Saturday 21 September 2019

Tech to fore as world's latest mega-hub opens for business

Cabin crew from Turkish Airlines at the new terminals, which opened last Monday. Photo: Reuters
Cabin crew from Turkish Airlines at the new terminals, which opened last Monday. Photo: Reuters

Mark Evans

Dublin Airport last week appointed a Spanish-Irish consortium to build its new 3.1km-runway but the long-awaited project - although massive in Irish terms - pales in comparison to what's happening on the edge of Europe.

Istanbul Grand Airport aims to be the world's largest, handling up to 200 million passengers a year in the next decade, eclipsing the current busiest, Atlanta Hartsfield, which handles 103 million a year.

The Sunday Independent joined the world's media to get a sneak preview of the facility, with phase 1 (with a passenger capacity of 90 million) now open for a limited number of flights. National carrier Turkish Airlines is set to move its entire passenger operation to the new airport at the end of December, the single biggest airport move in history. It replaces Ataturk Airport, which handled 63 million passengers last year, including from its double-daily service to Dublin.

The scale of the €10.2bn project to build the world's latest mega hub is staggering - larger than Manhattan Island. It will eventually feature 143 boarding bridges, six runways, 500 check-in desks and a terminal floor area that's five times the size of that of the Empire State Building, with a terminal roof 23 times the area of Rome's Coliseum.

"Ataturk is a great airport, but it's too crowded. There was no single bit of room left for growth," said Kadri Samsunlu, CEO of iGA, operator of the new airport. "This is three times bigger in area so you don't have that crowded feeling once you are here."

Which is a valid point, with the old airport creaking at the seams, and wall-to-wall with transiting passengers.

What's interesting, though, is what it heralds for the future of airports, and passenger experience. As an airport started from scratch, the bells and whistles of the Internet of Things can be added at the planning stage.

The most interesting development is tracing passengers via the iGA app in the near future.

Passengers, the operator promises, can be traced from door to airport gate, directing you to your flight through what will be a sprawling concourse with beacons tracking your phone signal. It's not a new technology, having been deployed already on cruise ships, but not on this scale.

Although the airport is 35km from the city centre (further than at present), the app is designed to guide passengers to the best routes based on local traffic data. That's a big improvement on Ataturk, where my drive from the airport took an hour and a half in the city's notorious rush-hour gridlock on the E5 highway and just 15 minutes on the return leg in the early hours of the morning.

The airport will also feature driverless cars, which are being tested at the moment, along with robots - 10 in all. Robots have been trialled in the likes of Amsterdam Schiphol and Dubai International in the past, but again not on this scale.

It will be home to a police robot to videotape the terminals and passing passengers, along with robots to clean the terminals, or guide passengers to their gates or give information, chief information officer Ersin Inankul, told this column.

Given its geography, on the edge of Europe and Asia, the bulk of passengers will be using it as a hub to connect onwards, with Samsunlu seeing a shift in aviation eastwards. Anchor tenant Turkish Airlines will provide around 75pc-plus of flights, using the airport to further expand its route network, which is already the world's largest by city.

Ease of transit will be a make or break issue, but the airport will also feature first of its kind innovations. One is end-around taxiways, where aircraft can taxi around active runways, speeding up movements, and cutting out delays.

The other is a new computerised baggage reader, funnelling luggage through a 42km-long baggage system with the capacity to process 30,000 items an hour, and storage for 10,800 pieces.

To keep security tight, the airport will feature 9,000 CCTV cameras in the terminals. "A cosmopolitan city like Istanbul [Europe's largest; population 15 million] has 22,000," said Mr Samsunlu.

It's not such a big issue for the Irish business traveller, but if you are parking a car, it can also be traced using the smart car feature on the app. Which is handy as the airport will have Europe's largest car park, with 40,000 spaces, compared to 15,000 in Munich Airport and 2,600 at Dubai International.

The one downside is that the dedicated metro rail link won't be in place until 2020. For now, 150 buses will link the airport to existing train stations, but I'd recommend taxi via the new Northern Marmara highway, which gets passengers from the city centre to the airport in just half an hour.

Sunday Indo Business

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