equipment, from aircraft to fragile security sensors, were transferred and set up to be fully operational. And so, Ataturk was no more – at least for me and the 80-odd million passengers that last year squeezed their way through an airport built for a maximum capacity of less than half that number.
The new airport still has that fresh-out-of-the-box look. And it’s huge – really huge. My fact sheet tells me the terminal covers 1.4m sq m, an abstract number that only begins to make sense when I’m confronted with its vastness: I’m guessing that it might take half an hour to walk from one end of the building to the other.
Istanbul’s new aviation darling is also a stunner. Beneath the enormous vaulted canopy is a vast space of colour and patterns inspired by Istanbul old and new: the curves are inspired by the city’s famed domed mosques and baths; the space-age transit hall follows the shape of the Bosphorus Strait; and the control tower is designed in the shape of a tulip, Turkey’s national flower. In the middle of the terminal is a big ‘Istanbul’ sign for that perfect selfie backdrop: airport authorities clearly appreciate the value of social media.
Within this mammoth space are over 500 check-in points, 143 boarding bridges and over 52,000 sq m of that all-important duty-free. It can accommodate up to 90m passengers a year, but this is only phase one: by the time the airport project is completed in 2027, the 76.4 sq km airport will cover an area larger than Manhattan and its six runways will be able to handle up to 200m passengers a year. In comparison, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, currently the world’s busiest, welcomes around 107m passengers annually.
But its massive size brings a couple of problems, namely the distances you’ll have to walk to get to and from your gate – and I didn’t see nearly enough travellators. 10,000 steps? You can do them all and not leave the building. The other issue is that it’s 50km from the city centre, roughly twice as far away as Ataturk is – and until the opening of the new metro line either later this year or early in 2020 you’ll have to rely on taxis or the bus, which can take about an hour or more in traffic. But it’s still better than standing in a long queue.