Istanbul’s airport grand master

posted on 1st December 2022
Istanbul’s airport grand master

iGA (Istanbul Grand Airport) is storming back from the pandemic with soaring passenger and cargo volumes and a leader determined his airport will be a shining representative of Turkey on the world aviation stage. iGA’s Chief Executive Officer Kadri Samsunlu talked to Mark Pilling

Kadri Samsunlu’s business life over the past few years has been a roller coaster ride. It began with the achievement of being recruited into his first CEO role in 2017, then flying high in 2019 with the opening of iGA, followed by the collapse in traffic less than a year later as the Covid virus hit.
He acknowledges the difficulty of opening iGA and effectively closing the airport a year later as the pandemic struck. “That was incredible bad luck,” Samsunlu told delegates at the recent Routes World event in Las Vegas. An understatement if ever there was one.
However, this urbane Turkish leader also recognises that despite this setback, he holds cards that many of his airport peers do not. He can consider himself lucky because he is running possibly one of Europe’s last-ever major greenfield airports with a masterplan to keep on expanding. He can rely on a government that supports the development of air transport as a key economic and geopolitical tool for the betterment of the state. He can also count on a virile flag carrier – Turkish Airlines, with its 400-strong aircraft fleet and rapidly blossoming hub at iGA.
Samsunlu visibly shivers when he thinks about the implications of building iGA in today’s higher cost environment. “I consider us very lucky to have completed this investment when interest rates were low and there were low energy costs,” he said.
The iGA company was formed in July 2013, with the first foundation stone for the new airport laid in June 2014. The US$7.6 billion project was built, financed and opened pre-Covid, in the benign economic climate of the 2010s. “Money was cheap, commodities [such as steel and cement] were cheap. Labour was abundant… If we had done it now the cost would have been at least 80% more and made it unviable,” he explained.
The owners of iGA will have to raise more money to complete the masterplan for the airport and they will be subject to the prevailing costs of material and labour, but as Samsunlu observed: “The core of the investment is done.”

Masterplan
The next phase for iGA is on a grand scale, matching Turkey’s ambitious travel and tourism goals. The first phase was completed with the full transfer of commercial passenger flights from Istanbul’s existing hub, Atatürk Airport, to iGA taking place on 6 April 2019.
The airport, which is located 35km from the city centre on the ‘European’ side of Turkey, began 24/7 operations with three runways and a huge single terminal with a passenger capacity of 90 million. Once complete, the target is for iGA to have a capacity of 200 million passengers and handle 3,600 flights a day across six runways.
According to Samsunlu, the 200 million passenger mark will be reached around 2035, with the current thinking that the milestone of 100 million will be achieved in 2026 at the latest. This year, iGA will handle 60 million passengers, with 73 million predicted for 2023.
It will be in 2023 that the airport regains 2019 traffic levels, demonstrating a swift return to growth for Turkey’s air transport sector – aided by a government that secured a fast reopening of the country’s borders and encouraged Turkish Airlines and others to restore their networks at pace.

Restart
The flag carrier and Turkey’s second-largest carrier Pegasus (which operates from Istanbul’s second airport, Sabiha Gökçen, located east across the Bosporus Strait in the ‘Asian’ side of the country) were able to restore their networks speedily because they were banned from firing employees during the pandemic and received state support to make that happen. iGA was in the same position. “We had full employment in place, which meant we were able to handle the growing business volume and demand in our business segments,” said Samsunlu.
Samsunlu, who was recruited in 2017 to complete the airport’s construction and bring it smoothly into service, took iGA into survival mode in March 2020 as Covid hit. He established a new relationship with stakeholders as traffic fell to a trickle, worked to ensure the safety of passengers and staff, conserved cashflow and managed the airport’s undertakings with its banks.
“Turkey had a very limited lockdown, and we hardly ever closed our borders,” said Samsunlu. “Also, Turkish Airlines is a big success factor as it tried to recommence flights as soon as possible.”
Dr Ahmet Bolat, Chairman of Turkish told delegates at the IATA Wings of Change conference in Istanbul in early November that his carrier “was a fast learner in extreme conditions”. As noted above, the carrier did not lay off any of its 65,000 employees, so it was able to respond quickly to the uptick in demand. This has “paid off spectacularly” and the airline is nearing its pre-pandemic traffic level faster than it had previously forecast.
Turkish and iGA have reaped the dividends of a transportation ministry prepared to stand up to its colleagues in the health ministry. Each state department has its own priority, but as ACI World Director General Luis Felipe de Oliveira observed at the Routes World event, during the pandemic it was usually the health ministries that prevailed.
“The biggest responsibility [to help the aviation industry] rests with policy-makers,” Dr Ömer Fatih Sayan, Turkey’s Deputy Minister of Transport and Infrastructure, told the IATA Wings of Change event. “Turkey was among the countries to reach the fastest normalisation after Covid-19. Recovery can be strong with the right policies and strong public-private co-operation.”
“We [Turkey] left as little as possible to the responsibility of the health minister and I am very grateful to the deputy minister of transport for his efforts,” said Samsunlu.

