So you are flat broke and have been working crazy hours for the last two years. Things have been really difficult and while a vacation and break from the madness I know as work-life balance would be nice, it is certainly not something on my mind or in my budget. After all I owe an enormous amount of money to almost everyone I know and taking even five days off to attend my baby sister’s wedding reception in Turkey is out of the question. I have to work.
But that is before, my teaching engagement with SP Jain is re-scheduled to November, I have a five day empty slot and Nida takes money out of her first salary to fly all of us to Antalya and then Istanbul where Hasan and his loving family host us for the trip. After six great days in two magical cities we finally head out to Istanbul Ataturk airport to catch our Turkish airline flight to Karachi. We have a 6:45pm Turkish airline connection at Istanbul Ataturk airport and our family of five with one hyperactive kid is really glad to be heading back home.
And everything we have heard about Turkish airline, Turkey and Istanbul airport and their combined Turkish hospitality comes true in a flash. Turkish airline has been trying to build an image by spending money like sailors in a port on advertising, but hasn’t done enough with their check in crew in Istanbul, their ground service staff or their flight crew in the air. The end product is a tasteless joke that is half rude cultural shock and half Russian federation state owned carrier (that is how you insult two airlines in one line).
The sad part is that despite our nightmarish 48 hours with Turkish airline in Istanbul and despite all the trouble in the air and on the ground, there were two outstanding ground crew staff who stood out by the effort they put in to help us out. They certainly showed that if Turkish airline really tried they could put at-least some of these problems away, but unfortunately while Osman and Ali helped bring the horror story down a notch from an award winning Nightmare on Elms Street, everything they did on day one was vaporized by the ground check in team, the ground crew and the Turkish airline airport services supervisor on day two.
While it doesn’t take a lot to set me off, it takes a fair bit more for me to sit down and write a negative review. I run a technology company and God knows that we all make mistakes with me making many more than others. Shit happens all the time, sometimes more often than not, especially when you travel. The snafu doesn’t matter and can be overlooked; it’s the recovery and the post Snafu customer handling that you need to focus on. That is where Turkish airline received a big fat F on their score card from our family.
Turkish airline travel Lessons to Istanbul.
First impressions Turkish airline: The first four online reviews of Turkish airline that I read online were written by European passengers. The picture they painted was when you pay for discounted air travel you get discounted air travel. But I ignored them because what may not be acceptable to a German passenger flying from Frankfurt may be reasonable for an Asian passenger flying out of south Asian hub. The only worrying sign was the Boeing 737 aircraft. I had vivid memories of cramped seats, storage compartments and mid-air turbulence on a Saudi 737 and despite the passage of 15 years, I wasn’t sure if I was ready for that 737 ride again. Luckily enough the new 737’s are larger aircrafts and the cabin storage space was decent. Nothing compared to the 777, but there is enough space in general for you to carry one carry-on bag on board. The seats were all right but for 144 economy class passengers there were two toilets. Food
Visa on Arrival at Istanbul airport: If you have a US or UK passport, the on arrival visa service is a snap. You can walk in to the counter, you show your passport you pay 20 US dollars and snap your passport is stamped. If you have any other passport and are availing the US or European Visa option benefit, you have to go all the way to passport counter number two, where the wait time could go anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours. In our case it was 2 hours. We barely made it to our connection to Antalya since the domestic terminal is a 10 minute jog or a 20 minute walk from the point you exit the international terminal.
Changing currency and the Turkish Lira experience in and around Istanbul: You are better off changing currency into Turkish Lira, US dollars or Euros on your way in. Most exchange companies and counters quote rates and commissions that are outright unreasonable. If you are willing to work with a 2% commission, your best bet is the post office exchange shop on the second floor (International departures) all the way to the right end of the building, just behind counter A/B and the Turkish airlines ticket sales office. Some vendors and shops especially toy shops are willing to take in Euros and give back Liras without charging a commission and they quote a reasonable rate. But watch out for exchange rates from Gold and Jewelers shops since their rates are even worse off than main street exchange rate shops.
Chronic Overbooking on Turkish Airline: The Turkish airline marketing blitz, their Kevin Costner ads and their Pasha Business class collateral all gets nullified when they end up offloading 20 passengers from a single flight on account of overbooking. This is where the post Snafu customer service becomes important.
