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THY Turkish Airlines

A bazaar in the sky

Turkish Airlines leave you with mixed feelings wherever you look: most advanced Middle Eastern airline, but a service quality which looks more like Eastern improvisation than Western professionalism; an economy class designed for Anatolian cattle, yet a business class to make you feel like a Pasha.

The verdict depends much on whether you view them as a Middle Eastern airline or as a European carrier, i.e. which standards they have to live up to. I have flown with them almost twenty times and have had a close look at their network, fleet, product and service – and the “special atmosphere” only to be found on board Turkish Airlines.

Network

Turkish Airlines (or THY, short for their Turkish name Türk Hava Yollari), stand out for their extensive connections to the Middle East and Central Asia. They are the only airline from outside the former Soviet Union to serve all of the CIS republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia, almost on a daily basis. Turkish Airlines also have extensive connections throughout the Balkans, but other European carriers have almost closed the gap here.

Most international flights depart from THY’s hub in Istanbul. To a lesser extent, international flights are operated from the capital Ankara, and a few from Izmir. Because of Turkey’s vast size and underdeveloped road and rail network, most long-distance travel in Turkey is by air. Thus THY serve around thirty cities in Turkey from Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir.

Their long-haul intercontinental network can be ignored, it only includes four destinations in North America, three in the Far East, plus South Africa, and the service provided on THY’s long-haul flights wouldn’t satisfy any European traveller.

Fleet

Turkish Airlines have built their fleet mostly around Boeing’s 737. The backbone of the fleet is around twenty 737-400s, but THY are currently adding around twenty Next Generation 737-800s with a new class concept. There are also some AVRO Regional Jets and a handful of wide-body Airbus 310s, plus a few Airbus 340s for long-haul routes.

The planes all appear to be properly maintained, and Turkish Airlines provide their technical and maintenance service to many other airlines in the Middle East and Central Asia. The interiors of the aircraft are not old, but old-fashioned: faint green and blue textiles, which look like they have been bought from a corner stand on a South East Anatolian bazaar.

Economy Class

The seat configuration is the usual 3 by 3, with a rather small seat pitch of 78-81 cm (31″-32″). The seat coverings are made of textile of the itchy kind, so don’t wear shorts or T-shirts.

Although there are video monitors fitted on most aircraft, I have never seen them being used on the old 737-400s, and on the new 737-800s they only give the current flight status and the position of the plane. So there is no real in-flight entertainment. Considering that most of THY’s international flights last more than three hours, this is disappointing.

The food is plentiful but not very good. Tomato & cucumber salad with dressing as a starter, usually lamb or chicken as the main course, a fruit salad and a cheese selection for dessert. After a couple of flights you know their standard menu. On domestic Turkish flights you only get a roll – again, considering the vast distances and long flights within Turkey, this is not satisfactory. They use lots of plastic for the wrapping – no European airline could justify that to the environmentally conscious passenger – but ecology is not a big issue in the Middle East, or not yet.

The stewardesses serving the Economy Class aren’t very well trained. They hardly speak English and the slightest unusual request can render them helpless. They are not trained to react in an attentive and informative manner to passenger needs, and most of them also miss the personal intuition to handle tricky situations.

Business Class

On most planes, the seat configuration is the same as in Economy Class. However, the middle seat is left free and converted into a table for drinks, etc. On the newer 737-800s, Turkish Airlines have introduced luxurious Business Class seats in a spacious 2 by 2 configuration with extra legroom. As far as I know, Turkish Airlines and Czech Airlines are the only European airlines to have fitted these spacious seats on their short-haul fleets, so that’s quite outstanding. Again, no in-flight entertainment, though.

The food is slightly better than in Economy, with an extra starter between salad and main course, better options for main course, and a better desert. Nothing impressive, though. I’m used to Business Class meals being served on china and with a cloth table cover, but THY seem to be the only airline to use plastic plates in Business Class, again with all the extra plastic wrapping.

The attention, friendliness and service quality, however, is worlds apart from the incompetence shown in Economy Class. It seems that only the best of THY’s cabin staff get to serve in Business Class and appear to receive extra training for this task. They really read every wish from your eyes and treat you like you are the most important person on the whole plane. They also speak fluent English and sometimes German or French.

