The name of Istanbul's new airport

The name of Istanbul's new airport

A pugnacious debate is continuing in the country regarding what should be the name of the new airport of Istanbul. Many might say “What’s in a name?” but in this part of the world where semantics often carry much more importance than context, it is perhaps rather reasonable to assume that if the new airport is to replace the old international Atatürk airport, the new one should also be named after the founding father of the Republic of Turkey.

Opinions differ of course. According to some who still feel a belonging to the long-dead Ottoman Empire demand the airport be named after Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II, who is often revered by political Islamists in Turkey as their forefather. Why would an airport be named after a former sultan of the long-dead empire? Was that sultan a pioneer in aviation? No, apart from staying in power for 46 years full of defeats and retreats for the Turkish state, he was a skilled carpenter. No joke, the Lausanne Treaty was signed on the table manufactured by him. That table was later presented to Turkey by the Swiss government and is now at the Ethnography Museum of Ankara.

Those who suggest the airport be named after Abdul Hamid are probably in an officious effort to appease President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who is known to have a very high regard for the former sultan. However, there are people who strongly believe the largest airport of Europe must carry the name of the “biggest statesman” of the continent, Erdoğan. Who could dispute such sentiments and demands under the current real politik of Turkey.

Frankly, I believe the pugnacious debate over what ought to be the name of the airport is over exaggerated. Naming squares, hospitals, stadiums, airports after Atatürk, or placing Atatürk pins on lapels, was a by-product of the militarist mentality developed in this country after the 1980 military coup. Such attitudes were perhaps the biggest curse on Atatürk.

With or without his name being given to various buildings in the country or his pins carried on lapels, Atatürk was a legendary hero who achieved an outstanding military and political victory and established a republic on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. He cannot be commemorated with such officious undertakings. Rather, he ought to be remembered with his dedication to the republic—that he was stressing as his biggest achievement—and other efforts to create a sovereign democracy respecting gender equality, citizenship rights and of course supremacy of law and equality of all in front of the law.

As the third airport is being constructed with the same build-operate-transfer (BOT) model with “guaranteed usage” by the Turkish Treasury that has badly failed so far, it might be even a great insult to the memory of Atatürk to remember him with such acts. Do not be surprised. If almost all projects constructed under such schemes so far have failed and the Treasury is paying for the remaining almost two thirds of the guaranteed usage with our money, this model cannot be a success.

For example, a colleague spent time last week to research the great failure of the Kütahya airport built six years ago. It was a BOT project. Constructed with a total investment of 50 million euros and leased under the contract for a period of 29 years and 11 months. Over the past six years, the airport served some 124,867 passengers while the state guaranteed the contractor at least 2.4 million passengers in that period. That was the pledged passenger number. The actual number differed by over 95 percent. The end result? The state paid the airport operating 205,281,118 euros. A 50 million euro investment, 205 million euros cash payback from the state in six years. A great success, is it not?

If the third airport is a similar “success” story, would it not be an insult to Atatürk to name the airport after him?