Istanbul Airport Targets 100 Million Passengers By 2027

The airport’s Acting CEO acknowledged they cannot achieve their huge ambition by relying on one major airline.

Istanbul Airport was Europe’s busiest airport in August, continuing the trend. More interestingly, data for January-August shows that London Heathrow overtook it to reclaim the top spot in those eight months. The battle continues, but not for long. Speaking at Routes World in Istanbul, the Acting CEO of IGA, Selahattin Bilgen, emphasized that Istanbul Airport intends to have 100 million passengers by 2027. Globally, only Atlanta and Beijing Capital had that many passengers in 2019.

Cannot achieve the goal with “one carrier”

Istanbul Airport is, of course, heavily dominated by Turkish Airlines. Cirium data shows that one carrier accounts for about 80% of seats for sale this year, rising to 82% when all Star Alliance carriers are included. It is the definition of a fortress hub

The airport’s management is in an intriguing position. While Turkish Airlines will always – inevitably – be the primary operator, Bilgen acknowledged that it cannot achieve its lofty traffic 100-million ambition without more carriers. (Don’t even think about its longer-term 200 million target.) “The potential is there,” Bilgen admitted, “we just need to make it happen.”

While already served by 100+ airlines, with China Eastern among the latest, it is tough to imagine enormous growth without the benefit of another home-based operator, whether full-service, low-cost, or ultra-low-cost. Not surprisingly, Bilgen did not clarify his hopes.

Will (U)LCCs be key?

Istanbul Airport inevitably has higher fees and charges than Sabiha Gökçen, on the Asian side of the city with 16 million inhabitants. Until now, the main airport’s saving grace has been no shortage of slots, allowing easier access. The same could not be said for jam-packed Sabiha Gökçen, home of Pegasus and AnadoluJet, although its second runway will – finally – open in November.

While I do not, of course, know the deals Istanbul Airport negotiates with airlines, they have clearly been sufficiently attractive. After all, it has recently gained multiple (U)LCCs, including Air Arabia, easyJet, flyadeal, flydubai, flynas, and Wizz Air.

A complicating factor is that Türkiye remains limited to old-fashioned air service agreements, including to Europe: there is no open skies agreement, unlike between the EU and Morocco. Still, Cirium shows that (U)LCCs account for just 2% of Istanbul Airport’s seats, although double the proportion in 2019.

(U)LCCs must grow passengers

On more than one occasion, Bilgen stated that cannibalization – taking passengers from one carrier (e.g., Turkish Airlines) – is not desirable. While understandable, this misses the point. The low fares of (U)LCCs are designed to grow demand and traffic, not to take away passengers from others. Consider the example of Wizz Air.

Almost seven months passed since Wizz Air began flying to Istanbul’s primary airport at the end of March 2023. It has four routes: London Gatwick (daily, rising to 11 weekly next summer), Budapest (daily), London Luton (daily), and Iași (three weekly). As always, its entry was not about ‘taking’ passengers from incumbents but generating new demand and traffic and growing the pie.

All about stimulating demand

Gatwick and Budapest have direct competition with Turkish Airlines, while Iași and Luton were unserved; passengers had to connect online/offline or fly to another nearby airport.

Analyzing booking data for Gatwick and Budapest in April – the first full month of Wizz Air’s operation but not the peak period for travel – shows that Gatwick’s point-to-point (P2P) traffic doubled, with Wizz quickly becoming the largest operator in that segment.

Amazingly, Gatwick overtook Milan Malpensa, Munich, etc., as a larger P2P market from Istanbul Airport. (This doesn’t consider Sabiha Gökçen, which captured most of the local traffic.)

In one month, Budapest passengers tripled, with Wizz overtaking Türkiye’s flag carrier for P2P passengers. Booking data shows that the Hungarian capital became Istanbul Airport’s 9th largest international P2P European market that month. Even Berlin was smaller due to the lack of price competition (from the airport anyway; Sabiha Gökçen got most of the traffic).

While not shown in the figure, Turkish Airlines’ P2P traffic barely changed. After all, it relies on transit passengers and higher yields and presumably did not discount much, if at all, for the P2P segment. All the growth was because of Wizz. No wonder Istanbul Airport is so keen on growing (U)LCCs.

What about Iași?

In March, the Romanian city of Iași had just a few hundred passengers who connected en route. Within a month, the market grew to almost 5,000 and became the Turkish airport’s 56th-largest P2P market in Europe. Since then, it has jumped up the ranks; it was 52nd in August.

It beat the likes of Copenhagen in April. Again, as Istanbul Airport does not have a (U)LCC flying to the Danish capital, the P2P market mainly went to Sabiha Gökçen. Think of the P2P potential within a four-hour radius across Europe, the Middle East, CIS, Caucasus, and North Africa.

What do you make of it all? Let us know in the comments.

Sources: presentation at Routes Europe, Cirium, OAG, booking data

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By Mian Saeed Ahmed Khan