Istanbul's Ataturk airport lured more travellers than Frankfurt and Amsterdam in the first quarter, setting the Turkish Airlines base on course to establish itself as Europe's third-busiest air hub this year.
Ataturk, Europe's No. 5 airport in 2013, boosted passenger numbers 11 per cent to 12.4 million, edging past Frankfurt, last year's No. 3, on 12.2 million and the 11.2 million at Amsterdam, the No. 4, according to the latest traffic data.
The airport, west of Istanbul on the European side of the Bosporus, is benefiting as Turkish Airlines piles on capacity to tap local growth and build a long-haul transfer base. Should Ataturk cement its first-quarter standing, Frankfurt will find itself outside the top three for the first time since the 1960s.
"Growth has been enormous in Turkey for years but this will mark a changing of the guard," said Hans-Peter Wodniok, an analyst at Fairesearch GmbH in Kronberg, Germany. "West European airports are losing transit passengers, which are the most lucrative as they spend the most in airport shops, and it's even worse for airlines, who are losing customers entirely."
Istanbul Ataturk, renamed in 1980 after modern Turkey's first president, boosted passenger numbers almost 14 per cent to 51.2 million in 2013, the biggest gain among the world's top 30 hubs after Kuala Lumpur, following a 21 per cent jump in 2012.
Frankfurt posted a 0.9 per cent advance to 58 million and Amsterdam had a 3 per cent gain to 52.6 million, according to March 31 rankings from Airports Council International. Europe's top hubs are London Heathrow, with 72.4 million passengers last year, and Paris Charles de Gaulle, with 62 million.
Istanbul also lured 544,000 more passengers than Amsterdam Schiphol in the first quarter of 2013, only for the Dutch hub to retain No. 4 spot for the year after the peak-season surge.
The three-month gap now stands at almost 1.3 million, based on figures published April 7 and April 15, suggesting the Turkish hub may make its advantage stick through the summer.
Ataturk's 200,000-passenger quarterly lead over Frankfurt translates into a swing of almost 700,000 people year-on-year, indicating that the airports may end 2014 neck and neck.
The German hub expects 2 to 3 per cent growth to about 59.5 million travellers as Deutsche Lufthansa AG, which has its main base there, uses bigger planes. To beat that total Istanbul's full-year growth rate would need to reach about 16 per cent.
Sani Sener, chief executive officer of TAV Havalimanlari Holding AS, which operates the airport, anticipates growth of as much as 10 per cent, backed by the city's status as "a tourist destination and financial hub," he said in an e-mail.
Frankfurt's passenger tally took a battering this month as a pilot strike caused Lufthansa to scrap 3,800 flights. At the same time, a mild winter has pared weather-related disruption.
Established airports in western Europe are also under pressure from fast-expanding Gulf hubs such as Dubai and Doha -headquarters to Emirates and Qatar Airways - which like Ataturk are exploiting a fortunate geographical location to set themselves up as intercontinental crossroads.
Like the Arab carriers, Turk Hava Yollari, as Turkish Air is known in full, has built a major wide-body fleet for long - haul operations. With Turkey's population of 76 million dwarfing the Gulf city-states, the carrier has also established a much bigger narrow-body fleet for domestic and short-haul routes.
Ataturk, in which Charles de Gaulle-owner Aeroports de Paris has an interest via a 38 per cent stake in TAV, has also been aided as a weakening Turkish lira boosts competitiveness as West European rivals emerge more slowly from the recession.
With a 12-month rolling passenger count of 52.6 million through March, the main obstacle to Ataturk's expansion may be its capacity limit of about 60 million. Booming demand there and at Istanbul's secondary Sabiha Gokcen hub - where the passenger count quadrupled in five years - has prompted Turkey to award construction contracts for an all-new super-airport able to handle as many as 150 million passengers per year.
"The Turks are thinking big," said Fairesearch's Wodniok, who has a reduce rating on Frankfurt airport owner Fraport AG. "It's a bit of megalomania, but then you do have to have the infrastructure in place before people can use it."
Ataturk ranked No. 18 in the 2013 ACI standings, up from No. 30 two years earlier. Frankfurt was ranked 12th, Paris Charles de Gaulle 8th and Heathrow third.
The order of the world's top six airports remained unchanged, with Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson, home to Delta Air Lines Inc., topping the table on 94.4 million passengers, 11 million ahead of Beijing even after a 1.1 per cent annual drop.