Delays, ground service, and baggage handling

Turkish Airlines are the one airline with the most delays that I know. Out of 20 flights with them, I may have arrived on time around 5 times, but I always prepare for delays of one to two hours.

On flights from most Asian airports, you cannot check in for your connecting flight. Luggage will however be checked through. As a result, you have to queue up at the transfer desk in Istanbul, which can easily add twenty minutes to your transfer time. But Turkish Airlines connections at Istanbul usually have a couple of hours between them so you don’t get stressed. That indeed is a problem with Turkish Airlines: their timetable is not well thought through, and stopovers of four hours and more are the usual. My recommendation would be to leave the airport and get a taxi to the city centre, which is around forty-five minutes away.

At Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir airports, Turkish Airlines have so-called CIP Lounges for Business Class passengers and customers with an EliteStatus Card. The lounges are fine, create a cosy atmosphere and provide a wide selection of snacks, drinks, and international newspapers and journals.

LUGGAGE IS A BIG PROBLEM. Unless you are flying on direct flights to/from Turkey without onward flights, you can’t be sure where your luggage will end up and if it will ever be found again. That in itself is a reason not to fly Turkish Airlines. Don’t check in any baggage for connecting flights! All of my five project team members who have been flying with THY to the Caucasus and Central Asia have lost their luggage at least once. I was the only lucky one never to have had my baggage messed up by Turkish Airlines and have since avoided checking in baggage with them.

Turkish Airlines are extremely reluctant to pay compensation. It has taken my colleagues up to one year of intense correspondence and threats of legal action before THY paid any compensation. This of course was the minimum compensation based on IATA regulations, which doesn’t come close to covering the real loss. If you do have to check in baggage, make sure you get proper insurance for it beforehand.

Frequent Flyer Recognition and Alliances

Turkish Airlines were a member of the Qualiflyer Group led by Swissair from 1998 to 2000. This allowed you to collect miles with the Qualiflyer programme on THY flights and benefit from a range of specials.

In autumn 2000, however, Turkish Airlines decided to leave the alliance and introduce their own frequent flyer programme, Miles & Miles. The reasons for this change of strategy have never been communicated. The structure of Miles & Miles is identical to the Qualiflyer Programme, before that one was adapted in late 2000. The only change is that you can now collect miles on domestic Turkish flights.

Partnerships with three of the Qualiflyer Group airlines – Swissair, Sabena and American Airlines – have been maintained, and bonus miles (though not status miles) can still be collected with Qualiflyer on THY international flights.

Prices

Turkish Airlines are extremely cheap! Business fares from western Europe are around £700 return, where BA, Lufthansa and Swissair would charge between £900 and £1,200. Economy specials to Turkey are offered from £150, compared with £300 on other airlines. Middle Eastern and Central Asian destinations can be reached for £350 return, again between 10% and 50% cheaper than the airlines mentioned earlier.

The “Special Atmosphere” on board Turkish Airlines

The first impression in Economy Class is that fellow Turkish passengers are moving their complete households. I have often been asked to check in luggage for someone else because they had already exceeded their weight limit. This must strictly be avoided as it is against IATA rules and safety regulations, and you will be held responsible for whatever is contained in the luggage. What cannot be checked in as luggage is taken on board, so be prepared not to have space left to store your own hand luggage.

Once on board the plane, there is a noisy atmosphere throughout the whole flight. Say you are sitting in row 10, you can be sure that the guy in row 9 will have a heated discussion with his cousin in row 11. The only way to endure it is to engage in the discussion yourself, talk to people, make contacts, exchange stories, experiences and jokes.

A different picture is painted on Turkish Airlines flights to the Caucasus and Central Asia. Almost no Turkish passengers here, but “upper class citizens” from these developing countries, who are returning from shopping in Dubai and show their newly bought goods to each other during the flight. I loathe these people, because they have no idea of the difficulties in their countries, have made some quick dollars in under-the-table deals, and live an elitist life in their nomenklatura quarters.

