I visited Istanbul's new airport, which wants to become the busiest in the world, and I could hardly tell I was in Turkey

Ben Mack / InsiderA section of the arrivals area at Istanbul’s new airport.
  • Istanbul’s new airport is now open.
  • Turkish officials hope it will become the busiest airport in the world once all phases of construction are completed and flights from Istanbul’s other airports are transferred over.
  • I recently passed through the airport on my way from Dubai to London.
  • Although the airport was enormous, it seemed very empty – and other than signs written in Turkish as well as English, it was hard to tell I was even in Turkey.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Istanbul’s new airport is big.

Then again, it has to be – Turkish officials hope up to 200 million passengers could pass through its terminals every year by 2028, according to Deutsche Welle.

Considered a major prestige project for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, all passenger flights from Istanbul’s previous main international gateway, Atatürk Airport, were transferred over in April.

I recently flew into Istanbul from Dubai on my way to London.

Here’s what it’s like to pass through the airport that could replace Dubai as the international crossroads between east and west – and which could soon be supplanted by ultra-long-haul flights such as those between Australia and the UK and US.

With a construction budget of about $US12 billion, Istanbul’s new airport is enormous.

Muhammed Enes Yildirim/Anadolu Agency/Getty ImagesAn aerial image of Istanbul’s new airport.

Located on the European side of Turkey’s largest city, the first portions of Istanbul Airport (“İstanbul Havalimanı” in Turkish) opened in 2018. Turkish officials have repeatedly said the plan is for the airport to replace Istanbul’s other commercial airports – and in doing so become the busiest airport in the world, with up to 200 million annual passengers by 2028.

I landed at the airport to begin a journey by train to London, having started my trip in Dubai.

Ben Mack / InsiderThe 2017 film version of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ as seen on a Turkish Airlines flight from Dubai to Istanbul in October 2019.

I had been living in the United Arab Emirates for the past 16 months and was on my way to London to start a new job with Insider. The plan was to be a bit old-fashioned and have an adventure, by taking a series of trains all the way across Europe from Istanbul and retracing part of the original route of the legendary Orient Express.

Flying on Turkish Airlines, it was fitting (and perhaps a quirk of fate) that the inflight movie I saw on the 7.15 a.m. flight from Dubai was the 2017 Kenneth Branagh film version of “Murder on the Orient Express.”

Taxiing to our gate, it seemed odd we didn’t have to wait for other planes like at many airports.

Ben Mack / InsiderA plane at the gate at Istanbul Airport.

Not only was our landing incredibly smooth, we seemed to reach our gate very quickly – surprising for such a large airport. In Dubai, it’s not uncommon to wait for a long time during takeoff and landing.

There were a few people walking to immigration inside the terminal, but the walk seemed to go on forever…

Ben Mack / InsiderA portion of the arrivals area at Istanbul Airport.

It was clear the airport was built to one day accommodate lots of people, if the incredibly long walk from our gate to immigration was any indication. It seemed to go on forever, and felt even longer with only a few people also marching down the cavernous halls.

… And ever …

Ben Mack / InsiderA section of the arrivals area at Istanbul Airport.

I don’t think I’d ever had to walk so far from a plane to immigration – the journey was much longer than even Dubai Airport, and felt even worse since, unlike in Dubai, there didn’t seem to be a high-speed train to cover at least some of the distance.

… And ever.

Ben Mack / InsiderNear customs and immigration at Istanbul Airport.

While things seemed to get busier after we descended a long escalator, the walk had been so long, I was beginning to question if I’d somehow ended up in literal purgatory, condemned for who knows how long to wander the plain, painfully nondescript halls of a mostly empty airport that was also almost suspiciously quiet.

The airport may want to be the “new Dubai,” but it was empty.

Ben Mack / InsiderA carousel at the baggage claim area at Istanbul Airport.

Clean and modern as everything was, I just couldn’t get over how empty the airport was, despite its grand ambitions. In that sense, it reminded me of Dubai’s other airport, Al Maktoum International – a massive complex southwest of Dubai that has cost billions of dollars (estimates suggest construction costs could eventually top $US82 billion for the entire “aerotropolis” megaproject) to build.

Although hoped to one day process 200 million-plus passengers per year, the airport still only has a handful of airlines flying to it more than eight years after passenger flights began.

The mystery deepened when I saw how many destinations the airport serves — but it sees such a relatively small number of passengers for so many places.

Ben Mack / InsiderDepartures and arrivals information on display near immigration at Istanbul Airport.

