DALLAS — The biggest European soccer event of the year, the UEFA Champions League’s final match, took place in Istanbul on June 10, 2023.
The match drew millions of spectators from all over the world and welcomed thousands of soccer fans to Türkiye to see one of the top 32 football clubs in the continent crowned champion of the league. As a result, the city of Istanbul had to prepare itself for an increase in demand for both regular and charter flights without disrupting the normal operations of its airports and airlines.
This year’s Champions League final was special. On the one hand, Manchester City F.C. was fighting for its first title ever after a strong season. On the other hand, F.C. Inter Milan found itself in the UCL final again after 13 years of absence. These factors encouraged the arrival of even more fans to Türkiye.
We’ll explore the air logistics involved in the movement of around 70.000 fans from the UK and Italy to Istanbul, deep diving into the role of charter airlines, the two home airports: Istanbul Airport (IST) and Istanbul-Sabiha Gökçen (SAW), and Türkiye’s two largest airlines: Turkish Airlines (TK) and Pegasus Airlines (PC).
The Arrival of the Soccer Clubs
The first aircraft to arrive in Istanbul for the UEFA Champions League final were the flights bringing the two soccer clubs. Unlike their supporters, Manchester City and Inter Milan landed two days prior to the match to prepare for the encounter.
The Manchester City F.C. players flew from the United Kingdom to Istanbul on board a chartered Titan Airways (ZT) Airbus A321neo registered as G-POWT. The ACMI carrier used code “ZT1” for this flight, a number usually reserved for special flights like this one. Titan operates only three A321neo aircraft at the moment, which replaced the retired Boeing 757 jets last month.
The F.C. Inter Milan players flew on the ACMI and charter home airline, Neos (NO), which is based at the Milan-Malpensa Airport (MXP) with a fleet of nine Boeing 737s and six 787 Dreamliners. On its way to Türkiye, the team flew on flight NO9009, on board a Boeing 737-800 registered as EI-HIL, from Milan Malpensa Airport (MXP) to Istanbul Airport (IST).
Along with the Inter Milan team, a Tailwind Airlines (TI) Boeing 737-400 accompanied the NO airplane on its way to Istanbul, arriving six hours earlier and carrying press members and team officials.
Both soccer clubs landed in the Turkish capital on June 8, 2023. Fans began to arrive as soon as the next day, June 9, with the first of 30 PC flights landing at Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen Airport (SAW).
The Role of Pegasus Airlines
Pegasus Airlines (PC) is the second largest airline in Türkiye, and one of the most influential low-cost carriers in Europe and the Middle East, which enables cheap travel possibilities for passengers in the region and connections through its hub at Istanbul-Sabiha Gökçen Airport (SAW), the second largest in the city. Last month, the LCC achieved the number of operating 100 fixed aircraft in its fleet.
However, due to the magnitude of the Champions League final, Pegasus decided to use one full quarter of its current fleet to fly exclusively feeder services to both Manchester (MAN) and Milan (BGY) to carry fans to Istanbul. PC only regularly operates 10 weekly flights to Manchester and 13 to Milan. This means that the airline only secures one daily service to both cities, extending to two days on separate days in normal conditions.
On June 9 and 10, PC operated 12 flights to MAN and 13 to BGY, which translates to a seat offer of up to eight times greater than that on any given day to these two cities. In total, PC offered 5,000 seats on the first day of the arrival of the fans. This includes both regular, extraordinary, and chartered services.
For the purpose of these flights, PC made use of the Airbus A320 family and Boeing 737-800 aircraft to support the demand. However, by far the most used airplane for the operation was the Airbus A321neo, which not only offers the best fuel performance of the fleet but also the highest capacity, striking at 239 passengers in an all-economy class cabin.
Charter PC flights from Manchester and Milan to Istanbul have been easily identifiable, as their flight numbers had a structure starting with a ‘7’, differing from the standard regular flights starting with a ‘1’ instead.
Turkish Airlines’ Heavy Feeder Flights
By far, the airline that has taken most seriously the incredible operation of flying 70.000 soccer fans to Istanbul for the UEFA Champions League Final is Turkish Airlines (TK), thanks to its advantageous position as the national flag carrier of Türkiye, its more than 330 aircraft and consolidated position at Istanbul Airport (IST).
As same as Pegasus Airlines, TK also has made use of large-capacity aircraft to operate not only its regular flights to Milan and Manchester but also the charter flights requested by the soccer club entities and the extraordinary services scheduled for the 9 and 10 of June. The airline did eventually make use of smaller aircraft like the Airbus A321 and Boeing 737-8 at low-demand times.
However, for the most part, Turkish Airlines implemented the Airbus A330 family of jets and Boeing 787s to cover the large demand for travel for the UCL final. The most used A330-300 aircraft is configured in a two-class layout, carrying a total of 305 passengers each flight, differing slightly from the Dreamliner, which can only carry 300.
During the two days that the arrival operation took place, Turkish Airlines scheduled and operated a total of 16 flights, which doubled the regular amount of flights Milan-Malpensa (MXP) and Manchester Airport (MAN) receive on any given day. Taking into account the aircraft size, TK peaked at more than 6.000 seats in terms of offered capacity during the operation.
Only the two Turkish carriers, Turkish Airlines, and Pegasus, enabled the arrival of 11.000 fans to the event. However, that was not even half of the total seat capacity scheduled on charter flights operated by third-party specialized airlines.
