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Turkish Airlines long-haul review
More countries, less bling. Plus: Istanbul Airport and the iGA Lounge.
On the trip where I ran the Istanbul Half Marathon, my wife and I took Turkish Airlines from Seattle to Istanbul and back. I’m not sure Seattle to Istanbul technically counts as a “transatlantic” flight. The route doesn’t really take you over the Atlantic Ocean, more the Arctic Ocean. Regardless, Seattle is a great gateway for flights to Europe and the Middle East. And it can be overlooked by West Coast folk who gravitate to LAX and SFO. It generally takes an hour or two off flight times from and to those gateways.
An inconsistent Business Class product
We were traveling standby as usual. Our staff travel benefits from my wife’s airline don’t get us Business Class access on Turkish Airlines, so this review will be focused on the back of the plane. But it’s worth noting that the Turkish Airlines Business Class product varies across its fleet. If you are on the A350 or B787, you can expect a 1-2-1 seating configuration. But, at the time of writing, it was still 2-2-2 on other wide-bodies and even 2-3-2 on the 777.
I’m sure the airline will be updating its fleet to create a more standardized product. But in the meantime, you may want to check out the specific configuration on a given route before making Turkish Airlines your Business Class pick unless you get an especially good deal on the fare. A middle seat in Business somewhat defeats the object.
Number-one global network
Turkish Airlines — a Star Alliance member — flies to more countries than any other airline in the world. At the time of writing, the total was about 124. And the total number of destinations served was about 265. (By contrast, British Airways — which used to advertise itself as “The World’s Favourite Airline,” based at least in part on its global reach — flies to around 80 countries these days.)
Given that Turkish Airlines doesn’t have quite the same high profile as other giants from countries not too far away, such as Emirates and Qatar, that’s quite an achievement. And its product is somewhat different from those of its competitors from the Gulf. It doesn’t have quite the same focus on bling.
Turkish Airlines’ route map includes some destinations that are served by very few carriers, such as Mogadishu in Somalia. The only gaping hole is Australia, but this will be remedied soon when the airline starts flying to Sydney. Its North American gateways are currently Boston, Cancun, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Montreal, New York (JFK and Newark), San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto, Vancouver, and Washington DC. Most passengers on our flights were transiting via Istanbul, and flying to or from cities in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. The transit lounges in Istanbul Airport must be among the most multicultural places in the world.
Despite the fact that it already has a massive operation, the airline — in which the Turkish state has an ownership interest of just under half — has some big expansion plans. At the time of writing, it was expected to place a massive order for new aircraft to be delivered over the next 10 years, making for one of the largest — and according to some reports, maybe the very largest — aircraft order ever.
Still a two-class operation
Surprisingly, perhaps, Turkish Airlines has not yet introduced a Premium Economy product. So, since there is no First Class, this is still a two-class long-haul airline — which is getting to be a bit unusual for an operation of its size. For those sitting in the back, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Economy product on two-class airlines can be a bit better than where there’s also a Premium Economy offering. With only one type of Economy product available, the carrier is more likely to build some “premium” features into its basic product, which is something that Turkish Airlines tends to do.
A superior Economy Class product — especially on the 787
Our flights were both on some pretty new B787s. Some nice features of the 787 — such as its large windows — are generic to the aircraft, not specific to any airline. But Turkish does have some features on the 787 that are still uncommon and worth mentioning. One is that the seat backs have both USB-C and USB-A ports. There is also AC power. The screens are about as big as they can be on regular Economy seats. Also worth mentioning are the live camera feeds, allowing you to choose between video of the forward and underneath views. That’s one of my favorite features on newer aircraft, but it’s still fairly uncommon.
Another premium feature was live TV. There was live CNN and BBC News. As well as a sports channel I didn’t recognize.
Don’t expect all of those features on older aircraft in the Turkish Airlines fleet. But other premium features should be present systemwide. These include surprisingly decent amenity kits — not all that lesser than what you might get in Business Class on some airlines — and printed menus.
Food is above average for Economy Class travel, with Turkish accents in at least some selections. I had chicken dishes in both directions, and thought the one out of Istanbul was especially good. Also, the portions are larger than average.
They serve Turkish and French wines in quarter bottles. I thought the Turkish white was better than the French, although the latter was fine. And you can get Efes beer, the decent Turkish-brewed Pilsner that dominates the domestic market there. (By the way, although you won’t find it on Turkish Airlines, check out an Efes brand called Bomonti if spending time in Turkey itself. It’s not available everywhere, but is the preferred choice among many Turkish beer aficionados.) There was only one drinks service with each of the two meals during our flights, but the crews were happy to provide more beer or wine on request. If they do serve spirits in Economy, there was no obvious sign of it and I think they may have stopped doing so.
As I found on my recent flights on TAP Air Portugal, the airline does not try to get you to pull out your credit card after boarding. Other than WiFi, there was nothing to purchase on board.
One nice touch about the catering is that the help-yourself snacks in the galley were better than those you’ll normally encounter at the back of a plane. There was a choice of quite nice feta-cheese sandwiches and some sort of cake. On the other hand, there wasn’t any mid-flight food service aside from that.
Service on our flights was efficient and reasonably friendly, but not doting in the style of — say — Qatar.