Istanbul Airport is the hub for Turkish Airlines, which flies to more countries than any airline in the world. That seemed plausible given the dizzying number of destinations displayed on the arrivals and departures board. But I still couldn’t figure out where everyone was. Even airport staff seemed to be few and far between, despite claims that the airport employs thousands of people.

Despite the lack of people, everything was pretty clean.

Ben Mack / InsiderA toilet at Istanbul Airport.

One should expect a new place to be clean. At least the airport’s toilets seemed to be – though I wondered how they were kept clean with no janitors to be found.

With so few workers to be seen, I was expecting to see the humanoid robots I’d read about. Alas, I did not.

Ben Mack / InsiderNear the duty-free area at Istanbul Airport.

In August, Istanbul Airport released a video claiming the airport would be patrolled by a fleet of humanoid robots to assist passengers – a first for an airport in Turkey. Outlets including The Washington Post covered the story, while Business Traveller reported that at least four of the smiling robots were currently operational. I searched everywhere for them – I’d interviewed robots before and found the experience nothing if not enjoyable – but alas, they were nowhere to be found.

I did find, however, a large flower garden in baggage claim.

Ben Mack / InsiderA flower garden at baggage claim at Istanbul Airport.

The garden was beautiful – and certainly smelled nice – but seemed to make no sense. What was it doing here? Why at baggage claim specifically?

There was also ample natural light throughout the airport, which was nice.

Ben Mack / InsiderA skylight at Istanbul Airport.

High, vaulted ceilings and skylights loomed over me throughout. In that sense, it felt like being in a very large, very modern cathedral.

Finally, I got to immigration. With hardly anyone in line in front, passing through was a breeze.

Ben Mack / InsiderAfter the immigration and customs area at Istanbul Airport.

Flashing my e-Visa obtained online in advance, immigration took no time at all – under five minutes from queuing up to passing through on the way to baggage claim.

Police did not appear to be armed, despite Istanbul airport terror attacks in recent years, and the Turkish military’s decision to launch a major offensive in northern Syria.

Oddly, all of the staff – immigration officers and police included – looked like they were under 25 years old.

After baggage claim, it was a short walk to buses and taxis. There were no trains, and the airport’s distance from central Istanbul meant taxis were not cheap.

Ben Mack / InsiderNear the taxi rink at the arrivals area at Istanbul Airport.

The new airport is about 20 miles northwest of Istanbul, and even further from the central districts of the city.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t any train service, meaning buses and taxis were the only options. They weren’t cheap, either: a taxi to my hotel – the legendary Pera Palace in the Beyoğlu district still on Istanbul’s European side – took 60 minutes, stretched for almost 40 miles, and cost 148 Turkish lira (almost $US26). At least my driver, Yasin, was friendly and talkative.

Istanbul the city seemed a world away from its new airport in more ways than one.

Ben Mack / InsiderOutside the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.

Once I was in the city, there was an energy, a history, culture – and identity – that the airport seemed to lack.

The bustling Grand Bazaar, the cafes, the pathways along the Bosporus bordered by enormous, craggy rocks, the people of all ages and manner of dress fishing in the cerulean blue waters, the majestic mosques, grand palaces and hotels, and the picture-perfect narrow alleyways beckoning travellers to careen through their zigzagging routes: all of it simply oozed Turkishness. There was no mistaking where I was.

That was not the case at the airport at all. Other than signs being in Turkish and English, it was hard to tell I was even in Turkey. There weren’t even many Turkish flags flying.

Overall, Istanbul’s Airport felt like just another large airport — one that could be having an identity crisis.

Ben Mack / InsiderA section within the arrivals hall at Istanbul Airport after baggage claim.

Sure, the airport was absolutely gargantuan, but with things such as an incredibly long walk to immigration and customs, few public transport options, and seemingly few staff on hand to assist passengers, it felt like there were a number of improvements that could be made. Perhaps that will change as passenger numbers increase.

But with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pushing a new Turkish nationalism, the airport’s lack of easily-recognisable Turkish identity was surprising, especially as it seems to be touted as a newer version of Dubai Airport – a place which lets travellers know right away they’re in Dubai and the Gulf region.

That being said, the airport does its job getting passengers from point A to wherever it is they’re going next.

However, with the rise of ultra-long-haul flights – you can already fly direct from Australia to the United States, and there are even plans by the likes of Air New Zealand to launch a non-stop service from Auckland to New York in October 2020 – a large airport like this may become unnecessary in the future.

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