Deaths, Working Conditions Cast Shadow On New Istanbul Airport

by Chris Dong

10,000 pieces of equipment. One weekend. 30 kilometers. 400 deaths?

This weekend, Turkish Airlines successfully transitioned its operations from Istanbul Atatürk Airport to Istanbul’s new airport (Istanbul Airport ‘IST’) north of the Black Sea. However, since 2015, the airport has been marked by controversy over the death of dozens of workers at the construction site.

Turkish Airlines Switches Airports In Istanbul

It started at 3am on Friday morning and the 45-hour window to complete the project was one of the biggest logistical projects in history. Not only did equipment have to be moved, but also Turkish Airlines was switching over operations and shutting down Atatürk. The airline released a video of the move on its Twitter account.

On the first day of operations on April 6, 2019, Turkish Airlines carried more than 25,000 passengers at its new home at Istanbul Airport.

At Atatürk, Turkish Airlines had its last international flight to Singapore depart on Saturday at 2am local time. Then, the first Turkish flight from Istanbul Airport (IST) took off for Ankara at 2pm. In that 12-hour time period between the two flights, there were no Turkish Airlines flights at either airport.

Istanbul Airport Construction Worker Deaths 

Istanbul’s old Ataturk Airport

The launch of the airport has been clouded by construction workers dying at the site. Officially, the Turkish government has put the construction death toll at 27 people. That is absolutely tragic on its own, especially since that number is only from 2015 onwards.

However, there have unofficial reports that as many as 400 workers died constructing Istanbul’s new airport. While these reports have been unverified by the government, many deaths apparently have been swept under the rug because families of the victims are paid hush money.

To put that report into perspective, that’s more one death every four days at the worksite since 2015.

Istanbul Airport Working Conditions

The Istanbul Airport construction site has had a record of poor safety and sanitary conditions. For workers, that has included overcrowded sleeping conditions, bed bugs, and meager food rations. They have been called “slave camps” where even top security officials resigned in protest of the lack of safety protocol.

A major protest and walk-out demanding improved working conditions led to the arrest and jailing of workers by the Turkish government. It also temporarily paused work on the airport last year.

The Upshot

While Istanbul Airport will become a crown jewel of Turkey by 2027 when it’s fully complete, it should be also noted with a huge asterisk for the deaths of at least 27 workers, if not many more. Sure, it will become the biggest and busiest airport in the world with six runways and four terminals, accommodating 200 million passengers per year. That’s an incredible feat but at what cost? Will even more workers die constructing this airport by the time it is fully finished?

In an attempt to rush completion and showcase IST on an international stage, the Turkish government has sacrificed safety and basic human rights.

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