- The new Istanbul airport is scheduled to open on 29 October, on Republic Day, amid tensions surrounding the recent crackdown on striking workers. This raises the risk of further protest action at the site and, to a lower extent, in Istanbul.
- The airport is one of President Erdogan’s flagship projects and its successful and timely completion is deemed critical to Turkey’s reputation and ailing economy.
- The rushed and forced completion of the airport within a three-week period elevates the risk of disruption, both in terms of travel plans and airport security.
Travel: Istanbul’s new airport, Istanbul Yeni Havalimani – yet to be officially named – is scheduled to be opened on 29 October, before opening for passenger flights two days later. The airport, situated some 35km northwest of the city centre on the European side of Istanbul, will replace Istanbul Atatürk Airport as the main aviation hub in the city. The facility has an initial planned capacity of 90 million passengers a year (up from 60 million at Atatürk), and is expected to reach 200 million upon completion of the second phase of the project in 2023, making it the biggest airport in the world. The airport will boast six runways and is expected to host some 100 airlines over the next few years.
The construction of the airport, which has been ongoing for four years, has not been without controversies, however. On 14 September, hundreds of workers went on strike to denounce work-related deaths – at least 27 workers have died building the airport – as well as poor working and safety conditions at the site. Authorities quickly moved in to quell the protest and arrested some 400 people. Work resumed on 16 September amid heavy police and gendarmerie presence and supervision. While most were released, another eight construction workers were detained this week following investigations into the 14 September incident, bringing the total number of workers arrested to 34.
SOLACE GLOBAL COMMENT
Turkey’s Regional Ambitions
Workers are under pressure to meet the 29 October deadline, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is adamant that the opening of the airport will not be postponed. The date is highly symbolic as the opening will take place on Republic Day (a national day in Turkey) and the president will not tolerate any delay that could impact negatively on the country’s reputation. The new airport is at the core of Erdoğan’s mega infrastructure projects meant to boost an economy that has suffered greatly from the ongoing diplomatic crisis between Turkey and the US. The project is also meant to assert Turkey’s position as a major business, and political, player in the region.
Risk of Additional Protests
Following the crackdown on construction workers, union leaders warned that more protests would be organised. The state of emergency, which was lifted on 18 July after almost two years since the 2016 coup attempt, imposed strict restrictions on public gatherings. The lifting of the measure should in theory enable protests to be organised and limit the number of arrests carried out. However, a new anti-terrorism law was ratified in the wake of the lifting of the state of emergency – a law widely seen as oppressive as emergency powers – and protests are very unlikely to be allowed, especially given the current climate of suspicion in evidence across the country with regard to potential dissent. Further attempts at protests at the site remain possible, and could see the organisation by unions of support rallies in Istanbul. Neither would be tolerated.
Should the opening of the airport take place as scheduled, Atatürk Airport will close to commercial flights on 29 October and potential disruption to road travel should be expected between 29-31 October as all equipment and facilities are moved between the two airports for one of the most important transfers ever seen in the aviation industry. Authorities have announced that the transfer will take 45 hours, and while the process – including the safe implementation of information systems – went through several trial phases, potential delays and disruption to flight or/and airport operations are possible.
Moderate Travel Risk
President Erdoğan has made the opening of the new airport as scheduled a personal goal and will not tolerate any delay that would prove another setback for Turkey’s economy and reputation. As such, the president is expected to push for a 29 October deadline, and order a crackdown of any further protests at the site or in Istanbul. Travellers should avoid any labour-related or anti-government protests due to the risk of a quick deterioration of the security situation during demonstrations.
In the wake of the diplomatic crisis with the US, and following Washington’s decision to impose economic sanctions on Turkey in August, authorities started investigations into hundreds of social media accounts for allegedly contributing to the collapse of the lira. Given the current tensions, personnel must refrain from making any public criticism or comments on any sensitive issues regarding President Erdoğan or the Turkish government, including its handling of the situation at the new airport or in regional crises, in public or on social media.
In view of the uncertainty regarding the opening of the new airport, and concerns over the rushed pace at which it is being completed, personnel should be aware of the risk of travel disruption – including delays, cancellations and a potential backlog of flights – but also delays to road travel between the new airport and the city centre.
While authorities are working towards a flawless opening, the short timeframe between the end of the first construction phase and the effective start of operations will provide little opportunity to test and resolve any potential glitches or concerns relating to airport security. Personnel should allow sufficient time for passport/security checks prior to travel in the days and weeks following the opening of the airport.