When it comes to the post-truth age, size obviously does matter for the political big shots. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan chose the Proclamation Day of Ataturk’s Republic for the opening of “the world’s largest airport” while the year was just a few days old when US President Donald Trump informed North Korean leader Kim Jong-un via a late-night tweet that his nuclear button was “much bigger and more powerful”.
But the size concerns of our rulers were not actually born in the post-truth times, they are thought to be as old as civilization itself. Greek historian Herodotus claims the Pharaoh Khufu used thousands of slaves to build the Great Pyramid of Giza which was the world’s “tallest” man-made structure for more than 3,800 years until Lincoln Cathedral was crowned in its final form in 14th-century England.
Herodotus, obviously jealous of the glory of Giza and definitely unaware of the shamefulness of using male-dominant rhetoric, also claims the cruel Khufu prostituted his own daughter when he ran “short” of money during the construction of the pyramid, but the Westcar Papyrus describes the pharaoh as good-natured and amiable to his inferiors.
Centuries later, Turkish rulers also became infected by contagious matters of size following the traumatic loss of what was once “the largest” empire in the world. The early 17th-century construction of one of the world’s “largest” mosques, Sultan Ahmed Mosque, or the Blue Mosque as it is popularly known, coincided with the stagnation period of the Ottoman Empire.
Unlike his grandfathers, Sultan Ahmed I turned to treasury funds for his projects because he was unable to gather any spoils from victories as they did.
Size to impress
Size concerns have in fact been systematically injected into the minds of every single Turk since The Law on the Unification of Education came into force in 1924. In the intervening years, Turkish voters have always been ready to welcome any “sizeable” project to particularly impress the hated-as-much-as-beloved West, as Grigory Potemkin did for his dear Catherine II.
“The airport, one of the most important legacies of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has a controversial history full of ups and downs riddled with fights and attempts at preventing it. Political obstacles were put in place to prevent its construction. Attempts were made to prevent it citing environmental conditions. Since it will also change the world's flight traffic, it disturbed countries with major airports in the West,” Nagehan Alci wrote in her November 1 column entitled “The significance of Istanbul Airport, the largest in the world” for the Daily Sabah, adding: “The airport is located on a very strategic spot. It has easy access to many parts of Europe. As of this week, two runways will open, and this will be increased to five when the airport is completed.”
Though there is controversy in the news over whether five or six runways will eventually be built, and even as to whether one or two of them are actually available already, Alci at least agrees the project has yet to be completed.
“80 Eiffel Towers!”
“[The Istanbul Airport] defies the world with its size..,” according to the official website of the consortium behind it, IGA. “Istanbul New Airport well overrides its competitors with its size. Istanbul New Airport, 3.5 times as big as Peking Airport made up of 23 million square meters…,” IGA continues, adding: “New Istanbul Airport is worth 80 Eiffel Towers!”
Eighty Eiffel Towers, as it turns out, could be constructed with the 640,000 tonnes of steel used in the construction of this mega-infrastructure.
But hold on a minute, there’s a danger here that we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves, for the current constructed size of Erdogan’s “largest” airport would be as questionable as the realness of Potemkin’s village if the global media had not turned into a post-truth PR machine.
Its first commercial flight departed on October 31, reportedly with 340 passengers on board bound for Ankara. By now, a total of five daily reciprocal flight routes should be up and running, including to Ankara, Antalya and Izmir, along with a connection to Azerbaijani capital Baku and one to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
All the flights are operated by Turkey’s state-controlled national flag carrier Turkish Airlines (THY). THY denied on November 2 in a bourse filing a claim in Turkish daily Hurriyet made on October 31 that it has taken action to acquire a stake in the new airport.
The construction of Istanbul Airport began in May 2015 and according to Bianet the target is to have all phases online by 2023, a year which in October brings the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the Republic of Turkey.
Erdogan, meanwhile, announced on September 16 that he was freezing new government investment projects in a fiscal squeeze seen as a response to the country’s economic turmoil. Infrastructure mega-projects to build bridges, ports, tunnels and railways—the likes of which have been symbolic of the outspoken Erdogan’s attempt to transform Turkey in the past 15 years, but which have been highly debt-fuelled—could be suspended under the move, with the president himself stating that only those which were more than 70% complete would be finished.
Currently, Istanbul Airport includes only the world’s “largest” terminal space. Its first three runways are designed to serve 100mn passengers annually by 2021, while there is a target of 200mn using six runways by 2029—almost double the capacity of the world’s busiest airport in 2017, Atlanta.
