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After months of delays, the new Istanbul Airport (IST) is now open. Fresh from launching TPG UK’s site, my next assignment was to experience the airport as a normal passenger. I had used the cramped Atatürk airport several times previously and had always been forced to use a bus gate, which made quick transfers impossible. So I was interested to see how the new terminal would compare.
In short, provided you love walking and can live without working Wi-Fi, it is spectacular.
The airport is a single terminal building — the world’s largest — and is laid out with five different piers. Of the four, one is domestic and four are international. As you can see from the image below, it is roughly an H shape, with an extra line/pier in the middle.
The interior of the terminal is beautiful. It reminded me a little of Madrid Barajas Airport with its wavy ceiling and sizable space between gates. The completed retail spaces are very high end — it felt more like a luxury shopping mall than an airport.
Despite being fully operational for almost a month now, there are numerous shops and eateries that are still being built. The workmanship is generally good, although many internal glass walls already need a good clean, and some painting work is noticeably sloppy.
Wi-Fi in the terminal did not work the entire time I was there, which is inexcusable for a brand new airport with such a focus on connecting foreign passengers.
The airport currently has two hotels onsite, both of which are Yotels. One is airside and the other is landside. I booked nine hours in a room at the airside Yotel for £110 ($145). While this is expensive, the convenience and location can’t be beat, and it also saved me from paying for a visa on arrival by not having to enter Turkey for my overnight stay.
The entrance is well signed and just above the transit security point, opposite the Miles & Smiles lounge and just under the IGA lounge, which most non-Star Alliance airlines use.
I was quickly checked-in and headed to my room via these elevators.
I was assigned a Premium Queen cabin on the first floor.
The room was certainly small at 140 square feet, but perfect for a quick sleep. The bed folds up and down by remote control to provide more space.
It was spotlessly clean and everything felt fresh. Given the airport has only been open for a few weeks, I may have even been the first person to sleep in this room.
I slept well on the very comfortable bed and the next morning headed out to explore more of the new terminal.
There is a huge design flaw in the terminal, however. Despite gates being spread across five piers, there is only one single security checkpoint for passengers originating in Istanbul, as well as a single checkpoint for transiting passengers.
This means that if your flight arrives from a gate at the end of one pier and your connecting flight departs from the gate right next to it, you have to walk all the way back to the single security checkpoint near the airport’s entrance, and then all the way back to your gate.
There are moving walkways to assist passengers with these epic hikes, but there is no mass transit system between piers like there is between piers at Heathrow Terminal 5, for example. I measured myself walking from security to one of the farthest gates and it was more than 3,000 feet each way.
If transferring, you could be looking at a walk of well over a mile given you need to walk back to the sole transit point and then back to your gate.
Some airport staff were using Segways to get from one gate to the next given the enormous distances. If you have any mobility issues at all, I would recommend either organizing a wheelchair, or choosing another airport.
As the piers are straight and you need to walk the full distance to get to transit or passport control, you can see the entire pier, which looks like it goes on forever.
Given how spread out the terminal is, I found each gate area very comfortable. Each had plenty of seating, was clearly roped, signed and had spaced boarding lanes and huge windows to look out at the dozens of Turkish Airlines planes coming and going.
Some of the seating was quite randomly placed though.
Turkish Airlines is by far the largest operator at the airport, and also holds the unique title of operating flights to more countries than any other airline. This means that Turkish can provide connections other airlines cannot, like Montreal to Mogadishu or Havana to Hanover.
This is a real benefit that will attract connecting passengers form all over the globe. But the problem with having all these passengers pass through such an enormous terminal with no mass transit and a single security checkpoint means that passengers will need to allow plenty of time to transfer.
I would recommend an absolute minimum of 2.5 hours to transfer at this airport. If you are hoping to enjoy a lounge at the airport, consider at least 3.5 hours. Both my inbound and outbound flights used jet bridges.
It’s a beautiful physical space and certainly a huge improvement on the cramped conditions at Atatürk Airport. IST allows Turkish Airlines to continue growing its enormous route network and compete with its Gulf rivals. I personally like stretching my legs between flights and people-watching passengers crossing the globe, but many passengers will likely wish there was proper transport between piers. Oh, and working Wi-Fi, too.
All photos by Ben Smithson / The Points Guy except where noted.
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