Wizz Air’s inaugural flight to Istanbul Airport, Europe’s busiest for three years running, arrived to wet and gray weather on Tuesday. Not the preferred welcome for a new airline at an airport that is eager for growth.
But the Hungarian discounter, along with many of its peers, has a very different forecast for its new Istanbul service: Bright and sunny with room for growth. Wizz complemented its maiden sortie from London’s Luton airport with a flight from nearby Gatwick later the same day. Budapest flights begin Friday, and Iasi, Romania, flights on April 6, according to Diio by Cirium schedules. AirBaltic joins Wizz in adding Istanbul to its map on April 2, and EasyJet lands in June. A nice haul of new airlines for one (major) airport in such a short period.
At least 15 airlines have added Istanbul’s main airport, on the European side of the Bosphorous (there’s another airport called Sabiha Gökçen on the Asian side), to their maps since the beginning of 2023, Diio data show. That includes Arkia Airlines and El Al from Israel, and Flyadeal from Saudi Arabia. Combined, seat capacity at the Istanbul airport will be up more than 19 percent in the second quarter compared to the same period in 2019.
Much of that growth is driven by Turkish Airlines, which operates a large hub at the Istanbul Airport. The carrier is scheduled to fly nearly 20 percent more seats in the second quarter — equal to 81 percent of the airport’s total seats — than it did four years earlier, according to Diio. Turkish has outlined plans to add at least 25 destinations, including Denver, Iasi — watch out Wizz — Osaka Kansai, Rio de Janeiro, and Sydney, to its map this year and in the future.
But Turkish’s primary focus is on expanding its already robust connecting hub in Istanbul, which rivals Gulf hubs in Doha and Dubai for connectivity. That has left the Istanbul Airport “under-served” when it comes to point-to-point and budget airlines that bring travelers to Istanbul itself, airport CEO Kadri Samsunlu has said.
“With the entry of Wizz Air, EasyJet, Flyadeal and AirBaltic, among others, we expect to stimulate our market within [point-to-point] potential and increase awareness around Istanbul as a city break destination,” Samsunlu said in an interview.
Both EasyJet and Wizz in separate statements on their new routes to Istanbul highlighted its cultural attractions, as well as connectivity to the city.
The opening of the Istanbul Airport in April 2019 also appears key in landing the new airlines. The facility replaced the former Ataturk airport, which was capacity constrained and offered limited opportunities for budget carriers to add flights. And the Covid crisis, which began less than a year after the Istanbul Airport opened, likely delayed any planned launches.
An AirBaltic spokesperson cited “slot availability,” as well as other factors, in driving the Riga-based airline’s decision to add Istanbul to its map. The carrier plans to operate its largest-ever network this summer.
Asked what air service incentives the Istanbul Airport offers, Samsunlu said none but that it does focus on keeping base fees low in order to attract new airlines. The airport does offer new carriers support for local sales and marketing campaigns to promote their brands in Istanbul, he added.
Airport and local financial incentives for new air service are increasingly common to attract new airlines. For example, the Denver Airport offers up to $8 million in annual financial support to new airlines that open unserved longhaul international routes from the Colorado capital. The incentives are significantly lower for new domestic routes, or flights to markets that are already served by another carrier.
Istanbul Airport hopes to continue its haul of new airlines. Samsunlu said the airport is targeting several segments of the market for new flights, including carriers from East Asia, the U.S., and Star Alliance members. Turkish is a member of Star, but only another seven of the confab’s 26 members serve the airport; this includes Aegean Airlines, Lufthansa, and Singapore Airlines.
“You will continue to see a very proactive Istanbul Airport,” Samsunlu said. “We believe that our current strategy and approach will lead us towards reaching 100 million passengers within the next 4-5 years.”
Istanbul Airport handled 64.3 million passengers last year, according to data from the Airports Council International (ACI) Europe. The next busiest European airport was London Heathrow with 61.6 million passengers. Samsunlu has previously said that he anticipates the airport nearing 70 million travelers this year.