So Long, Ataturk Airport

Nine Reasons Why I’ll Miss Istanbul’s Century-Old Airport

“Istanbul Atatürk Havalimanı” by Jorge Franganillo (CC BY 2.0 / via Flickr)

It’s not the world’s best airport, but it’s a classic.

Ataturk Airport was where I arrived on my first visit to Turkey, as a child. It’s where I landed when I flew to move here in 2015. And it’s where I’ve greeted the many friends and family members who have come to visit me over the years.

On Monday, October 29, a new airport opens its doors to coincide with the anniversary of the Turkish Republic. But this represents only the first phase of a decade-long project, which is as controversial as it is grand, costing $12 billion in total and anywhere from 27 to hundreds of workers’ lives so far. The new airport will reportedly be the world’s biggest. The plan is to transfer all air traffic out of Ataturk Airport, which will close this December.

The new airport is no doubt an impressive, state-of-the-art facility. But Ataturk Airport has a place in my heart. Here’s why:

1. You can use the metro to get there

For just a handful of lira, you can get straight to Ataturk Airport. No special bus, expensive fare, or fancy high-speed train is necessary. Just make sure not to pack too much, and budget your time accordingly. Sure, the rush-hour crowds and transfers can be a hassle, but you get what you pay for.

As of publication time, there is no metro line that can take you to the new airport.

2. It’s closer to the city center

The distance from Ataturk Airport to Taksim Square (arguably the center of the city) is about 16 kilometers as the crow flies, and a bit more than 20 kilometers by road. Compare that with the new airport, which is about double the distance as the crow flies and by road.

3. The crazy long passport control line is great for people watching

Europeans, Middle Easterners, North Americans, Asians, Africans and South Americans — you name it, everyone’s in that line. Few places on this planet are as diverse. The wait can be long and frustrating, and the frenzy wears on your nerves, but with enough time you’ll get better at recognizing different languages and passports.

4. The same goes for the crowded hallways that never seem to end

An example of Ataturk Airport’s long hallways that never end (screenshot via Google Maps)

As with the passport control line, the hallways in the airport can seem interminable. But they offer you a chance to ponder the lives of the billions of people with whom you share this world.

5. The drive to the city center is a good chance to learn about Istanbul

Depending on the route you take into the city, you might pass by a building called “Real Istanbul.” And that’s exactly what you’ll see on the way out of Ataturk Airport. No, the city is not all 17th century minarets, carpets and cats. The fast-growing Istanbul of today is a place where an estimated 20-or-so-million people duke it out for a seat on the bus. It’s a place that continues to sprawl with rapidly constructed buildings, gated developments, towers and malls promising a slice of the good life. It’s a place where one could go months without making it to the city center.

“Real Istanbul”

As monotonous as this landscape can be, it’s a route I’ve gotten used to, and one that’s a constant reminder of the way this city is changing and continues to change. Speaking of which…

6. Istanbul used to have more trees before the new airport was built

Screenshot of Istanbul New Airport (screenshot via Google Earth)

Once it’s complete, the Istanbul New Airport will be larger than Manhattan. Much of the area used to be forest, and in a city that is already suffering from a lack of parks one wonders just how much concrete will keep being poured onto the ground.

In the run-up to last summer’s national elections, the pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper reported that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced a new public park would take Ataturk Airport’s place. But a Sunday report by the same newspaper left the future of the site vague, saying that it would “transition to other uses, such as training activities, aviation fairs, and civil use.” Only time will tell.

6. At night, a beautiful string of flights rises above the Golden Horn

I couldn’t find a picture of this online. But if you’ve seen it IRL, you’ll know what I mean.

8. Waiting for international visitors isn’t that complicated

There’s only a handful of cafes to choose from — as far as I can recall, there’s Starbucks, Simit Saray and Cafe Nero. That’s it. Or you can wait with the rest of the crowds right outside baggage claim. Either way, for such a large airport serving so many destinations, it’s not that hard to find someone (even if they’re coming from abroad and don’t have access to phone service).

9. You feel like a celebrity when you leave baggage claim

A lot of airports are crowded, but Istanbul’s takes the cake. When you leave baggage claim, there are a lot of people waiting in the cramped terminal.

A typical scene awaiting you when you leave baggage claim at Ataturk Airport (screenshot via Google Maps)

A large scrum of drivers holding signs will scan your face as soon as you come through those doors. Locals waiting for family and friends will be there too, looking up at the arrivals board and shuffling about impatiently.

And for just a split second, you’ll get the feeling that all of Istanbul is awaiting your arrival, like you’re the Beatles and this is New York.

So long, Ataturk Airport.