“Pininfarina and AECOM, an outstanding design company that designed for Ferrari previously, designed the 90-metre-tall control tower of Istanbul New Airport,” according to IGA.
Question marks over functionality
The functionality of Erdogan’s “largest” airport project is also inviting some pesky question marks. Though named Istanbul Airport, it is located 20 miles outside of the city on the coast of the Black Sea.
The only public transportation linking to the airport currently comprises of six bus lines operated by Istanbul Municipality’s transportation units Havaist and IETT. A metro line extending to the airport is targeted for November 2019, Cigdem Toker, wrote on October 5 in her column for daily Sozcu, citing a 2017 state audit court report.
The plan is to transfer all flights presently operating out of Ataturk Airport—Europe’s fifth largest airport by traffic in 2017—to the new airport by the end of this year.
Ataturk processed 64.1mn passengers in 2017, according to data from the state airports authority (DHMI). Those more than 60mn passengers will presumably be able to reach the successor airport by private car, bus or taxi.
Ozgur Ozdemir and Batu Bozkurk of Medyacope TV on October 31 released a video story about their journey from Istanbul to the first commercial flight taking off from Istanbul Airport, flying to Ankara.
They take a Havaist private bus at 06:40 from Taksim Square and reach the airport at around 09:00. A taxi would have cost TRY129 (€21) plus a TRY5.5 highway toll fee, according to Hurriyet. The net minimum wage in Turkey stands at TRY1,603.
“[The business of ride-hailing company] Uber [Technologies Inc.] is over in Turkey”, Erdogan said intervening in a row involving traditional taxi drivers on June 1. However, Neyran Bahadirli, general manager of Uber Turkey, told news agency DHA on October 26 that they desired to make their 8,000 drivers, including 2,000 legal taxis, useful to Istanbul Airport passengers.
The parking lot at the airport will be free of charge until the end of this year, according to IGA.
Payments to Bulgaria
Turkey’s transport ministry, meanwhile denied on August 30 claims regarding payments to be made by the Turkish Treasury to Bulgaria for planes using Bulgarian air space while landing at, and taking off from, Istanbul Airport.
The feasibility of Erdogan’s “largest” airport project is another concern. The cost of the first phase is controversial. Some media outlets claim $12bn was invested but official state news service Anadolu Agency reported it cost only $7.2bn.
Ataturk Airport will become idle and the future of Istanbul’s third airport, Sabiha Gokcen, located on the Anatolian side of Istanbul is also not certain.
The construction contract for Istanbul Airport went to a consortium of Cengiz-Mapa-Limak-Kolin-Kalyon consortium, known as IGA. It bid €22.2bn for the rights to construct and operate the facility for 25 years.
Limak, Cengiz, Kolin and Kalyon were among the top 10 global private participants in infrastructure projects between 1990 and the end of the first half of 2018, according to the World Bank.
Corruption allegations made by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) do not carry any news value under the current conditions in Turkey because “dog bites man” is not news. But we may have some news in the future if it can be proved that a government project has not been tainted by any claims of graft.
In April, Turkey’s transportation minister caused consternation by indicating that the airport builders required protection from insolvency. The consortium subsequently went into talks for another one billion euros in loans which it reportedly obtained by late May from a consortium of local public and private lenders.
On October 25, Kadri Samsunlu, CEO of IGA, said revisions were made to the annual €1bn airport fee agreement with the government, but he did not disclose further details. According to Bloomberg, he also said that IGA would consider any loan refinancing offers for the $5bn loan it took out from local lenders to build the first phase of the airport.
Environmental costs associated with the airport, which the Donald Trumps of this world shrug aside as not mattering, are in fact a serious concern. Environmental group Northern Forests Defence back in 2015 published a detailed environmental damage report entitled “The Third Airport Project”.
Combined with the Third Bosphorus Bridge—wait for it! It’s the world’s second “tallest”, one of the “widest”—and the Canal Istanbul—gadzooks! Even submarines will be able to pass through this waterway splitting Istanbul to link the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. The Ottomans gave up on previous propositions for such an endeavour more than 500 years ago—the airport is fuelling a new construction saga of multiple highways as well as new lucrative residential and office projects that will destroy the remaining northern forests of Istanbul.
