One of Europe's Largest Airlines Is Changing Gates for Erdogan

(Bloomberg) -- Turkish Airlines is packing up and moving its base to the new $11 billion Istanbul airport in a key test of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s splurge on infrastructure.

The move -- a 45-hour sprint slated to end at midnight on Saturday -- is a massive undertaking, involving transporting more than 1,000 tons of equipment every hour from the 1950s-era Ataturk hub to the giant new airport, which occupies an area larger than Manhattan.

One of Europe's Largest Airlines Is Changing Gates for Erdogan

The transfer by Europe’s fifth-largest airline was delayed several times in recent months because of the complexity of starting a facility designed to eventually handle 200 million passengers a year -- roughly triple Ataturk’s current traffic. Turkish Airlines plans to wind down services at its old base, with the last flight departing for Singapore at 2 a.m. local time on Saturday.

“The big migration is starting,” Ilker Ayci, chairman of the airline, told reporters before the first trucks embarked early Friday morning. “Turkish Airlines is ready for the grand transformation.”

One of Europe's Largest Airlines Is Changing Gates for Erdogan

Erdogan -- under pressure after his party lost control of Turkey’s biggest cities in municipal elections last weekend -- has a lot riding on the success of the project, one of 40 new airports built during his time in office. The Turkish president officially opened the Istanbul hub in October, declaring it a symbol of the country’s strength and a victory over “countless provocations, traps and attacks.”

As tourism to Turkey took a hit in the wake of a 2016 coup attempt and a series of terrorist attacks, Turkish Airlines began to rely more on transit business, with international passengers transferring through but not stopping in Istanbul. That strategy is pitting the carrier against larger international rivals including Gulf carriers Emirates and Qatar Airways.

One of Europe's Largest Airlines Is Changing Gates for Erdogan

Gate Change

Turkish Airlines’ move is a complex logistical undertaking that will close some roads along with 40-kilometer (25-mile) route between the hubs. Here’s some key figures:
  • 1,300 trucks will carry 5,000 loads and cover a combined distance of 400,000 kilometers
  • 1,800 people will work on moving 47,300 tons of equipment
  • 158 aircraft will fly empty to the new airport

The new airport -- located northwest of the city center on the Black Sea coast -- faces competition from other super-hubs dotted across Europe and the Middle East. It currently has two runways with a third to be ready next year. Turkish Airlines’ first flight from the base will take place on Saturday afternoon and will be to the capital of Ankara -- a symbolic nod to Erdogan.

One of Europe's Largest Airlines Is Changing Gates for Erdogan

The president is pushing to move Turkey up the global power rankings, and the project has carried special meaning for him since it was opened for bidding in 2013. Its construction faced numerous obstacles, including financing challenges, labor disputes over working conditions and opposition from environmentalists.

Erdogan has said he’ll turn most of Ataturk’s land -- located on the Sea of Marmara -- into a public park. The plan represents a rare concession to those who have protested the building boom that’s turned most of Istanbul into a treeless concrete jungle.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.