President Recep Tayyip Erdogan opened one of the world’s largest airports on Monday, declaring completion of the first phase of construction a symbol of Turkey’s strength and resilience — and a victory over forces he said are trying to sabotage its economy.

The new airport, located some 20 miles outside Istanbul on the coast of the Black Sea, will cover 76.5 million square meters (29.5 miles) upon completion — a footprint larger than Manhattan. Its first three runways should be able to serve 100 million passengers annually in 2020, with a target of accommodating as many as 200 million on six runways by 2029.

Erdogan ended years of speculation about the name of the new airport, saying that it’ll be named “Istanbul Airport.” The current main international airport, Ataturk, will continue limited operations under that name, he said. Istanbul has another airport on its Asian coast, called Sabiha Gokcen, one of 40 new airports built during Erdogan’s time in office.

Prosperity Symbol

“We’ve succeeded in this despite countless provocations, traps and attacks in the past five years,” the president said from a terminal-building stage in the new airport. “We’re creating the infrastructure and targets for our 2053 and 2071 visions,” he added, referring to the 600th anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul, and the 1,000th anniversary of the battle of Manzikert between Ottomans and Greeks. “Turkey’s devoted to becoming a symbol of prosperity and one of the world’s top 10 economies.”

The project is a physical manifestation of Erdogan’s desire to move Turkey up the global power rankings, and has carried special meaning for him since it was opened for bidding in 2013. Its construction faced numerous obstacles, including financing challenges, labor disputes, allegations of corruption, worker strikes amid reports of horrid working conditions, and opposition from environmentalists.

But most of all, the airport has become a symbol of the country’s development model since Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002. Tens of billions invested in construction and real estate helped keep the nation’s growth rates above 5 percent on average for the entirety of Erdogan’s rule, but also left the nation saddled with debt as its rankings on other measures of productivity, transparency, educational achievement and personal freedoms lagged or declined.

$25 Billion

The project was won by a consortium of five local construction companies, now calling itself IGA, which bid 22.2 billion euros ($25 billion) for the right to build and operate the facility for 25 years. The companies were Cengiz Insaat Sanayi & Ticaret AS, Mapa Insaat & Ticaret AS, Limak Holding AS, Kolin Insaat Turizm Sanayi & Ticaret AS, and Kalyon Insaat Sanayi & Ticaret AS.

The design of the world’s largest terminal space, at 1.3 million square meters, was led by London-based Grimshaw Global. It’ll have 228 passport control counters, with 10,000 square meters devoted to retail, 32,000 square meters to food and drink and 55,000 to duty free, according to details on IGA’s website.

When it opens, the new airport will replace Ataturk, most of which Erdogan says he’ll shut down and turn into a public garden — a rare concession to those who’ve protested a building boom that’s made most of Istanbul into a tree- and park-deprived concrete desert. Ataturk was Europe’s fifth largest airport by traffic in 2017, following London, Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt. It carried 63.7 million passengers in the year, compared with London Heathrow’s 78 million.

Turkish Airlines

Turk Hava Yollari AO, or Turkish Airlines, is expected to transfer the bulk of its operations to the new airport by year end, when Ataturk is to be shut down. Only a handful of flights will be operating daily out of the new airport until then though, making Monday’s ceremony more of a soft opening than originally planned.

As tourism to Turkey took a hit in the wake of a coup attempt in 2016 and a series of terrorist attacks, Turkish Airlines began to rely more on transit business — passengers coming through but not stopping in Istanbul, helped by the fact that it flies to more global destinations than any other airline. That business will also be key to Turkish ambitions to make the new airport a success, as it faces competition from other super-hubs peppered across Europe and the Middle East.

Financing Negotiations

In April, Turkey’s transportation minister shocked many by implying that the airport builders needed to be protected from insolvency. The consortium then went into talks for another 1 billion euros in loans.

On October 25, Kadri Samsunlu, chief executive officer of IGA, said revisions were made on the annual 1 billion-euro fee agreement with the government. He didn’t provide details. He also said IGA would consider any loan refinancing offers for the $5 billion loan it took out from local lenders to build the first phase of the airport.

The inauguration was held on Oct. 29, a national holiday, with this year marking the 95th anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923.

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Photo Credit: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the new airport in Istanbul, which opened Monday, will simply be called "Istanbul Airport." By 2029, it could be big enough to accommodate 200 million annual passengers. Bloomberg