“We committed treason against this city [Istanbul], we are still committing it, I am also responsible for this,” remarked Erdogan in October 2017, apparently calling for developments historically sensitive to surroundings.
Istanbul Airport general manager Kadir Samsunlu said on October 28 that an "airport city" for innovation and technology is also to be built, according to The Associated Press.
According to IGA, Istanbul Airport is truly an award and certificate winner when it comes to sustainability. It is even possible to watch videos on the company’s official web pages showing how officials from the Environmental and Sustainability Directorate Wildlife Management Programme are taking care of wildlife found around the airport.
“Istanbul New Airport, bringing in robots, artificial intelligence, face recognition and similar features to reach personal information, has been equipped with cutting-edge technological systems such as smart system, beacon, wireless internet, wireless and new generation GSM infrastructure, LTE, sensor and talking objects,” the website witters on.
And now, buried in this lengthy article—and that is said with no small bitter irony—a recap on the number of workers that have perished in the creation of this latest mega-infrastructure craving, with all its state-of-art technologies, and inflated jargon, fated never to be understood by all but an overweening few. At least 38 souls have been lost in “preventable” work-related accidents and many more have been badly injured, Nihat Demir, the head of the construction workers’ union Dev Yapi-Is, told Human Rights Watch (HRW) on September 21. The transport minister argues the real figure is 30. Suffice to say neither 38 nor 30 names were read out at the biggity airport opening ceremony. Not that those workers still standing did not receive fulsome thanks and praise.
Workers’ unions actually claim the death toll might even be a good deal higher since unregistered workers are also dying at the airport. On October 21, daily Cumhuriyet claimed that Nepalese workers found a dead body in a storm drain during cleaning works. It was determined that the worker had probably fallen into the drain around three days before his death. His name and nationality could not be verified, according to local media reports.
On September 14, thousands of airport construction workers protested against poor working and living conditions on the site. They presented a list of demands. Sufficient and clean food, an end to alleged arbitrary dismissals and late pay, and action to address workplace safety and a bedbug infestation in workers’ sleeping quarters were among them.
“Behind the glass and steel of President Erdogan's newest mega-project, 30 construction workers and a union leader are sitting in jail for protesting poor working conditions," Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey director at Human Rights Watch, said on October 29, adding: “The government advertises Istanbul's new airport as the biggest in the world, but the prestige project has been marred by reports of accidents and arrests of protesting workers.”
Demir also told the The Associated Press that the rush to meet Erdogan's construction-finish deadline was a major cause of the endured accidents and deaths at the site, which employs 36,000 people.
Death by truck deadline
This article is finally wending its way to its hard-earned end, but at the risk of unduly marring Istanbul’s—nay, the globe’s—sleek and slick new air travel hub, let’s not overlook a local media report that in February suggested that some 141 people had been killed and 452 wounded by earth-moving trucks joining the Istanbul traffic with pressing deadlines. CNN Turk looked at the carnage, citing a report prepared by Berdan Dere, who opened a Facebook page to collect data on the issue after he lost his daughter in an accident caused by one such truck that was in a hurry.
"The airport has become a cemetery," Demir also reportedly said, describing the pressure to finish the job as relentless and blaming long working hours for leading to "carelessness, accidents and deaths".
Turkey's labour ministry has denied media reports about the claimed scale of deaths amid, or linked to, the airport construction. It insisted in February that 27 workers had died at the site due to "health problems and traffic accidents". It has not commented since then.
“To complete an airport project of this size in just three and a half years was extremely challenging, not least in terms of ensuring timely operational readiness of all related facilities, systems, procedures and equipment needed to run the airport,” CNN quoted a European aviation expert as saying on October 31.
“While there will likely be challenges ahead, there are several factors acting in the airport’s favour, including the relatively strong existing domestic air transport market in Turkey (which rivals in the Middle East generally do not have to the same extent), and the fact that the airport is less likely to face the same degree of potentially constraining environmental legislation, which is generally the case for large airports in Western Europe,” CNN’s chosen aviation expert also said.
Albanian President Ilir Meta, Kyrgyzstan President Sooronbay Jeenbekov, Kosovo President Hashim Thaci, Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov, Moldovan President Igor Dodon, Pakistan President Arif Alvi, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, Sudan President Omar Al-Bashir, Chairman Denis Zvidzic of the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and Chairman Ogtay Asadov of the National Parliament of Azerbaijan also attended the inauguration ceremony of Erdogan’s “largest” airport, according to the Turkish Presidency.