Other Charter Airlines Involved
Large sports events like the UEFA Champions League final, which require the movement of thousands of people, are the perfect conditions for a charter or ACMI airline to operate. These carriers, which tend only to fly their aircraft for special occasions, have participated widely in the arrival operation for the most famous soccer match in Europe.
Flying from Milan-Malpensa Airport, soccer fans supporting F.C Inter Milan had the opportunity to fly on rare aircraft contracted for the service, like a Paris-based Corsair (SS) Airbus A330-300, registered as F-HSKY, or a 31-year-old Fokker 100 of the Romanian airline Carpatair (V3), one of the few operators that still fly the airplane in Europe.
Flying from Manchester Airport, on the other hand, supporters of Manchester City F.C. flew on board even rare airplanes like an ex-MRTT AirTanker (9L) Airbus A330-200, registered as G-VYGK, or the 21-year-old Plus Ultra Airbus A340-300. As well, the Spanish charter airline Privilege Style (P6) operated two separate flights from Manchester to Istanbul with their only Boeing 777-200ER, registered as EC-MUA.
Along with many European charters and ACMI airlines, one of the key players that destined almost one-third of its fleet for the event was Freebird Airlines (FH), based in Turkey, which operated 7 flights in total for the arrival phase of the soccer fans to the UEFA Champions League Final. The carrier used this time three Airbus A320 and one A321 to cover the demand.
Many other airlines, apart from the ones mentioned above, were also present in the transportation of fans. UK airlines EasyJet (U2) and British Airways (BA), anticipating the great demand for flights between English cities and Istanbul, also launched regular flights just in time from Manchester (MAN) and London (LHR) to the Turkish city as well offer regular alternatives for soccer fans.
Istanbul Airports’ Logistics
The operation to bring 70,000 fans to the capital of Türkiye on time for the match went beyond the charter flights from Manchester and Milan. It was also a logistics conundrum for the two main airports in Istanbul, IST, and SAW, which from one day to another saw a very high increase in flights coming from two specific origins.
Istanbul’s main airport, IST, is the successor of the former Atatürk Airport (ISL). It is located south of the city and is still used for Turkish Cargo and MNG (MB) operations. Inaugurated in 2018, IST has five runways that, in normal conditions, have the capacity to support more than 500,000 daily passengers on regularly scheduled flights.
However, the biggest issue for IST on these dates is not lack of capacity, as there are more than 140 aircraft parking spaces available, but the complexity of the coordination of ensuring that arriving flights from Manchester and Milan do not cross paths during the entire operation to avoid any tension between the fans of both clubs during the process of deboarding and leaving the airport.
This separation was made by parking the vast majority of charter aircraft in a remote aircraft parking area so that shuttle buses could move the groups separately to their respective arrival concourses without entering into a situation where the fans would be sharing the same terminal space after deboarding from the jetbridge.
Istanbul was selected as the host city to celebrate the UEFA Champions League final in 2021. The newly inaugurated Istanbul Airport (IST), with its large capacity and latest technology in security and aircraft management, was one of the reasons that made the UEFA committee choose the capital of Türkiye as the place where the event needed to be held this year.
Flying Fans Back Home
On June 10, 2023, Manchester City F.C. was proclaimed champion of the competition. And with that, a new phase in the operation began: flying all the 70.000 soccer fans back home to their countries of origin.
Although supporters were able to fly into Istanbul for the match on any given day, planning for the return trip was much more complicated. Both the club players and fans needed to be back home after the match as soon as the next day at noon, resulting in departing flights with early morning take-off times scheduled between 02:00 and 06:00.
On June 11th, Istanbul iGA Airport experienced a total of 17 aircraft planning to leave the airport during this early morning timeframe, with four charter aircraft taking off every hour. In comparison, the airport had only seen around 12 to 13 total arrivals from Milan and Manchester in an entire day during the arrival operation.
Encountering this particular situation is rare at most airports. The main issue with departing airplanes during these early morning hours is the significant amount of noise generated. While the noise is typically tolerated by the population during the day, it is heavily rejected at night as it seriously affects the quality of sleep in nearby neighborhoods.
The first airplane to depart from Istanbul to Italy was the one carrying the F.C. Inter Milan players, who unfortunately lost the match, at 02:00 AM. They flew aboard a Neos (NO) aircraft, this time a larger Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. In contrast, Manchester City celebrated its title in Istanbul and departed in the afternoon aboard their specially painted Etihad Airways (EY) Boeing 787-9.
The Arrival of the Winner in Manchester
While Manchester City F.C. players arrived in Istanbul on board a ZT Airbus A321neo, their flight back home was planned by EY, taking advantage of its current sponsorship with the club, on board the carrier’s fully dedicated Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner and its amazing livery.
This airplane, registered as A6-BND, was delivered to the Middle Eastern airline in October 2019 and has sported this livery ever since. Despite its special paint job, it continues to operate on EY’s regular route network, just like any other Boeing 787 in the fleet. However, during significant events featuring Manchester City players, the club occasionally charters this aircraft as a promotional tool.
On June 11, Manchester City F.C. departed from Istanbul at 14:10 local time on flight EY8041, operated by this aircraft. They arrived at Manchester Airport (MAN) three and a half hours later at 16:00. The club’s players, along with the trophy, posed next to the airplane and smiled with their first-ever trophy of this caliber, bringing an end to the impressive air logistics of the 2023 UEFA Champions League final.
Featured image: Etihad Airways & Manchester City F.C.