Of course, any Economy Class experience depends to a large extent on the specific seats in which you end up. And your neighbors. As much as I like to compare airlines on their merits, the best one on a given day and route is often simply the emptiest. On the outbound, the check-in agent blocked off the middle seat for us on a row of three, which was great — it was not a particularly full flight. On the return, we had opposite aisles on occupied rows, which isn’t a bad arrangement on a fuller flight.
I’d rate seat comfort as average. The seats are designed and manufactured in Turkey. I thought the seat-back storage was not great, partly as it relied for structural integrity on some Velcro-type connections that didn’t quite hold up on either of our two flights. I’m average height, but found my shins tended to rub against the bottom of the seat in front when stretching out my legs. My wife — shorter than me — had no problem and slept a great deal on the outbound.
I didn’t use Wi-Fi on either flight, but noticed it wasn’t especially well priced.
So, overall, I would rate Turkish Airlines as offering a superior Economy Class product. And an especially good one on the 787.
Mixed experiences on the ground
The experience on the ground can be a bit different. We had a great check-in agent at Seattle. Other than that, I was less impressed with Turkish Airlines on the ground than in the air — at both ends. I don’t like to use this blog to vent about negative experiences — I regard travel as a privilege, not as a moan-fest — so I won’t dwell on details. And there was nothing that would put me off flying Turkish Airlines again. Suffice it to say that, based on my experience, it could be better.
Istanbul Airport and the iGA Lounge
If you are flying long-haul on Turkish Airlines, you will experience Istanbul Airport. I don’t believe any of its long-haul flights go into other Turkish airports. The new airport opened in 2019 and is significantly farther out than the now-shuttered old Atatürk Airport. But it is also significantly nicer, at least for departing and transiting passengers. Arriving, the walk was pretty long — but, personally, that doesn’t bother me after a long flight, especially if I am flying to run. (The new airport adopted the “IST” identifier of the old, by the way, with Atatürk being relegated to “ISL” during the overlap. But confusingly, parts of the aviation nomenclature system refer to the new one as “ISL.” Click here for the least confusing explanation I could find.)
I’m generally not a great source of information about public airport facilities for departing or transiting passengers, because I always try to make my way to a lounge. But, glancing around, there seemed to be plenty of places to eat and shop. We did go to a lounge at IST — the iGA Lounge (apparently standing for “Istanbul Grand Airport,” although that full title does not appear in any of the customer-facing branding). We accessed it through Priority Pass. Despite long being a keen lounge user, I’ve only just got Priority Pass. In fact, my wife got it when she signed up for a Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card that includes unlimited PP access. And thoughtfully added me as an authorized cardholder. There are other ways to access the iGA Lounge, too. A number of airlines use it for their Business Class passengers (although Turkish Airlines has its own, which I’ve heard is very good). And you can purchase individual visits. With Priority Pass, there is supposedly a three-hour limit, but I’m not sure whether or how that is enforced. Some transit layovers in Istanbul can be a fair bit longer.
I have tended to take a purist view that the best lounges are always airline-operated. But I am re-assessing that, at least in part. The iGA Lounge at Istanbul was quite impressive. It is huge, with a variety of distinct areas. In fact, it is so large that one could almost forget one is in a lounge and imagine one is in a rather luxurious terminal where food and drinks happen to be free. I didn’t mind its size in the least. But if you are looking for an “exclusive” or “intimate” sort of atmosphere, this might not be your favorite lounge.
However, there’s much to compensate for the lack of intimacy. And that includes the food. They have excellent Turkish food, with, for example, meat cooked on a grill and freshly prepared flatbreads coming out of a pizza oven. And with the huge amount of seating — over more than one level — you’ll have space to enjoy it. (Although parts of the lounge felt crowded.) There was also a full bar, with Turkish wine, Efes beer, and more. And there is an outdoor terrace. But that seems to be mainly for the benefit of smokers. Transit passengers might enjoy the showers, but I didn’t check those out. There’s even a billiards table. Plus luggage lockers and a small Duty Free shop as you enter.
Turkish Airlines non-rev notes
Lastly, a few non-rev notes about Turkish Airlines. As for checking loads, I found you generally only get responses on Staff Traveler within a day or two of departure. I’m not sure whether that’s because the information isn’t usually available to Turkish Airlines staff until then, or whether they just aren’t very active in the Staff Traveler system. This can make forward planning a bit tricky — especially at busy times of the year.
Ticketing is on MyID. Listing is then automatic. We had to pay ZED Medium, which is always a bit disappointing. There is no online check-in for non-revs. You have to check in at the airport. If the loads make acceptance on the flight pretty certain, Turkish Airlines will assign you seats immediately at check-in, rather than making you standby at the gate. However, you may find you need to gently press for this. Some agents are less knowledgeable and helpful than others or, perhaps, lack the power without involving a higher up. If possible, try to go to someone who looks like a supervisor.
At Istanbul Airport, there is a dedicated staff travel counter for non-rev check-in, which should help from the point of view of dealing with a knowledgeable agent. However, that is not available if you are flying to the U.S.A. The reason is that non-revs have to pass through the additional security checks required for all passengers traveling to the U.S.A.
Turkish Airlines conclusion
Pros: Excellent Economy Class product; massive international route network; nice hub airport. Cons: Less impressive on the ground; Business Class currently inconsistent across the fleet (with middle seats on some aircraft). Sum-up: Strong alternative to the big Gulf carriers. ✈️
Related post: Istanbul Half Marathon review.
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