Istanbul Airport Credit Image Murat Kahraman
Istanbul Airport Credit Image Murat Kahraman

Key Points

  • Istanbul Airport aims for 100 million passengers by 2027, requiring more airlines beyond Turkish Airlines.
  • London Heathrow reclaims busiest European airport title, posing competition to Istanbul’s growth plans.
  • (U)LCCs like Wizz Air enter Istanbul Airport but only make up 2% of seats, underlining need for diversification.

Istanbul Airport, which momentarily held the title of Europe’s busiest airport in August, has set its eyes on an ambitious target.

During the Routes World event in Istanbul, Acting CEO of IGA, Selahattin Bilgen, announced plans to reach 100 million passengers by 2027, a feat only achieved by Atlanta and Beijing Capital airports in 2019. London Heathrow, however, has emerged as a stiff competitor, reclaiming the top spot for the year-to-date through August.

The Battle with Heathrow

London Heathrow has been a long-standing rival to Istanbul Airport. While Heathrow has the advantage of a more mature market and higher yield passengers, Istanbul aims to exploit its strategic geographic location as a global crossroads.

London Heathrow Airport Credit Image Zsolt Ujvary
London Heathrow Airport Credit Image Zsolt Ujvary

Heathrow focuses on serving established markets, like the US and Europe, whereas Istanbul has been expanding to under-tapped markets such as Africa and Central Asia.

The competition, however, remains intense. Both airports are engaging in massive infrastructural changes, but while Istanbul is looking to expand its passenger base, Heathrow is focused on enhancing customer experience and operational efficiency.

The ‘One Carrier’ Dilemma

Istanbul Airport is a stronghold for Turkish Airlines, accounting for approximately 80% of the seats for sale this year, a number that rises to 82% when other Star Alliance carriers are included. Bilgen acknowledged that although Turkish Airlines would continue to dominate, the goal of 100 million passengers would require more carriers. “The potential is there,” said Bilgen, “we just need to make it happen.”

Will (U)LCCs Drive Growth?

Istanbul Airport charges higher fees than its city counterpart, Sabiha Gökçen. However, it has been attracting various ultra-low-cost and low-cost carriers like Air Arabia, easyJet, and Wizz Air, thanks to the availability of slots.

Currently, (U)LCCs account for just 2% of the seats at Istanbul Airport, double from 2019, but far from enough to significantly influence passenger growth.

Room for Expansion

Bilgen did not divulge specific plans but did suggest the need for a home-based operator other than Turkish Airlines to achieve massive growth.

The imminent opening of a second runway at the overcrowded Sabiha Gökçen, home to Pegasus and AnadoluJet, may offer opportunities.

Global Restrictions

A hurdle for Istanbul remains its traditional air service agreements, lacking an open skies policy similar to the EU-Morocco relationship. Despite this, the low fares of (U)LCCs are hoped to not cannibalize Turkish Airlines’ passenger numbers but expand the market.

New Entrants like Wizz Air

Wizz Air started flying to Istanbul Airport in March 2023 and currently serves four routes. Contrary to taking away passengers from Turkish Airlines, Wizz Air aims to generate new demand and grow the market.

Istanbul Airport’s ambitious goals are clear, but fulfilling them would require overcoming a few formidable challenges.

Given the recent developments, the race to become Europe’s busiest airport is far from over, and the next few years will be crucial in determining the ultimate victor.

What do you think will be the key factors in Istanbul Airport reaching its ambitious goal of 100 million passengers by 2027? Share your thoughts below.

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