On these flights to the former Soviet Union, there is always a group of development aid workers, NGO people and representatives of international organisations on the plane. In the good old days when I was working in development aid and microfinance myself and THY were the only carrier to fly there, I was always sure to meet some friends or colleagues on the plane. In Business Class, however, your seat neighbour on flights to Central Asia will almost certainly be a high-ranking executive in the oil business.

Verdict

The Turkish Airlines flight experience is one not to be missed, if only for studies in anthropology. And for the price you can’t ask for much, except for them to take you AND your luggage from A to B. But since THY fail even to provide this basic function, they can’t really be recommended on a rational basis.

Reader’s comment (December 2005)

Jens has written in with the following comment:

“I looked up your article about Turkish Airlines, written by Hajo, and was stunned how biased it is. I have flown Turkish Airlines numerous times, and I would be happy to recommend them. All my flights were internal, so I cannot comment about the international service. I found the airline to be well run and pleasant. Food was good and more than adequate. Even on very short flights (eg 40 minutes from Istanbul to Izmir) a nice snack is served, better than the fare on BA. Flight delays happen, but are minimal under normal circumstances. Customer service is good, baggage is delivered quickly. I see no grounds for the negative rating that Hajo gave this airline.”

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9 Comments

Melissa 14-08-2010, 20:33

I have flown Turkish Airlines twice. The first experience was positive, without any difficulties. The last was a flight Milan-Istabul-Johannesberg. They lost my luggage on this flight. I filled out a claim and called the airline to followup. After a 22 minute conversation with Turkish Airlines (on my roaming bill), they were unable to locate my luggage. They never ONCE contacted me to follow up. There is no compensation until the baggage is lost for 30 days–which means no help financially when I actually needed EVERYTHING. Now I am home again and finally processing my claim. Will see how it goes…

Reem 17-09-2010, 19:02

my brother also had same problem, turkish airlines lost one of his bags on an international flight.
he filed a claim and ideveryhing possibly done and it’s been six months now and no on ever contacted him or paid him back any compensation. and e wost is that hy never answer their number here in the states so you have to leave them a message and of course no one calls back….
so is there any suggestions of what he can do now ?

Anthony 30-11-2011, 21:43

First time flight with Turkish Airline on the 14th of Nov with 2 kids and my wife,from Dublin to Istanbul and Istanbul to Nigeria,there was a 5 hrs delay a flight we were to get to Nigeria for 20:30 we got to Nigeria at 02:30 am next day,a luggage was missing till now they are still cheaper but not up to 30days yet,and the claim had been submitted,on way back from Lagos to Istanbul because of same delay from Lagos we got to Istanbul 2 hrs late and missed the connecting flight to Dublin,while customers were giving out,one of the staff wanted to fight a customer,they were shouting down their customers,its the worst customer service i have seen in my life,such an airline should not be in business,very awful service and experience.I will never advice any reasonable person to fly with Turkish Airline,and am also calling on media to this awful experience so the whole world would know what it is to fly with this airline.My taking them up for compensation for all the delays and lost luggage.

Melissa 01-12-2011, 08:48

Follow up… Got all my stuff back, after I chased and chased. 53 days later, if I recall. However, no compensation, no free ticket, nothing. The girl at the claims desk laughed at me and said that Turkish Airways loses more luggage than any other airline… Good luck!

