Istanbul Seeks To Diversify Carrier Base

Istanbul IGA airport air traffic control tower
Credit: EvrenKalinbacak/Getty

Although Istanbul Airport (IST) is often seen solely as a transit point, CEO Kadri Samsunlu is seeking to alter perceptions by attracting new carriers and increasing inbound traffic to Turkey’s largest city.

The airport, which won the Airport of the Year at the 49th annual ATW Industry Achievement Awards on June 2, handled some 64 million passengers in 2022, making it the seventh-busiest in the world. It has a handling capacity of 90 million passengers at present, but will eventually be able to accommodate 200 million. However, much of IST’s strength relies on the performance of Turkish Airlines, which accounts for more than 80% of capacity.

“Many people only see us as a hub airport, like Dubai or Qatar, but we are also a final destination,” Samsunlu told Routes from the sidelines of the International Air Transport Association’s Annual General Meeting in Istanbul. “Every year, over 16 million tourists visit our city, and Turkey itself is a significant tourism destination, ranking in the top 10 globally.”

Samsunlu explained that about 50% of IST’s international business involves transfer traffic on Turkish Airlines’ network. He said the airport was therefore working to diversify its carrier base to attract new point-to-point routes, particularly from destinations in Asia.

“Turkish Airlines is our primary carrier, and we rely on their organic growth. However, we cannot be complacent just because Turkish Airlines is growing,” Samsunlu said.

“We have abundant capacity to fill, and for inorganic growth, we need to attract new airlines or encourage existing ones to increase their frequencies and destinations. This requires tailored solutions for every airline and compelling business proposals.”

Samsunlu identified airlines from India and China as key targets, as well as LCCs from Europe and Asia. Until recently, the sole European LCC offering flights to IST was Transavia France, but Wizz Air and easyJet have already been secured this year.

Wizz previously served the Istanbul market six years ago, when it operated flights to Istanbul Sabiha Gokcen (SAW) from Budapest (BUD). The airline’s first flights to IST took off in March 2023, connecting the city with Budapest, London Gatwick and London Luton. Service to Iasi, Romania, also started in April. During the peak summer period, Wizz plans to offer more than 10,000 weekly seats to and from Istanbul.

Additionally, easyJet will begin flying to IST later this month, marking the UK carrier’s return to the Turkish city after a hiatus of almost a decade. The LCC served SAW for 12 months from March 2013, operating routes from Basel and London Luton. However, the city has remained absent from its network ever since.

The inaugural flight to IST will take off on June 9 from Manchester (MAN), England. Service will be twice a week on Mondays and Fridays, joining the LCC’s existing Turkish operations from MAN to Antalya and Dalaman.

As part of efforts to present the city as an inbound tourist destination, rather than just a transfer point, IST is working with tourism partners to develop Istanbul’s cruise product. It is hoped the city’s Galataport, a $1.7 billion cruise terminal and mixed-use development, can become a start or end point for cruises. 

“This is crucial because it would attract thousands of passengers,” Samsunlu said. “Chinese tourists, for instance, desire to visit the Mediterranean and the Turkish coastline. The key is making Istanbul either the departure or arrival point for their cruises. If we can achieve this, we have Turkish Airlines to transport them back home. 

“We are closely collaborating with the private company operating the port, and we envision an intermodal tourism proposal: Fly to Istanbul, start or finish your cruise journey here and return with Turkish Airlines. Only a few locations in the world possess both a major airport and a significant cruise port.” 

Samsunlu said IST, which will host Routes World 2023 in October, has also developed a platform aimed at carriers that do not cooperate with Turkish Airlines. Named Istanbul World Connect, the self-transfer product has been created alongside online travel agency, which allows passengers to buy one itinerary via IST with two different airlines.

David Casey

David Casey is Editor in Chief of Routes, the global route development community's trusted source for news and information.