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Kılıçdaroğlu vows to turn closed-İstanbul airport into aviation and space center

Kemal Kilicdaroglu

CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu

Leader of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and presidential candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has announced plans to turn Atatürk Airport in İstanbul, closed to civilian flights in 2019, into an “aviation and space center” if he is elected to the top state post.

Atatürk was the primary airport in İstanbul before the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) decided to build a third airport in the city. It was closed to civilian flights on April 7, 2019, with the opening of the larger, $12 billion İstanbul Airport, though with much controversy.

Later, the government decided to build a pandemic hospital at the old airport, destroying two runways in the process.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had also announced that they would build a “nation’s garden” in its place, but no move had been made in that direction until last year. Demolition started again at the airport in May 2022 to build the garden as part of a project funded by the Ministry of Environment, Urbanization and Climate Change, which sparked protests by opposition parties.

Kılıçdaroğlu released a five-minute video on Twitter with the note “Atatürk Airport” late on Thursday in which he said he is planning to turn the airport into a center that would be “the powerhouse of our aviation and space industry” after he is elected Turkey’s next president in the May 14 election, adding that it was “one of the biggest projects” of his life.

“I have always thought, what would [Mustafa Kemal] Atatürk want that place to become if he were alive? … He would prepare for the century ahead. He wouldn’t approve of Elon Musk colonizing space on his own,” the CHP leader said.

He added that they would work with Eren Özmen and Fatih Özmen, the chairwoman and CEO of the Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), the global aerospace and national security leader based in the US, to establish and develop the planned center.

“I talked to them and invited them to do this. We will develop our own [space] shuttles. … I have one more dream: Canan Dağdeviren and Eren Özmen working together for Turkey,” Kılıçdaroğlu said.

Dağdeviren is a Turkish academic, physicist, material scientist and assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she currently holds the LG Career Development Professorship in Media Arts and Sciences. She is the first Turkish scientist in the history of the Harvard Society to become a Junior Fellow in the Society of Fellows at Harvard University.

Following the announcement, Kılıçdaroğlu was criticized by Haluk Bayraktar, the CEO of leading Turkish drone manufacturer Baykar, one of whose directors is Erdoğan’s son-in-law Selçuk Bayraktar, for thinking of giving the project to a US company and assuming that Americans can do “what’s best” rather than Turks.

Haluk Bayraktar is Selçuk’s brother.

The CHP leader responded to Bayraktar’s comments, saying that it’s “not becoming” for him to be part of a political party’s election campaign, referring to Erdoğan’s ruling AKP.

“You and your family are very important to us. … There is room for all successful Turkish entrepreneurs in the future. Space is big enough for all of you,” Kılıçdaroğlu added.

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