Loyalty and service
The ability of iGA and other air transport firms in Turkey to retain staff will surely have made leaders in other countries, who did not have such a luxury, green with envy. “The biggest asset is your people. You cannot expect loyalty when you do not back people,” said Samsunlu. “Relations with unions are also important. You cannot just contact them when you have a strike.”
However, Samsunlu confirmed that keeping staff on during the pandemic was critical to iGA’s restart efforts, and in future airport bosses will have little choice but to increase wages. “It is key to retaining staff. We must be more generous going forward,” he said.
Today Samsunlu oversees an enterprise that employs 13,000 people (including subcontractors), having mushroomed since he joined when there were just 90 on board. His leadership style is firmly ‘hands on‘, dictated by a passion for customer service and to ensure he is personally involved in face-to-face meetings with important partners and customers.
Samsunlu’s desire to instil a customer service ethos in his staff goes to the length of his reading every customer complaint email – all of which are forwarded directly to his inbox. This keeps him intimately in touch with how his service mantra is being implemented at ground level. Additionally, his colleagues know he reads the complaints and respond to issues with appropriate speed.

Personal approach
This is the obsessive side of Samsunlu, as he transmits his wishes across iGA’s staff. He also takes care of business personally where he judges it essential to demonstrate his commitment to furthering a relationship of high strategic value.
“I believe in personal contact a lot. I want to let them see me, with the naked eye,” he said. “What kind of person is running iGA Istanbul Airport? What is going on in his mind, is it sincere? Is he candid? Is he really thinking for the benefit of the institutions? That’s what I’m doing on your behalf in Turkey. Help me on this subject? And I am available 24/7 for anything coming out of my operations. Where you say, ‘Look, I want to do business with you,’ I’m a reliable partner. Count on me.”
A recent example is Samsunlu’s attendance in early November at the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) International Design Symposium in Las Vegas, just two weeks after speaking at the Routes World event in the same city.
There he met with TSA Administrator David Pekoske to “exchange views to increase co-operation and collaboration between iGA and his administration”, said Samsunlu in a LinkedIn post. His motivation is to ensure the iGA relationship with the TSA grows stronger as business ties between Turkey and the USA grow, and for him, face-to-face is the best way to achieve a close bond and partnership.

Growth story
A critical element of Samsunlu’s mission is to grow iGA. “With the existing [traffic] volumes, meeting all our undertakings is hard. We have a huge debt because of the investment [in building the airport] and there is the annual concession payment to the state,” he noted.
Samsunlu’s task is to deliver a great hub product for Turkish and to diversify iGA’s offer, with the desire to attract more low-cost carriers a top priority. “My main competition is the Gulf, mainly Dubai for passengers and Qatar for passengers and cargo,” he explained. Having a sole terminal on a single level is a big plus for iGA.
“Every airport must have a proposition to the passengers. Our proposition is a big terminal, connecting under one roof, where you can connect to your next departure, domestic or international, and enjoy the entire retail mix,” said Samsunlu. “This means customers cannot use the wrong terminal because there’s only one… And it is the correct provision also operationally because all the ground handlers are managing all the processes under one roof,” he added.
To compete with Dubai, Doha, and to an extent Frankfurt, Samsunlu stresses the need to deliver a high-quality service, which means changing how iGA thinks about passengers. “We must differentiate ourselves with our speed and our care, with our proposition to passengers in the front of our mind. We must change the mindset of [our] people,” he said.
“If you consider yourself a piece of infrastructure for transportation and don’t worry about passengers, yes, they will find their way around – but they hate you, they curse you,” he said. “They still get on the plane, but then it comes to a point, and they ask which connection they should use. And that choice could mean turning away from iGA to another connecting hub.
“My responsibility is to ensure the quality is high. If the service on the ground right after leaving the aircraft is clumsy then the passenger starts hating the experience,” Samsunlu said.
“I am obsessed with customers,” he went on. “I’m trying to make everybody customer centric. You cannot imagine how many meetings I am doing every week, just talking about customers. Some of them are a waste of time. But I’m just sitting there so people discuss the importance of customers, why we should value them, why without them we are useless.
“In hub airports you need to provide a personalised journey for every single passenger journey,” he explained. “First, technologically, passengers must be able to choose what they want to do in the airport. By using your app, you must put all the options in front of them; then they tick the boxes. And that would be the guide for them while they’re at the airport. That’s what we are doing. The second important thing is you must put plenty of options and amenities in front of them. So, they will find something fitting their expectations.”

