Analysis: Istanbul’s Rapid Recovery

Capacity at Istanbul Airport, Turkey’s main international gateway, is set to top 2019 levels by peak summer as its recovery continues apace.

Credit: B.O'Kane / Alamy Stock Photo

Istanbul Airport (IST) handled almost 37 million passengers during 2021 as the market began to recover from the effects of the pandemic.

Although the number represented a drop of 46% compared with 2019 levels, the figure nevertheless placed the airport as the busiest in Europe, putting Turkey’s key international gateway ahead of hubs in Amsterdam, Paris, London and Frankfurt.

Istanbul Airport opened in October 2018 and the transfer from the aging Atatürk Airport completed in April 2019. The new $12 billion facility comprises three runways with a 90 million passenger per annum capacity. This will rise to more than 150 million passengers per year once further phases are completed.

Although it is projected to be the biggest airport in Europe once it becomes fully operational in 2028, CEO Kadri Samsunlu sees IST as a key challenger to airports in the Gulf region rather than European airports, especially for transit traffic between Europe and Asia.

Samsunlu has often spoken about the advantages Istanbul has over its Middle East competitors, including Turkey’s strong domestic market and leisure appeal; Turkish Airlines’ mix of short- and long-haul aircraft; and the destination’s proximity to other European cities.

The latest schedules indicate that capacity from Routes World 2023 host Istanbul Airport is set to recover rapidly during the summer 2022 season, placing it ahead of the levels seen in summer 2019.

During the week commencing July 25, 2022, the number of departure seats is expected to hit about 900,000. This compares with 887,000 during the same week three years earlier. Turkish Airlines accounts for about 86% of all departure seats.

The data also shows that IST will be connected nonstop to 279 airports around the world during peak summer 2022—the same number offered at the height of the summer 2019 season. Of the routes offered this summer, 45 are to domestic destinations in Turkey and 234 are international.

Compared with the major three hubs in the Middle East—Abu Dhabi (AUH), Doha (DOH) and Dubai (DXB)—Istanbul is currently scheduled to recover its pre-pandemic capacity the quickest during peak summer.

The latest schedules for the week commencing July 25, 2022, show that the number of departure seats from IST will be at 101.6% compared with the same week in 2019. Abu Dhabi will be down 25.9%, Dubai down by 15.7% and Doha down by 6.4% over the same time periods.

Speaking to Routes in late 2021, Istanbul Airport VP of aviation development Majid Khan said that the move from Atatürk to the new airport has opened up opportunities for new airlines to enter the market, given that there are no longer capacity constraints.

“We are a highly underserved hub,” he told Routes at the time. “Despite the huge market we have very limited number of airlines.” Khan added that out of 69 million passengers in 2019, just 1.5% flew on low-cost point-to-point services, leaving significant room to develop.