Friday, June 26, 2015

A Trip Report: Turkish Airlines, Houston to Zurich via Istanbul (May 2015)

                    A Trip Report: Turkish Airlines (May 2015)
                              comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

In the last couple of years, Turkish Airlines has been winning a lot of awards for their service and product.  They seem to be doing this while still providing a competitive rate, so I was curious to experience the service myself.  After flying both Business as well as Economy class, I am not sure why the airline won all the awards -- while the product is decent and I have definitely experienced worst, I have also experienced better.

I was flying from the U.S. to Switzerland and Turkish Airlines was providing a very good deal from Houston to Zurich via Istanbul.  For another family member, we had previously booked a Turkish Airlines flight through a travel agent and it was difficult to manage the booking on the Turkish Airlines website, so this time we decided to book directly through Turkish Airlines website.  The website does provide good deals and options pre-booking and during booking, but it is not good post booking or managing the booking.  Seat assignments, for example must be confirmed by calling the airline - however if you book too far in advance than the airplane has not been confirmed for your flight so you are not able to book your seat.  There were other instances like this which does not make the site very user-friendly (as opposed to Qatar and other airlines which are more user-friendly).  

Another thing that you cannot do from this site - and I found this with other Star Alliance partners such as Ethiopian - is that they do not provide connections with Star Alliance partners such as United.  If wanted to book a United flight connecting to a Turkish flight, I am not able to do that on Turkish.  I would either have to book separate tickets or use a third party (the same thing for Ethiopian flights).  If you are in an Alliance, shouldn't you be able to book one ticket on multiple partners?  Oneworld and Skyteam do not seem to have this issue as you can book multiple partners through each site.

I got to experience both Business as well as Economy class on Turkish.  My original ticket was in Economy class but you are able to upgrade to Business Class at the counter, if space is available.  NOTE: if you are travelling on more than one sector, the upgrade is only valid on the first sector.  We were travelling from Houston to Istanbul and then from Istanbul to Zurich so the upgrade was only applicable from Houston to Istanbul.  In Houston, Turkish partners with Star Alliance member so you have access to the United Club; in Istanbul we would be back to economy so would not have access to the lounge.  Given all this, is it worth to upgrade?  That really depends on what you value.

We were flying on a Boeing 777 and the Business class is laid out in a 2-2-2 section.  The positive is that the seats do turn into completely lie-flat beds and there is a massage button to help ease the long flight.  They also do feed you a lot in Business class, with many courses and their advertised ‘Chef on Board’.  The food was good, not great, but good and they did provide a lot of it.  One thing to note was that the flight attendants never explained what any of the dishes were and, when asked, could not provide the answer as to what was being served.  Every time I asked for an explanation of the dish they had to run back to the galley to get the answer.   That was a negative in my opinion.  Other negatives were that the service in Business wasn't that good, there is very little privacy between you and your seatmate, and the beds are not that comfortable.  Additionally, the amenity kit in Business is the same one that was received in Economy.  Finally, the IFE is wider in Business class but they have less selection (overall the selection wasn’t that good, but it was worse in Business Class).  Given we were fed well and were able to rest, we did not feel as tired when we landed in Istanbul at 12 hours so in that aspect it was worth it, but given the lack of service and the other negatives we decided not to upgrade on the return flight (more about that later).

Just a note about the Club at IAH: Turkish does not have its own club so it partners with fellow Star Alliance member United and uses the United Club. The United Club is nice but the Club it is nowhere near the Turkish gate.  Turkish departs out of D gates and the closest Club location is in E gates – about a 15 minute fast walk or a 20 minute slow walk.  As it is a United Club, there are no announcements of the Turkish flight so you have to guess and estimate the time. 

We transferred in Istanbul to our flight to Zurich.  Istanbul airport is nice, but very crowded and very long – there are long walks between gates and when transferring from one gate to another.  Additionally you have to go through security even when transferring as well as go through a boarding pass check.  Given the immense crowds, seating space is a commodity especially since the gates are only announced about an 1.5 hour prior to the flight. 

The flight from Istanbul to Zurich was on an Airbus A320 with a 3-3 seat layout.  The seat pitch on the flight was very generous providing plenty of legroom.  There were no personal IFE and only the flight route was shown on the overhead screens.  The service on the plane was decent with a meal and drinks being provided; however given the 3.5 hour flight time some sort of entertainment - either personal or on the screen above) would have been better.

The return flight from Zurich to Istanbul was on the same type of aircraft and the service was the same (which was decent).  Transferring in Istanbul was a bit chaotic, especially for the flights to the U.S.  The plane was not parked at the gate so we had to take a bus to the plane.  It was a full flight with over 300+ passengers but the waiting area was so small and compact, with only 6 chairs and no food/beverage services.  Prior to the waiting area, you had to go through 3 security checkpoints so it was becoming very crowded, very quickly.  Given the crowded situation, Turkish opened the gate early and we were allowed to board earlier than scheduled.

The flight from Istanbul to Houston was operated by a Boeing 777 and this time we were in economy.  The seat pitch was extremely tight – there was barely any room to sit no matter what your height was.  The seats were also uncomfortable and so it made for a very uncomfortable 12+ hour flight.  The service included a meal upon takeoff, tea, distribution of amenity kit (which was the exact same one we received in Business Class on the departure trip) as well as a meal upon landing.  In addition, there were snacks and drinks available in the galley.  The service was decent, the only problem I had was that 30 minutes after take-off three bathrooms on one side of the plane ran out of soap.  I am not sure whether soap was not filled initially or too many people used it, but instead of refilling the soap or apologizing for that, the attendants’ response was ‘just use another one’.  It was this lackluster response that was indicative of their service throughout all the flights we took, and it was this lackluster response which did not make the flight enjoyable.  The seats did have a person IFE as well as USB port to charge your electronics.  The IFE in economy had a better selection of movies than business class, but the selection was not as up to date nor as vast as other airlines (including the US, Emirates, etc.).   The movie selection was enough to pass 12 hours but not enough to come back to the airline.

In the end, I neither had a positive nor negative experience on Turkish.  Everything was basic but there was not enough to make me want to repeat my travel with Turkish, and that is the sad point.  I have had experiences on other airlines that were decent but one thing stood out – either the service or the planes or the efficiency – which made me want to try them again, or not.  This was not the case with Turkish.  They keep stating they are winning all these awards, and after flying with them, I am trying to figure out why

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