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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”