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An aerial view of Istanbul's new international airport. (Wikimedia Commons)

Debut of Istanbul Mega-airport Raises Security Concerns

Experts say security could be compromised due to rushed construction

As Turkey’s new Istanbul airport enters its second full week of operations, the rushed construction of the facility is raising security-related concerns, a veteran analyst told The Media Line.

“We’re in a country where a lot of these things are becoming a lot less transparent. One of the concerns about the clampdown on the media is that if there are [issues] that could compromise security it’s very unlikely it would get [attention],” Gareth Jenkins, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Security and Development Policy, told The Media Line.

There have already been a number of setbacks, including three delays to the opening of the airport which officially started functioning six months ago but was completed only early this month.

Istanbul’s previous main airport was named after the Turkish republic’s secular founder, Kemal Ataturk, who established a strict separation between religion and state. This is in stark contrast to the Islamist vision of current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose critics accuse him of trying to diminish Ataturk’s legacy.

Jenkins noted that 27 workers died during the airport’s construction, indicating a lack of safety measures. He further speculated that while security at Ataturk airport was ramped up after a 2016 terrorist attack, the fact that there has not been an attack since may have contributed to a state of complacency.

The Turkish government is hoping the new Istanbul airport will become the largest such facility in the world by 2025, with some 200 million people passing through annually. At present, the airport can accommodate about 90 million passengers per year.

“When all phases are complete, Istanbul airport will sit in the leader’s chair,” Turkish Transport Minister Cahit Turhan was quoted by Reuters as saying.

Nicholas Danforth, a senior policy analyst specializing in Turkey at the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center, told The Media Line that the government has a keen interest in promoting Turkish Airlines by transforming Istanbul into a more significant aviation hub.

“Over the past decade, Turkish Airlines has been one of the most successful sides of the country’s soft power [efforts],” he said, adding that it is one of the few examples that Ankara can highlight to “truly capitalize on the cliché of being a bridge between East and West.”

The airport cost about $11 billion and is one of the most high-profile mega-projects undertaken by Erdogan. During last year’s presidential election, he was filmed on a plane landing at the airport while it was still under construction.

Selim Sazak, a U.S.-based expert on Turkey, agreed that Turkish Airlines has helped improve the country’s international image, noting to The Media Line that the company even maintains unprofitable routes to places where Turkey is seeking to increase its influence such as central Asia.

The growth of Turkish Airlines has also helped Erdogan domestically. Along with budget carrier Pegasus, the corporations have made flying more affordable, thereby enabling those with lower incomes to travel throughout the country.

“That played into Erdogan’s popularity a lot,” Sazak said.

The airlines also provide inexpensive options for Turks living abroad—including 3 million citizens in Germany—to visit Turkey.

The aforementioned low-income groups in addition to members of the Turkish diaspora comprise an important part of Erdogan’s political base.

However, demand from Turkish customers could decrease due to a currency crisis, whereby the Turkish lira dropped 30 percent last year. This, in turn, caused rapid inflation resulting in a rising cost of living.

Ahead of local elections in March, the main Turkish opposition CHP party contrasted the hefty price tag of the new airport with regular citizens struggling to afford food.

Sazak contended that the money could have been spent on more efficient ways to help Turkish Airlines expand, such as by adding more routes.

“If they were willing to invest this money…wasn’t there a better use for it?,” he queried.

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