ISTANBUL: Passengers check-in at the new "Istanbul Airport" on the first day after it moved from Ataturk International airport yesterday.-AFP

last commercial passenger flight took off from Istanbul's Ataturk airport
yesterday and convoys of trucks ferried thousands of tons of equipment across
the city to a giant new airport which Turkey plans to make the biggest in the
world. The mammoth transfer between the two hubs, described by Turkish
authorities as unprecedented in scale and speed, was already largely complete a
little more than 24 hours after it began before dawn on Friday. The new
Istanbul Airport, costing some $8 billion and one of several mega-projects
championed by President Tayyip Erdogan, will initially be able to handle 90
million passengers a year, close to the world's largest existing airport

Authorities plan
to expand that capacity to expand to 200 million. Overnight hundreds of trucks
carried equipment such as aircraft-towing vehicles and security sensors from
Ataturk, on the shores of the Sea of Marmara, 20 miles (30 km) north to the new
airport by the Black Sea. By early yesterday more than 90 percent of the move
was complete, Turkish Airlines executive Yahya Ustun said. Overnight the final
commercial passenger flight from Ataturk took off for Singapore, a departure
which Transport Minister Mehmet Turhan described as historic.

"I am glad
to send you off as the last commercial passengers of Ataturk Airport," he
said moments before the plane took off at 2.44 am (2344 GMT). "Upon your
return, you will land in Istanbul Airport, a monument of victory, the world's
biggest airport." The new airport, which was formally opened nearly six
months ago but which has been handling less than 20 flights a day, inaugurated
its new chapter yesterday afternoon with a domestic flight taking off for the
capital Ankara.

After three false
starts and a labor protest over harsh working conditions, Turkey will fully
open a newairport in Istanbul this week that will give its fast-growing
flagship airline a platform to challenge Gulf rivals for regional dominance.
Authorities plan to shift flights from the city's Ataturk Airport, on the edge
of the Sea of Marmara, to the new airport 30 km (20 miles) north on the Black
Sea shores, in a mammoth 45-hour transfer operation starting on Friday.

The $8 billion
airport is one of several infrastructure mega-projects championed by President
Tayyip Erdogan and will initially be able to handle 90 million passengers a
year, a number which Turkey hopes to more than double by 2027.

That would make
it the biggest in the world, measured against current airport operations
globally. "Istanbul Airport will rise to second place in terms of
passenger numbers it serves in around five years," Transport Minister
Cahit Turhan told reporters in the gleaming departure hall. "When all
phases are complete, Istanbul Airport will sit in the leader's chair."

The airport is
supposed to be fully operational today after authorities transport 10,000
pieces of equipment, from massive aircraft-towing vehicles to sensitive
security sensors, across the city in a complex two-day operation, after which
Ataturk Airport will close for passenger flights. The move should support
Turkey's ambition to make Istanbul a global aviation hub and will offer Turkish
Airlines a chance to grow beyond the restrictions of Ataturk airport's limited

After 15 years of
rapid growth, the airline flies to more countries than any competitor, helped
by its Istanbul base which is close to European, African and Middle Eastern
destinations. That location means many cities are within a 4-5 hour flight
radius which can be flown by fuel-efficient, narrow-bodied planes. The
relatively low costs helped deliver profit last year of 4.05 billion lira ($716
million). With more slots available, the airline plans to increase its total
fleet from 338 aircraft to 476 over the next four years, and analysts say it
will challenge the three big regional competitors: Emirates, Qatar Airways and

"It puts
them on a level playing field with the Gulf carriers," aviation expert
John Strickland said. However there are potential risks ahead. The airport is
opening just as years of strong economic growth are grinding to a halt in
Turkey, and any weakness in the domestic market could prove a drag on Turkish
Airlines' business.

'Huge threat'

Istanbul's opening
comes a decade ahead of the expansion of Dubai's Al-Maktoum International
Airport to handle 130 million passengers a year, which has been pushed back to
2030. Dubai-based Emirates will one day shift to the airport, which ultimately
aims to be able to handle 260 million passengers a year. For now, Dubai plans
to focus on Emirates' current hub Dubai International, which handled nearly 90
million passengers in 2018. The Gulf airlines already face testing times. Qatar
Airways said last month it would report a second consecutive annual loss this
year, after losing access to 18 Middle East destinations over a dispute with
Gulf neighbors.

Emirates warned
in November of tough times after first-half profit fell to its lowest in a
decade, and Abu Dhabi has abandoned its goal of becoming a major air travel hub
akin to Dubai. Turkey's aviation sector has become a "huge threat" to
Gulf airlines, a senior executive at one Middle Eastern airport said, and also
to rivals in Asia and Europe. That includes Frankfurt Airport, one analyst
said. It is the hub of Lufthansa, one of Europe's largest airlines, and handled
69.5 million passengers last year. It is a roughly three-hour flight from
Istanbul, slightly closer than the Gulf.

Turkish Airlines
is not the only emerging rival. Ethiopia overtook Dubai last year as a conduit
for long-haul passengers to Africa, highlighting the success of the state
airline's drive to win back market share on routes to and from Africa which had
been dominated by Turkish Airlines and Emirates. Turkish Airlines has targeted
fast-growing Asian economies, signing a code share agreement with India's
largest domestic carrier Indigo on December, and setting up a joint venture
with China's ZTO to extend its cargo operations. "The upside of the new
airport ... is its potential to tap Chinese, Indian and other emerging Asian
markets," said Erdem Kayli, senior analyst at TEB Investment/BNP Paribas.

Political risks

The project has
been plagued by delays and a protest last year over conditions for workers,
after the government said 27 workers had died since construction started in
2015. Full operations at the new airport have already been held up three times.
Formally opened by Erdogan in October, it has handled fewer than 20 daily
flights as the full opening was pushed back first to January, then March and
now April. The opening comes at a time when Turkey's ties with the United
States and Europe have frequently been strained. This presents another
potential risk for Turkish Airlines - as Qatar's dispute with other Arab states
has shown, politics can damage a country's carrier.

"There is
uncertainty about Turkey's relationships with other parts of the world, not
least the United States," Strickland said. "That gives
uncertainty." The airport is one of the showcase projects of a 16-year
construction boom under Erdogan, who has overseen the building of bridges,
ports and railways that have transformed the country. Some of the biggest
schemes, including a planned 40-km shipping canal parallel to the Bosphorus,
have been criticised as ill-conceived and wasteful. Some analysts question
whether the airport's ultimate target of 200 million passengers a year is
feasible, given the presence of a second international airport, Sabiha Gokcen,
on Istanbul's Asian side.

"It seems
unrealistic to expect to reach such passenger numbers, because of airspace
constraints," said an aviation analyst at an international brokerage
company who asked not to be named. "The city has another airport, and
there's a question mark whether total passenger numbers of the two airports can
exceed 150 million." - Reuters