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Istanbul: the airport where east and west, past and future combine

Istanbul: the airport where east and west, past and future combine

An encounter with the stern visage of Caracalla is one of many rewards of travel in the eastern Mediterranean. This particular statue of the bearded Roman emperor, who reigned 18 centuries ago, has a unique and genuinely worldwide audience. It is one of the exhibits on display at the excellent museum at Istanbul airport – which dispenses culture in transit to arrivals from, and departures to, more than 350 destinations across the planet.

“Turkey is the bridge between Europe and Asia and Africa,” says Kadri Samsunlu –who became chief executive of the new Istanbul airport in 2017. That was two years before it took over fully from Ataturk airport. I was a big fan of the previous “IST”: while it had grown awkwardly, its location on the Sea of Marmara provided easy access to one of the most glorious cities in the world.

“The old airport was very congested – not just not just in the terminal, but also in the air,” says Mr Samsunlu. “Airlines were facing significant delay in landing and take off.”

With traffic growing relentlessly, the Turkish government took the decision to build a vast new airport close to the shores of the Black Sea, 30km northwest of Istanbul. And, says the CEO, they were looking far into the future. “The government basically reserved 76 million square metres for the development of an airport and further expansion in the coming 100 years.”

Initially, there are more than 350 aircraft parking spaces available – two-and-a-half times more than the old airport.

Airports are like heavenly bodies: the bigger they are, the more attractive they prove. Airlines and passengers are drawn to large airports because of the connectional possibilities and frequencies on offer: Turkish Airlines has up to seven flights a day from Heathrow, between 6.45am and 10.10pm, as well as three departures from Gatwick. Yet the greater the scale and travel opportunities, the more gruelling an airport can prove for travellers. The plan for Istanbul called for a single initial terminal. Unlike London Heathrow, Paris CDG and Frankfurt, passengers in Istanbul need not take a shuttle or a hike to rival the Inca Trail from their arrival gate to departure.

DOH (Doha) enjoys a similar, single-terminal advantage as IST. But Istanbul has one strength that the Qatari airport – as well as Dubai – does not. It serves one of the…

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