If you can recover gracefully, a passenger maybe able to forgive and forget; if you don’t you will just cause additional aggravation. Despite the hotel stay, and the upgrade to business class on our way back, there was so much additional aggravation that we will never fly or recommend Turkish airline to anyone. On day one of our original flight our family of five with 3 young children spent 6 hours at the airport waiting for Turkish airline to come through. On day two we waited 2.5 hours to get our baggage checked even though we had already been issued boarding cards on day one. We were the last passengers on the plane 5 minutes before the scheduled take off time.
Turkish airline’s primary problem is their chronic overbooking struggle. Given their cheap discounted airfares, on a tight budget and with limited options, the flight looks attractive and there are a lot of first timers with limited options. An overbooked flight with bumped passengers starts a chain reaction that only ends when it meets another empty flight. So if you are bumped, offloaded or denied boarding on your confirmed schedule ticket your salvation lies in the next connection with available seats, not just the next connection. On Monday, 2nd August 2010, in a span of 2 hours, across four rows of check in counters (A/B on Istanbul International airport), we witnessed upset passengers across 4 different flights to 4 different international destinations. When nothing could be done to help us out, it took two busloads to ship all of us to our temporary hotels in the evening.
All of this I can forgive and forget but I can’t forgive the supervisor telling me to go talk to the lost and found services of airport to locate a piece of luggage that they had lost with only 30 minutes to go before the scheduled departure of my flight, or his refusal to give me luggage tags for two pieces of luggage that were entrusted to his care to his staff on his baggage train. Or his refusal to help or intercede, or his threat to call security because we refused to leave his counter till he gave us something as a proof that they had lost two pieces of our luggage. Or his final statement “your luggage, your issue, your problem, your responsibility, I can’t help you with that.” I can live with a junior ground staff being rude and abusive; I can’t live with a supervisor doing the same.
Even if Turkish airline offers to pay for your ticket and upgrade you to business class, turn them down. You are better off walking for all the problems they themselves create and can’t handle when things go wrong.
The offloaded compensation experience: Generally when an airline offloads you on a confirmed reservation as per IATA rules they have to offer you a flat compensation, a hotel stay, meals, transport to and from the airport and the next connection. When the offer is made the first time it sounds attractive depending on the flat rate compensation offered and the hotel and the number of passengers in your group. But what they don’t tell you is that it would take another four hours for the paper work to get processed and the starting point for the paperwork is an IATA waiver that you sign setting aside all of your rights and benefits; then comes the wait. The four hour wait ends when they issue you boarding cards (since your original booking and ticket no longer holds), your MCO (the airline compensation check), and your hotel reservation and hand you off to your rude, barely literate, Turkish airline driver (efatur is the airport shuttle service Turkish airline uses). Which is where all the hard work put in by the recovery team falls apart because the gentleman in charge of the handover to the driver refuses to come out to see if things are working out (or not at all) simply because he would need to clear security all over again and that is such a drag at 10 pm at night especially on account of passengers who have already been waiting since early afternoon. They won’t notice another twenty minutes would they now?
Turkish airline – the language barrier: In 20 years of air travel I have flown Emirates, Lufthansa, Thai, Cathay Pacific, Malaysian Airlines, Singapore Airline, United, Delta, Continental, PIA, Air India, Jet Blue, Air Blue, Southwest and a number of other lesser grade, shady, fly by wire operations. Except for the US, English was a second language for most of these carriers. Language has been a barrier for all of us at one stage, possibly more so in the Far East than anywhere else. But the Thai, the Malaysians, the Japanese and the Arabs compensate for that disadvantage with a smile, with humility and with an effort to ensure that your stay and your travel experiences is reasonable and pleasant.
The check in experience in Istanbul was miserable for so many passengers that the environment in the aircraft on our way back to Karachi was outright hostile. In the economy class, passengers were literally barking orders and looking for an excuse to fight with the flight Purser. Imagine what that does to the morale of the flight crew. For no fault of theirs, they end up compensating at 12,000 meters in the air for five hours and change primarily for the behavior of the ground crew, a few hours earlier. Part of it was language but a far greater part of it was the attitude. Maybe we were just all having a bad day and in 40 degree temperature having the air conditioning turned off at the airport just drove every one batty. But with three kids in two and already late by two days for no fault of my own, I don’t think I will ever risk traveling by Turkish airline again.