Just over a month ago, the first Turkish Airlines passengers landed in Atlanta, sharing stories of eating festive cupcakes in the Istanbul airport to celebrate the inaugural departure from Turkey’s cultural and business center.
Last night, a different set of travelers arrived here only to learn the macabre news of a tragedy they narrowly avoided.
Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport was hit Tuesday night by the deadliest terrorist assault on an airport ever, as three men unleashed a flurry of bullets before detonating suicide bombs in the international terminal, killing 41 people and injuring nearly 240 others, according to Turkish authorities.
Details are murky on the attackers thus far, and no group has yet claimed responsibility, but U.S. and Turkish officials suspect the Islamic State, which Turkey is fighting along with coalition forces in Iraq and Syria. The attack shared some similarities with the ISIS attack on the Brussels airport in March.
Coming off the plane in Atlanta, the Turkish Airlines passengers were shocked when they opened their mobile phones. One woman wept as she spoke with Fox 5 about being near one of the now-devastated areas, also expressing sympathy for the victims and their families.
The Federal Aviation Administration briefly grounded flights to Turkey but lifted that restriction at 10:30 p.m., just before the Atlanta return flight’s 10:45 p.m. scheduled departure. It ended up taking off at 11:31 p.m., just 46 minutes late.
Mustafa Kizilay, general manager for Turkish Airlines in Atlanta, said through a spokesperson that all flights from Atlanta are now operating on schedule with no suspensions.
The airport in Istanbul was reopened within hours, with some reports describing passengers walking over broken glass as airport employees worked to clean up blood in the affected areas.
The Atlanta airport, meanwhile, is watching the situation in Istanbul and “maintaining a hyper-vigilance” in the wake of the attack, according to spokesman Reese McCranie.
For Atlanta, the business impacts are uncertain, as the attacks call into question the future viability of one of its newest air routes.
Not only does Turkish Airlines link what Mayor Kasim Reed called at a launch celebration the two cities’ “dynamic economies,” but it also broadens Atlantans’ access to destinations further afield in Central Asia, Eastern Europe, Africa, India and beyond. Turkish Airlines, which has embarked on a breakneck expansion around the world, flies to more countries than any other carrier. The Ataturk airport is the 11th busiest in the world, with more than 61 million passengers last year. The country has plans to build what’s known as the “third airport,” with a capacity of more than 150 million travelers
The arrival of the flight injected a sense of optimism that Atlanta’s brand would be highlighted in the country of nearly 80 million people, and that the local Turkish community would finally have a convenient link back home.
“We’ve been hearing rumors about this flight for a long time now, and it is so exciting to finally see it become true!” Georgia Tech doctoral candidate Ezgi Karabulut told Global Atlanta in June 2015, just after the airline confirmed longstanding rumors that it would begin service to Atlanta.
But the airline couldn’t have predicted the spate of bombings that would come. The country is fighting parallel battles with ISIS across the border in Syria and at home with the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, a separatist group labeled as a terrorist organization by both the U.S. and Turkey.
Due to heightened concerns over terrorist activity, the U.S. State Department Travel has issued travel warnings that have already caused some study-abroad programs at Georgia State University and other Atlanta institutions to seek other destinations.
“We canceled our trips to Turkey since last year. That’s why we organize trips to other countries like India and South Africa,” said Mustafa Sahin, head of academic affairs at the Atlantic Institute, a Turkish-run organization with offices in Midtown and Alpharetta.
But hitting the airport, according to analysts, meant striking at key pillars of the Turkish economy: its tourism sector and its dependence on foreign investors. Some Atlanta travelers, according to Fox 5, even decided against traveling to Istanbul on Tuesday night’s flight.
Speaking in Atlanta in May, Turkish Ambassador Serdar Kilic said recent attacks in Paris and Brussels show terrorism is a global threat that can strike anywhere, though he acknowledged that Turkey is on the front lines geographically in the battle against ISIS and thus bears the brunt of the attacks.
But he also said at the time that the attacks aren’t so frequent that Turkey should be immediately associated with terrorism. It’s unclear how strong that argument will be now. Turkey’s embassy in Washington declined to comment beyond statements issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ankara.
Turkish Airlines told Global Atlanta in a statement that it’s too early to tell what the long-term impact on the Atlanta flight will be, and it declined to say whether it has seen cancellations on the Atlanta route thus far.
It also would not say how it will evaluate the possible need to cut frequencies later on the daily flight. The priority now is on serving customers, the airline said, especially those whose plans have changed as a result of what it’s calling the “incident” at the airport. Passengers are allowed to rebook, reroute, extend their tickets with no fees or cancel their flights with a full refund through July 31. All of the airline’s U.S. flights are now operating on their normal schedules
Ferhat Demir, who graduated from Georgia State University in Atlanta and worked for the Turkish-American Chamber of Commerce here, was traveling through Ataturk airport Wednesday night.
He told Global Atlanta that some fellow passengers seemed nervous, while some seemed more concerned with brief delays. His 45-minute flight from Izmir, another major Turkish city, was held back two hours.
Though he didn’t arrive in the international terminal, when leaving he saw a metal fence that had been erected to cordon off the terminal from the passenger pickup area. Traffic on the ground and in the air was bustling, he told Global Atlanta via a Facebook message.
“Obviously extra security — police officers are everywhere,” he wrote. “I should also confess that I’m kind of impressed they got things on track fast.”
Back in Atlanta, the Turkish community began to mourn victims and express horror at the news of the attack.
Mona Diamond Sunshine, honorary consul general for Turkey in Georgia, issued a condemnation as she has in previous incidents over the past year.
We mourn the loss of innocent lives and extend our heartfelt condolences to the bereaved families. We wish a speedy recovery to those who were injured. Many thanks to colleagues, friends and family who have reached out to express their condolences at this most difficult time for the Turkish nation and its people.
The Atlantic Institute had this to say:
Turkey is a land of many cultures; home to ancient and medieval civilizations and it’s largest metropolitan[sic], Istanbul, has been a crossroads where Europe and Asia meet. Regardless of where an attack occurs, acts of terror and violence damage the peace and harmony we seek universally as humans. We believe that terrorism has no religion. This heinous act of terrorism is an attack against the values that unite us. Read more.
Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines Inc. suspended planned seasonal service from New York to Istanbul in May and has not served Ataturk airport since 2015, but the airline has issued a waiver with its European joint venture partners for connecting travelers affected by the attack.
“The Delta family is deeply saddened by the tragedy in Istanbul and our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families,” the airline said in a statement.
One Atlantan was reportedly in the airport lounge during the attacks, describing to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution feeling the blast, hiding in an airport storeroom with passengers of other nationalities and observing the surreal disaster area that was the terminal after authorities gave the go-ahead to come out.
Thomas Kemper, general secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church, came away from the attack with an empathy for those who face violence in their daily lives.
“This is a moment that should deepen our solidarity with all people who suffer from violence and terror,” he reportedly told CNN. “I felt this common humanity among us, whatever our faiths, that we need to reach out and take our hands and change this.”
An offhand comment to the AJC, though, showed how the sense of security in Turkey has been shaken:
“I know Turkey had some risks, but I didn’t expect it to be in the lounge.”