EF 03-12-2011, 00:00

I will never fly with Turkish Airlines ever again. I have told everyone possible about how horrendous this company is. I took a flight from Toronto into Istanbul and then had to connect onto a flight out to Alexandria, Egypt. The flight out of Toronto was on time by the flight out of Alexandria was about two hours late. On landing, we heard a loud boom and the emergency lights went off yet there were no announcements on what was going on, none the less we landed safely. THE TRIP BACK WAS HORRENDOUS! Heading home I took the same route, I kept checking online to find out if the flight was late/on time to depart from Alexandria and it said it was on time. When we reached, the flight was cancelled and we were left in the bitter freezing cold outside the airport in the wee morning for hours to wait on a coach bus to take us to Cairo (4 hours away). We spoke to the attendants who said we would miss our connecting flight and the next flight to Toronto was in 2 days. We asked them to reroute us with another stop over, which they claimed they would do (we asked them twice). When the coach finally arrived, they only put the men on the bus and stuffed the few women n a dinky van. On the way to Cairo, our driver got out and disappeared for nearly an hour without saying a word. Once we got to Cairo, the attendants there said we had still be put on the flight out to Toronto that was scheduled in two days. We informed them that we were promised in Alexandria that we were suppose to be rerouted, the staff here claimed they could do nothing and that we had to go into Istanbul and speak to them there. The flight out of Cairo was 2 hours late. Once in Istanbul, it was a zoo! People from several different flights were arguing with the staff, they tried to blame us for missing the connecting flight, even though they cancelled it. Refused to give us any information, said we had to pay for a VISA to stay in Turkey and wouldn’t reroute our flights and said we were not entitled to a place to stay (which means we were stuck in the airport for 2 days). They then began to ignore us and wouldn’t answer our questions, claimed there was no supervisor. After 6 hours of arguing and standing in several lines all over the airport, they finally put us in a hotel but refused to reimburse us for our $60 VISA we were forced to pay because we had to stay for 2 days. (Mind you, several people were forced to stay in the airport over night) People from several different flights complained about various problems, the staff for this company is horrible. Finally, 2 days later when returning to the airport for the flight home, it was once again delayed by 2 hours. The fact is, so many individuals from different flights had similar nightmare experiences. It stands to say something about this company. I will never in my life, fly with this company again.

bea 22-12-2011, 11:13

I used the THL 4 times; dublin-istanbul-izmir and back the journey was easy and pleasant; a snack and drinks were served on a 40 min flight in comparison air france does not even serve water on paris – dublin 2 h flight.
I am thinking to fly to india with THL because they are cheap and good. So the turkish image might not be as glamourous for most eurpean but when one put aside bias and arrogance one can enjoy a relaxed fuss free service.
And check the facts; no major accident or failure since the company exist!

Lydia 12-01-2012, 19:45

Turkish Airlines is cheap & equally cheap in their services. There were delays of three days in delivering my baggage on both the outward & the return journey from Accra through Istanbul to Washington DC and back again. I have never experienced such inefficiences and I will never board a Turkish Airlines flight again. Neither will I recommend Turkish Airlines to any other person. To top it all off, two of their agents in Istanbul were very rude & raised their voices to me while I was making enquiries about my flight transit arrangements. Such insolence & arrogance to customers should never by tolerated and customers should be treated with dignity, courtesy & respect by a company with a public face.

simon 13-02-2012, 22:55

I flew over 20 times with turkish airlines, the company expanded too fast on recent years. and their customer service simply couldnt catch up and became insufficient.. on my last flight they lost my luggage for very first time. I filled the form and got in touch with them after 5 days (as instructed). they asked me to e-mail them my ticket, luggage tag and valuation. they got back to me next day and now i am trucking the status of my lost luggage online. they gave me a date when they will consider my case to pay compansation.. I flew with very well knowen and a lot more expensive airlines before and had the same problem. they caused a lot more problem than turkish airlines. so I will keep fling with turkish airlines as i believe that they are the best for money value.. and great service.. I dont know why all these people attacking them. .I fly around the world as a part of my job and I know really bad airlines but turkish airlines not 1 of them.. although i believe they can still improve custumer service to become the best airlines.

Jide 21-08-2012, 15:48

I’m not sure I will ever fly THY again. While I sometimes enjoy the transit area in Ist airport, for the first time I checked in my bag on a LHR- LOS flight connecting at Ist. For the 1st time also, my bag was not delivered to me in Nigeria. I called the general management office and the other person transferred me to a line that just kept ringing. I have sent an email to their lost baggage office and i’m waiting for a response.
I’m left with praying and believing for a miracle cos the things in that bag are gifts for my wife and children.
Even their ground staff who i complained to said that THY has refused to give them the lost baggage forms that passengers are required to fill. The ref number on this form is what the Lost baggage call center ask for and that’s the only thing you can track your luggage with.
I’m praying that i don’t go legal with them. this is a lesson learned. Next time I travel, I will plan to travel on direct flights. The headache of losses is not worth the cost saving of connections

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