Turkish Airlines marches on
“If growth continues, then we will continue to invest,” explained Samsunlu, speaking about the next phases of iGA’s masterplan. That seems inevitable given the success of Turkish Airlines, which represents about 80% of the gateway’s traffic today.
However, Samsunlu is not complacent about iGA’s success riding on the flag carrier. “This is a hub basically built for them, but if we lost the hub business then this airport is going to be extremely empty.” Turkish and iGA have a “very healthy” relationship today and Samsunlu acknowledges how lucky he and iGA are to have that.
“We should be and are working on reducing the dominance of Turkish [at iGA],” explained Samsunlu. “Turkish is my organic growth, but we need inorganic growth in passenger and cargo [operations] too, which is basically bringing in new airlines or existing airlines increasing their frequencies and destinations. If I’m able to achieve both targets at the same time, then I’m very successful.
“Another important target for me is to increase connectivity [at iGA],” he said, by encouraging more short-haul routes either from Turkish or others. That growth is unhindered by capacity constraints as iGA benefits from 24/7 operation and room to grow.
Today, iGA is virtually devoid of LCCs, with Sabiha Gökçen taking pole position as Istanbul’s main LCC airport and putting the city on the map for city-breaks. Fast-growing Pegasus Airlines and Turkish LCC Anadolujet are based there. “Our target is to add the European side [of Turkey] by putting Istanbul iGA onto the LCC map,” said Samsunlu.
He recognises it is not entirely an easy sell because iGA cannot offer an incentive scheme and Sabiha Gökçen’s passenger fees and landing charges are cheaper. The airport will not offer incentives because its banks do not approve of them, as its debt repayments must be serviced, he noted.
Samsunlu will keep knocking on the door of LCCs and he is confident iGA will prove attractive to this market segment, as it is to many who have arrived at the airport. When iGA opened in 2019 it was served by 60 airlines. Today this number has jumped to 79. Cargo is a strong point for iGA, with 10 carriers operating there in 2019 and 21 today.

Headwinds
Samsunlu listed global recession, energy costs, interest rate rises and the lockdown in China as potential headwinds for iGA and air transport in general. The absence of Chinese links means part of Istanbul’s hub business is eroded and “if it remains locked down next year it would really be an issue,” he said.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has produced huge instability in Europe and while some carriers do fly to Moscow and a few other Russian cities, the market has declined significantly. “Russia could be a much bigger market for Istanbul and Turkey, but we cannot grow it,” said Samsunlu.

Sustainability
When it comes to the topic of sustainability, Samsunlu’s view is that governments must step in to provide incentives to industry to make the transformation, especially to support emerging economies. He has heard his European airport peers express concerns about the impact of sustainability measures on their businesses, especially if such steps put them at a disadvantage compared with their competitors outside Europe.
“Decarbonisation is a must, but the cost may really damage the industry a lot… I’m saying it should not be left to consumers to bear the cost. That will be detriment,” he said.
“As an airport leader the things I need to do are relatively easy to leverage,” he said, and iGA, naturally, has a comprehensive sustainability plan and reporting regime. “I’m not generating a lot of carbon emissions myself as an airport. And I’ll be net zero way before 2050.”
After two visits to Las Vegas in less than a month, I didn’t ask him, but I doubt Kadri Samsunlu bothered throwing dice on the roulette wheel or rode the Big Apple rollercoaster at the famous New York New York hotel.
His mission is to rely not on luck but on hard work. And he is intensely focused on his quest to do the right thing for the sake of his country, his shareholders, his employees – and not forgetting, for an instant, his customers.