Sunday, July 24, 2016

Coup Attempt Latest Disaster to Threaten Turkey's Future as Aviation Hub

On the night of Friday July 15a renegade section of the Turkish army launched a coup against the democratically elected government of Recep Tayyip Erdo─čanTurkish military F16 fighter jets buzzed over the cities of Ankara and Istanbul while the army steamrolled Ataturk airport, which was the scene of tanks rolling across runways, massive crowds  of civilians on the tarmac, and the iconic photo of a man lying in front of a tank at the entrance of the airport. The coup attempt led to the cancellation of all flights from Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul on Friday.  



A Man lies in front of a Turkish Military tank at the entrance of Ataturk Airport

The failed coup attempt is the latest disaster to affect Turkey after the Istanbul Airport bombing in June which left 36 dead and closed the airport down for days.  

Turkey's geographic location as the crossroads between the East and the West has made Turkey, and specifically Istanbul, an important aviation hub in the Middle East rivaling the likes of Dubai and Qatar.  

In 2015, Ataturk International Airport served 61.3 million passengers, up 8% from 2014. Since 2002, passenger numbers at Ataturk have risen at least 4% every year with passenger numbers growing at double digit rates in many of those years 

In the last decade, Turkish Airlines has been the driver of Istanbul's rapid ascendancy as a global aviation hub. Turkish Airlines has dramatically increased flights to destinations in Europe, the U.S., and Asia. Turkish Airlines has recently launched flights to American cities such as Washington D.C. in 2013 and Atlanta in May of this year. 

What makes Turkish Airlines' Istanbul hub different from the Middle East hubs of Dubai and Qatar is that Istanbul is not only a gateway to Asia, the Middle East, and Africa but also to the European continentDue to Istanbul's geographic proximity to Europe, Turkish Airlines can employ narrow body aircraft on routes to Europe. Today, it's not uncommon for a passenger travelling to Europe from the U.S. to have a layover in Istanbul.  

Turkey's geographic placement as the bridge between the east and the west has placed the country directly in the crossfire of the war between Islamic terrorist organizations and Western armies. In June, Islamic terrorists bombed the departure hall at Ataturk International airport killing 36 people while injuring 147. Terrorists have also attacked popular tourist attractions around Turkey such as  popular shopping district in Istanbul.    

However, as a result of various external and internal pressures, Turkey itself has become a divided and politically unstable country. Turkey is facing the external pressures of the complex and multifaceted war in Syria and Iraq which has led to the exodus of 4.5 million refugees, who have mainly settled in Turkey after the borders of Europe were closed.  

Turkey also has many internal struggles from the battles between the increasingly Islamofascist and authoritarian government of Erdogan and the ethnic Kurds (who are fighting not only the Islamic State in the east but also the Turkish government after the Kurds formed a political party to rival Erdogan's dominant Justice and Development party) to the rebellious factions of the Turkish military intent on overthrowing Erdogan 

The recent burst of terrorist attacks, the failed coup attempt, and overall political instability have all caused foreign tourist numbers in Turkey to drop precipitously in 2016. The dramatic drop in tourists will most likely lead to Ataturk Airport's first yearly drop in passenger traffic this year. 

Turkish authorities have released a plan to build a massive airport capable of serving up to 200 million passengers a year. The new airport, aptly called Istanbul New Airport, would rival Dubai World Central as the top aviation hub in the Middle East. 

A computer rendition of the proposed Istanbul New Airport
However recent events in Turkey and the overall geopolitical trends in the Middle East are threatening the viability of the massive Istanbul New Airport. Western travelers, who comprise a majority of foreign tourists and transiters in Turkey, are more likely to choose to travel through the safer airports in Dubai or Frankfurt as long as Turkey continues to get battered by attacks and internal struggles 

While Turkey's strong economy is still growing and features a large middle class, the failed coup attempt has worried investors, especially from abroad, leading to fears of an economic slowdown. 

With the first phase of the Istanbul New Airport scheduled to open in 2018, Turkey has very little time to fix its stability problems. Erdogan's latest efforts to purge the putsch have led to the reduction of civil liberties and rights for Turkish citizens. As long as Erdogan continues to place his political power over the safety and stability of Turkey, tourism numbers will continue to fall dramatically imperiling Turkey's current and future position as a major aviation hub in the Middle East. 

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