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Fast-Growing Istanbul Airport Wants More Budget Airline Competition

Edward Russell
October 18th, 2023 at 5:34 AM EDT

Inside IGA Istanbul International Airport

IGA Istanbul Airport is one of the big air travel pandemic recovery success stories. The airport has skyrocketed up global rankings to seventh busiest last year but executives acknowledge that, if it wants to continue this growth, IGA will need to rely on more than just hub carrier Turkish Airlines.

IGA handled 64.3 million passengers last year, according to Airports Council International. That was enough to make it the busiest in Europe, as well as the seventh busiest in the world. IGA serves Istanbul along with smaller Sabiha Gökçen Airport on the Asian side of the Bosphorus.

This year, IGA forecasts 77 million passengers and 100 million in just four years, or by 2027, acting CEO Selahattin Bilgen said at the Routes World conference in Istanbul this week.

Only two airports handled more than 100 million passengers in 2019: Atlanta, the world’s busiest, and Beijing Capital, ACI’s data show. Last year, no airport topped the 100 million-passenger mark with Atlanta leading the pack at 93.7 million passengers.

“We’ve been working hard for a long period of time and have shown that Istanbul is a place that it is very easy to get [a] transfer,” Bilgen said, referring to Istanbul’s status as one of the globe’s “superconnector” airports thanks to Turkish Airlines hub.

IGA ranks with Dubai and Doha as a major connecting point between Europe and Asia. And Turkish Airlines is one of the world’s major superconnector airlines after Emirates and Qatar Airways.

But while Turkish Airlines can fulfill much of IGA’s growth plans, Bilgen acknowledged that the airport cannot meet its 100 million-passengers goal on the back of one airline alone. The gap, he said, was due to budget carriers that in 2023 operate only 2% of seats, according to Cirium Diio schedules.

Bilgen, who has only been acting CEO for several weeks after the sudden departure of long-time CEO Kadri Samsunlu, did not indicate what low-cost carrier — or carriers — the airport is courting to expand their presence and potentially establish a base.

Turkish leisure airline Pegasus Airlines and Anadolujet, the budget arm of Turkish Airlines, both have bases at the Sabiha Gökçen airport, not IGA. And Sun Express, a Turkish-German joint venture based in the seaside holiday destination Antalya, does not serve either Istanbul airport.

Speaking at Routes, Pegasus CEO Güliz Öztürk said the airline plans to continue growing at Sabiha Gökçen where a second runway is under construction, and a terminal expansion planned. She did not comment on whether the airline would consider serving, or adding a base, at IGA.

Pegasus has more than 70 Airbus A321neos on order for growth through the end of the decade. Öztürk said it plans to expand its depth connecting Istanbul to destinations in Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa.

Anadolujet has big growth plans as well. Turkish Airlines plans to more than double its fleet from 64 aircraft at the beginning of this year to roughly 200 in a decade. The network carrier is currently focused on securing Anadolujet its own air operators certificate — it currently operates as part of Turkish Airlines — and separating it into an independent subsidiary.

But IGA’s budget airline answer may not be in Turkey. The airport has attracted a respectable list of foreign discounters since the recovery began, including Air Arabia, EasyJet, Flyadeal, Flydubai, Flynas, and Wizz Air, Cirium Diio schedules show. And the segment doubled its share of seats at the airport — from 1% to 2% — from 2019 to 2023.

A Wizz staff member not authorized to speak publicly said at Routes that the airline was focused on adding frequencies to new destinations, including Istanbul, in 2024. It does not, at this time, plan to open new bases beyond those already announced. That discipline from the fast-growing discounter is largely due to the issues with Pratt & Whitney engines on A320neo-family aircraft that have forced it to cut planned capacity growth by 10 percentage points for the six months ending in March. And the airline faces the same industry-wide delays getting new planes from Airbus.

Wizz, which already has 34 bases in 16 countries, has ambitious growth plans that see its fleet doubling in size in just three years, and growing to more than 500 planes by the end of the decade. That expansion will be split roughly 50% in Central Europe and a quarter each in Western Europe and the Middle East. The discounter has a subsidiary and base in Abu Dhabi, and plans to establish one in Saudi Arabia as well.

Air Arabia has subsidiaries and bases throughout the region, including at its Sharjah headquarters as well as in Abu Dhabi, Armenia, Egypt, Morocco, and Pakistan. A spokesperson for the airline did not respond to inquiries on its Istanbul plans.

A foreign airline may need to secure a Turkish air operators certificate to open a base at IGA depending on the level of investment it plans.

And then there is Turkish Airlines. Discussion at Routes suggested that the hometown carrier may not be entirely thrilled with the idea of new budget competition at its shiny new hub.

New carriers “should not distort or cannibalize existing airlines in the region,” Bilgen said in what appeared to be a nod of support to Turkish Airlines. He added that IGA is managing the process of landing new airlines “very delicately.”

Turkish Airlines is near a mega order for as many as 600 new planes that will fuel its expansion, and fleet renewal, into the next decade. These aircraft will help it expand its map to more points around the world, including sought-after nonstops to Australia.

Edward Russell
October 18th, 2023 at 5:34 AM EDT

Tags: Europe Middle East

Photo credit: Inside IGA Istanbul International Airport Flickr / Sharon Hahn Darlin

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