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AIRPORT PROFILES Last modified on July 17, 2014

Growing places

Istanbul’s Sabiha Gökçen Airport is planning to expand and remains unfazed by the thought of a new mega-hub on its doorstep, write Chris Beanland and Joe Bates.

Booming traffic figures in Istanbul and across the whole of Turkey arguably make it one of Europe’s most interesting cities for aviation right now.


A total of 52.8 million passengers passed through Istanbul last year with Sabiha Gökçen (SAW) – opened 13 years ago – welcoming 18.8 million (+27%) and Atatürk (IST) accommodating 34.1 million (+17%).

And the success is expected to continue this year with Sabiha Gökçen already predicting that it expects to handle 24 million passengers in 2014 – an increase of 28% or 5.2 million more passengers than last year.

Soaring demand is, of course, nothing new in Istanbul as passenger numbers at Atatürk have been on the rise for over a decade, and Sabiha Gökçen hasn’t looked back since its privatisation in 2008, during which time its annual traffic figures have rocketed from just 4.4mppa – largely due to Turkey’s fast expanding economy and new low-cost carriers entering the market.

The steady upwards surge in traffic actually led to Istanbul’s airports being officially named as Europe’s two fastest growing gateways in August 2013, and means that both – in particular Atatürk which has little room to grow – are facing capacity challenges.

Istanbul’s capacity challenge

Indeed, such is the demand for air travel to Istanbul that this bustling city of some 16 million people is planning to build a third airport by 2018 to ensure that it is capable of meeting its future needs.

And, if all goes to plan, Istanbul could soon be home to one of the world’s largest airports, with four terminals, six runways and an annual capacity of 150 million passengers per annum.


Built north of Atatürk on the Black Sea coast, the new gateway is due to be constructed in four phases and upon opening, is expected to boast three runways and the capacity to handle up to 90mppa.


Master planned by Arup, its opening would have coincided with the 2020 Olympics, had Istanbul not lost out to Tokyo for that honour.

Being described as a new mega-hub to rival Beijing Daxing and even Dubai World Central in the in the years ahead, the new €8 billion airport will be built and operated by Turkey’s Cengiz-Kolin-Limak-Mapa-Kalyon consortium.

Expansion plans

However, with Istanbul’s new mega-hub still a few years away, it is up to the existing airports to take the strain and accommodate the current phenomenal traffic growth, which is expected to continue for the foreseeable future.


This situation ensures that SAW’s owners are already working on plans to expand its capacity, with a second runway and a new satellite terminal on the drawing board that would potentially raise the airport’s capacity from 25 million to 45mppa.

Set to be built on what is today described as a “topographically challenging site”, the new 3,500m long parallel runway project alone will cost €1.3 billion and allow SAW to simultaneously handle take-off and landings for the first time.

Sabiha Gökçen’s CEO, Gökhan Bugday, enthuses: “It’s expected to be operational in two to two and half years’ time and will effectively allow us to double our airfield capacity from 32 to 64 air traffic movements per hour. Next will come investment in terminal extensions and additional satellites.”


The investment plan shows that Sabiha Gökçen certainly has no intention of closing down when the new mega-hub opens. In fact, Bugday believes that it will flourish as Atatürk’s anticipated closure will mean that it will be the closest and best connected airport to both the European and Asian sides of the city.

Route development

Bugday – who notes that the airport opened a new apron with additional parking for 19 aircraft in 2013 – is particularly proud of SAW’s recent route development record.

Indeed, the airport saw 49 new destinations added to its network in 2013, and with new airlines coming onboard all the time, its dependence on highly successful low-cost carrier, Pegasus Airlines, is diminishing.


Turkish Airlines’ decision to build up its international route network at Sabiha Gökçen, which arguably serves a different market to Atatürk due to its location on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, has also helped.

Bugday says: “We are doing well, and the current growth of both Pegasus Airlines and Turkish Airlines is set to continue this year with each introducing a number of new international destinations. We’re also welcoming Qatar Airways with Doha flights in May; Transavia France and Air Malta are other confirmed airlines, with Paris and Malta flights. The future is bright.”

SAW’s passenger appeal has also been boosted by the October 2013 opening of a new rail link under the Bosphorus Strait, which has hugely enhanced its connectivity to all of Istanbul.

Customer service

Bugday insists that SAW’s aim is to create a customer-focused environment, with short processing times ensuring quick and easy passage through its facilities.

“As time plays an important role for all our guests, we offer a ‘time-saver terminal’ [concept] for passengers who would like to complete all the necessary processing procedures in the shortest period time.


“By offering a user-friendly terminal both for domestic and international passengers under one roof, passengers travelling from Sabiha Gökçen benefit from short transit times and easy access to the plane from the parking area in just 20 minutes once they complete all their flight processes in advance.”


It has also introduced a prepaid fast track system for the guests that want to use the VIP terminal entrance and private passport counter.


And, Sabiha Gökçen certainly hasn’t overlooked the benefits of social media as a way of communicating with its customers.


“We use Twitter and Facebook to interact with passengers to give updates about developments, promote new routes and organise campaigns related to these items and award people with plane tickets or exclusive opportunities like free lounge entrance or free parking,” says Bugday.


“We have a mobile application tailored for iOS and Android devices, which also offers useful information about the flights, terminal, and real-time traffic.”


Bugday believes that new retail offerings are also helping breathe new life into the airport, with blue chip brands such as Nike and Apple being added to the offer, and a slew of new restaurants that will open in 2014.

“Creating and nurturing a strong relationship with a customer is an indispensable key to the ongoing success of our business,” points out Bugday.


Malaysia Airports Berhad (MHB) recently bought GMR’s 40% stake in Sabiha Gökçen for €225 Million, giving it a majority 60% holding, and at this stage it is unclear how the change will impact on the airport.

It is something that Bugday declines to be drawn on, but having an experienced global airport operator such as MAHB as its key shareholder cannot be a bad thing for the gateway as it looks to expand and grow up to 2018 and beyond.

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