What Has Happened To Istanbul Atatürk Airport?

The new Istanbul Airport has been operational for just over two years. The coronavirus pandemic has given the airport a challenging start to its life, but, going forward, it is set to become an important intercontinental hub. However, what about the airport whose place it took? Istanbul Atatürk Airport served the city for decades before being replaced, but what is its function today? Let’s take a look at what has happened to this facility.

Istanbul Atatürk Airport
One of the airport’s passenger terminals back in 2013. Photo: Milan Suvajac via Wikimedia Commons

A brief history of the airport

The airport dates back to 1911, when a small two-hangar facility was constructed in Yeşilköy, Istanbul for Turkey’s armed forces. It takes its name from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who served as the country’s President for 15 years between 1923 and his death in 1938. However, it was not given the name Atatürk International Airport until the 1980s

Commercial service at the facility began in 1933, with it initially taking the name Yeşilköy Airport. The first services served Ankara and Athens using Curtiss Model 55 ‘Kingbird’ airliners from the US. The airline operating these was none other than the newly founded Türkiye Devlet Hava Yolları (Turkish State Airlines), which became today’s Turkish Airlines.

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Istanbul Ataturk Old Terminal
The airport’s old terminal building, as seen in 1970. Photo: Victor Grigas via Wikimedia Commons

By the mid-2010s, the airport was consistently ranked among the world’s 10 busiest airports in terms of international passenger traffic. It was also a frequent sight in the top 20 in terms of overall passenger numbers, peaking at 11th place in 2015. However, these impressive figures were soon set to fall sharply with the opening of a new airport nearby.

An overnight change

With Turkish Airlines serving more countries than any other airline, Istanbul has become an increasingly important hub for connecting passengers. This, along with growth in the numbers of passengers starting and ending their journeys in the city, prompted the construction of a new Istanbul Airport to meet demand. It opened fully on April 6th, 2019.

Turkish Airlines had already been operating flights from the partially opened airport since October 2018. However, with the remaining commercial operations set to commence on April 6th, 2019, a huge overnight transfer of equipment was planned.

Istanbul Airport From Above
Istanbul Airport opened fully in April 2019. Photo: Kulttuurinavigaattori via Wikimedia Commons

This saw over 10,000 components carried by hundreds of trucks in the early hours. April 6th, 2019 also marked the changeover of IATA codes for the two airports. Istanbul Airport inherited Atatürk’s ‘IST’ designation, while the older facility was redesignated as ‘ISL.’

Istanbul Atatürk Airport today

While passenger operations have been entirely shifted to the new Istanbul Airport, Atatürk is still an important component in Turkish aviation. Indeed, it has become the city’s cargo hub, with Turkish Airlines Cargo serving dozens of destinations worldwide.

Other cargo carriers with a presence at Atatürk include EgyptAir Cargo, FedEx, Hong Kong Air Cargo, Lufthansa Cargo, MNG Airlines, Qatar Airways Cargo, and Silk Way Airlines. Of these, MNG Airlines, whose headquarters are in Istanbul, serves the most destinations.

Maastricht Airport, Stowaway, Turkish Airlines
Turkish Airlines cargo has retained a significant presence at Atatürk. Photo: Getty Images

Other present uses for the airport include general aviation, aircraft maintenance, and VIP flights using business jets and government planes. Turkish Airlines and low-cost carrier Onur Air have kept their HQs at Atatürk despite passenger services moving to the new airport.

Both the old Atatürk Airport and the new Istanbul Airport are situated on the European side of the city. Meanwhile, Istanbul is also served by a third airport, namely Sabiha Gökçen International (SAW) on the Asian side. This is a key hub for local low-cost carrier Pegasus Airlines, as well as Turkish Airlines’ regional brand AnadoluJet. It opened in 2001, also as a consequence of Atatürk struggling to keep up with increasing demand.

Did you ever fly from Istanbul Atatürk Airport? How do you find that the replacement Istanbul Airport compares to it? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.