By Henry Tenby
I recently had the opportunity to experience two new airports on a recent trip to Turkey, those being the Istanbul gateway airports of Istanbul New Airport (ISL) and Sabiha Gökçen airport.
This past Spring the old Ataturk airport in Yesilkoy was closed to all passenger flights with services being moved to the new airport built to replace it, which is situated on an open plateau Northwest of central Istanbul. In terms of travelling time to city centre, all three airports offer pretty much the same journey time by comparable means. The only difference being neither the new airport nor Sabiha Gökçen are connected with metro links, whereas the old Ataturk airport is on a convenient metro line directly into Taksim situated in the centre of Istanbul.
From the moment one’s aircraft lands, the first very obvious detraction of the new airport becomes obvious. The airport runway layout is excessively expansive, so much so that arriving and departing passengers are subjected to 20-25 minute aircraft taxi times to and from their gates. This adds about an hour onto each passenger journey through the new airport, over and above the old Ataturk airport and Sabiha Gökçen, which is a major inconvenience for passengers.
One can only imagine the tens of millions of dollars per month in excess aviation fuel expense for locally based Turkish Airlines, which operates their global hub from this new facility. It is somewhat unbelievable that airport designers were oblivious to this design aspect during the planning phase for this global hub airport given that they started from scratch, with a completely clean and unconstrained geography. The failure of the airport runway and terminal layout to deliver a modicum of passenger convenience and airline operating efficiency is an unfortunate mark on this outwardly grand undertaking.
Chief Executives at airlines contemplating adding Istanbul as a new destination to their route networks, would be very well advised to select Sabiha Gökçen over the new Istanbul airport. Such a decision would maximize their profits, maximize passenger comfort and convenience, and reduce maintenance costs from the wear and tear on their aircraft airframes and engines from the 5-10 minute taxi to gate time (versus 20-30 minute taxi to gate times at the new airport).
In terms of domestic Turkish flight connections, Sabiha Gökçen offers better choice of flights and lower costs, for the simple reason being it is the hub for Pegasus, Turkey’s leading low cost airline. Pegasus serves all major cities in Turkey plus a wide range of European, Middle East, and Central Asian destinations, including Casablanca, Tel Aviv, Almaty, and Baku. Anodolu Jet and Sun Express also offer low cost services out of Sabiha Gökçen as do a host of other Middle East low cost carriers, and the airport seems to be attracting more international flag carriers all the time, a trend which will likely increase as word gets our amongst travellers that the new airport is less than ideal.
Gate to curb, Sabiha Gökçen beats the new airport hands down! At Sabiha Gökçen, a passenger can be in a taxi on their way to Taksim within 10 minutes from getting off the aircraft. It is unbelievably convenient. Not so at the new Istanbul airport. The airport fingers are of great distances, arrivals halls are large and spacious, which is all nice but it comes with a cost. Unfortunately, movement through these expansive spaces takes a lot of time and physical effort. This is not a friendly airport for passenger with mobility challenges. Not due to lack of wheel chairs, but due to the distances and travelling times involved.
The author was highly inconvenienced and disappointed at the Istanbul new airport by the lack of presence of the Premium Plaza lounge. This is possibly the world’s largest airport without a Premium Plaza lounge. For business travellers that pass through Istanbul frequently, or those seeking the VIP comforts of a lounge, this is a major detracting factor. Premium Plaza had several lounge options at the old Ataturk airport, and offers a wonderful lounge at Sabiha Gökçen. For whatever reason, the lack of a Premium Plaza lounge makes an already poor passenger experience at the Istanbul new airport, an even more unpleasant experience.
Lastly, we come to wifi. Or lack thereof. At the new Istanbul airport, to access the “free” wifi, travellers need to have wifi or cellular access to receive an access code by email or SMS. Which completely defeats the purpose of offering free wifi! How incredibly stupid. A foreign traveller arriving at Istanbul new airport does not have a Turkish mobile phone account, therefore has no access to local cellular services, nor mobile access to email. This is what the wifi is needed for, perhaps the marketing people at the new airport were oblivious.
By forcing passengers to sign up for their “free” wifi by receiving an SMS or email is beyond logic, and actually it is extremely stupid and highly frustrating. And it all compounds to make an already unpleasant airport experience all the more unpleasant. Quite frankly, the new airport should get rid of their “free” wifi because that would be less irritating for the passenger than offering an inane service that is in effect nailed-to-the floor.
There is only one positive note for the Istanbul new airport. The passenger security screening and immigration processing area is massive with a huge amount of passenger flow capacity. So passing through was a breeze which was a refreshing improvement over the good old busy days at the Ataturk airport. Suffice it to say passing through the passenger security screening at Sabiha Gökçen was also a breeze.
Deplaning passengers at Sabiha Gökçen airport are presented with some very lovely large format wall photos of Sabiha Gökçen (Turkey’s famous first female pilot who is a national icon) and the father of modern day Turkey Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Sabiha Gökçen airport proudly displays the famous Ataturk photo showing him looking and pointing skyward, where he famously said “the future is in the sky.” It is a sad commentary on the times that the new Istanbul airport has no prominent reference to Ataturk. Certainly not noted during the author’s arrival and departure visits through the airport. Such an clear and obvious oversight would have been unspeakable in Turkey twenty years ago. By removing all reference to Ataturk at Turkey’s largest passenger gateway, where millions of people experience their first introduction to the country, this is a very pronounced and intentional political commentary.
Sadly, the new airport is not something that all Turks can be proud of today. Not yet anyhow. Hopefully it will become so in the future. Until then, the obvious airport choice for passengers going go Istanbul has to be Sabiha Gökçen. Hands down.