Istanbul (AFP) – A plane carrying President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday touched down at Istanbul’s new airport, the first such landing by a passenger aircraft ahead of its official opening in October.
The landing came three days before tightly contested elections on Sunday, with Erdogan seeking to showcase the gigantic new facility as evidence of his track record in building mega-projects.
Erdogan has repeatedly boasted at campaign rallies of transforming Turkey with projects like new airports, roads, bridges and two tunnels underneath the Bosphorus in Istanbul.
“Today is a very, very meaningful day for us,” Erdogan said after landing in his presidential jet from Gaziantep, where he had hosted an election rally.
“God willing our airport will become our brand that goes beyond and our prestige,” he added.
The official opening of the airport — which is still under construction but is planned to be one of the world’s biggest hubs — is scheduled for October 29.
And it’s far from the last project that Erdogan, a former mayor of Istanbul, has his sights on.
In his most ambitious project yet, he wants to create a Panama-style canal in Istanbul to take the pressure off the Bosphorus, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
– Ataturk to become a park –
Erdogan is in an intense final burst of campaigning with some analysts predicting he may be pushed to a second round on July 8, and may even see his ruling party lose its majority in parliament.
He arrived after a day campaigning in the southeast of Turkey first in Kahramanmaras and then Gaziantep.
Istanbul’s existing main airport, named after modern Turkey’s secular founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and one of the busiest in Europe, will be shut to commercial traffic once the new airport opens.
Erdogan has pledged to turn the current Ataturk Airport into a vast urban park bigger than even Central Park in New York or Hyde Park in London.
The day the new airport opens “we will start the process of transforming Ataturk Airport into a park for the nation,” he said.
Erdogan, who has been accused by secularists of undermining Ataturk’s legacy, has previously indicated he would prefer not have the new airport named after the first president of modern Turkey.
It is still not clear after who the new airport will be named, although some supporters have argued it should carry Erdogan’s name.
The new airport located on the Black Sea coast is 35 kilometres (22 miles) away from the city centre, raising concerns about transport access.
But authorities say a new metro line will be built to reach the airport from the city centre in just 25 minutes.
It will have six runways and Erdogan said it would initially have a capacity of 90 million passengers rising to 150 million by 2023.
There have been major concerns over reports of a high fatality rate at the airport’s construction site, where some 35,000 people are working round-the-clock to finish it on time.
Transport Minister Ahmet Arslan said in April that over the course of construction 13 workers had died due to work-related accidents and 14 for reasons not related to work.