Just recently I wrote about my business class experience from Chicago to Istanbul. After just two full days on the ground in beautiful and historic Istanbul, it was time to head home. I was still beaming from the “wow factor” I had on the nine-hour flight in, and had high hopes that I might secure a battlefield upgrade for a second time. Sadly, fate was not in my favor and I would be taking the eleven-hour transatlantic trek in the second-to-last row of an almost full 777-300ER. Bad news for me, good news for our editors, and you, our loyal readers. You want more economy class reviews? You got it!
But first, let’s address the elephant in the room:
When I was asked if I wanted to visit Turkey, my first thought was: “But, is it safe?” It is true that Turkey is in an undeniably “rough” neighborhood, thanks to the likes of ISIS. However, all of the U.S. State Department warnings focus on the southeastern part of the country. Istanbul, in contrast, is in the northwestern region.
I spent a solid day from sunrise to well after sunset exploring much of what Istanbul had to offer, including many of the “touristy” areas one might not feel safe in. At no point did I feel unsafe. Security personnel (some armed) were common throughout the city, but not to the point of feeling like a police state. Entrances to some venues required a “TSA pre” like screening. Nothing invasive, just metal detectors, baggage screening, wands, etc.
One day was not nearly enough to explore and I wish I could have stayed at least a few days longer. We Americans are a bit squeamish when it comes to security and that’s a real limiting factor. Even in light of recent events, statistically we are more likely to suffer injury driving to our home airports than at the hands of extremists abroad. If we adjust our lives or bypass culturally-significant destinations for fear, we only punish the warm, moderate, and hospitable people of Istanbul while simultaneously letting the bad guys win.
But this isn’t TourismReporter, so back to the review…
Turkish Airlines Economy departure
Turkey takes security very seriously. In case my experience while playing tourist didn’t convince me, my departure experience at Istanbul Ataturk Airport would fully drive the point home. Immediately upon entering the airport there is a security checkpoint similar to what one would experience in a TSA Precheck line. A key difference; this line was well managed, something we Americans have yet to master.
Before making it to the departures desk there were two additional passport checks. After a third passport check at the desk I was told Business had been overbooked and I was handed my boarding pass complete with the dreaded SSSS or “quad S.” While I managed to fully enjoy my time in Istanbul, it seemed I picked up a nasty little bug: Secondary Security Screening Selection. No one knows for sure what drives the flag, but travel to potentially unstable destinations seems to be a magnet for being flagged SSSS. Who knew travel to Europe could result in SSSS? Will this bug stick with me as I travel in the future? It has for some some. Fingers crossed that my selection was random. Only time will tell. I haven’t traveled since my return.
After a momentary delay at the departures desk resulting from a “system issue” my bag was tagged and I was escorted to the Turkish Airlines flagship lounge. But before entering, two more passport checks, and another round of TSA Pre-like screening. I have heard incredible things about this lounge, but I was pressed for time and would not have the opportunity fully explore it. After sampling some of the wide variety of foods offered, I was off to gate 226 on the extreme end of the terminal.
The lounge exit was near gate 219 and my departure gate was 226, a leisurely ten or so minute walk. As I approached my gate, a security officer asked me what city I was going to. When I told him Chicago he winced, and told me there had been a gate change, to 208 at the extreme opposite of the terminal. Gate changes happen, but swaps to the opposite end of the airport, roughly an hour before departure aren’t fun. I spent the next twenty minutes briskly walking, navigating passengers and hoping I wouldn’t be late for boarding. This would be the first of a handful of passenger-experience misses as I ventured back to the States.
Upon reaching my gate there were three additional passport checks and, thanks to my SSSS flag, a third security screening. This one more intrusive, similar to what one would expect in a traditional TSA line back home: Shoes off, laptop and liquids out, etc. It’s worth noting that receiving SSSS in Istanbul results in a more passenger-friendly search than an SSSS-induced search back in the states. The domestic SSSS is down right invasive, and uncomfortable. Again, here’s hoping my SSSS flag doesn’t follow me on my next trip.
All in, eleven different people had to handle my passport from the time I entered the airport, until boarding the plane. That plus two standard security screenings, and the third my SSSS flag won me.
Turkish Airlines Economy: On the plane
Boarding began just as I reached the gate area. While I had not managed an upgrade, I was still in boarding group one which allowed me the opportunity to walk the full length Boeing 777-300ER all alone. It was nice to have all of economy to myself, but that didn’t last long.
When booking I thought choosing a seat all the way in the back would increase my chances at having an empty middle. On the Turkish Airlines B777-300ERs, the last two rows are lacking one seat on each side in a 2-3-2 configuration to account for the narrowing of the tail. It turned out that my strategy failed, as the aisle seat next to me was claimed, whereas there were a handful of empty middles throughout the cabin. Lesson learned: Don’t choose the last two rows if you want a decent shot at an empty companion seat.
As I settled in and waited for my fellow passengers to do the same it became very hot in the cabin. Instinctively, I reached up to adjust the airflow, but there was no nozzle. A quick look around the cabin confirmed no seat had its own access to air. This would prove to be a real letdown because the acceptable ambient temperature on this flight was much higher than I’m accustomed to. Temperature tolerance is very much a cultural thing so no problem with that, but for the airline serving the most international destinations in the world, giving these diverse passengers access to personal air units is a necessity.
Once airborne, our flight attendants made their first appearance, offering Turkish delights (a Turkish candy I grew fond of over the trip). Shortly after, they offered a hot towel service. I am a sucker for a hot towel on a plane, and after running around the airport and enduring the first hour of heat on board, it was a welcome and refreshing perk, something I have only experienced in first or business class elsewhere.
When it came time for our first meal I was given an option of “beef or chicken.” When I asked if they had secured the vegetarian option I had requested when confirming my travel arrangements, they looked surprised. Sadly, my request had not carried. Instead I took the chicken pasta. Thankfully, the chicken came in its own container and it was easy to get rid of; the fellow next to me in seat 52B happily accepted it.
Served alongside the pasta was cacick (pronounced jah-juck), a full-fat yogurt with cucumbers and herbs, as well as chocolate mousse and a small container of water. The food was sufficient, but a far departure from what I had experienced up front just a few days earlier. Turkish yogurt cucumber salad, as I’ve been calling it, is one of the side dishes I encountered frequently on my trip. I was hesitant at first but quickly grew to love it. It was the star of the meal and paired well with the semi-dry pasta.
Turkish Airlines Economy: Passenger Experience
After the meal service it was time to relax and figure out how to burn the last ten hours of the flight. Turkish Airlines economy seating comes with a built-in footrest which some (perhaps shorter people?) might find convenient. For me, it ate away at precious and already limited legroom. The seat width on this flight was the same as one would experience on a domestic economy flight back in the U.S.
Legroom was a serious issue for me. SeatGuru claims the pitch is between 31 and 32 inches. This is inline with, or below, what one would expect on a domestic economy flight and did not fit the experience I would have expected from Europe’s best airline. For comparison, Southwest Airlines offers between 32 and 33 inches of legroom on their 737-800.
SkyLife, the Turkish Airlines magazine, was nearly an inch thick and its placement in the seat-back pocket further limited legroom. Once I realized I could reclaim the space I moved the magazine and my knees felt slightly better. One final note about legroom: The lip of the seat back pocket had a small metal support rod sewn into it. Why? I had eleven hours to contemplate this and couldn’t come up with a valid reason. This was a serious design flaw because my knees were jammed into this tiny rod for most of the flight. As I pen this piece over a week post-flight, my knees are still bruised.
Our flight attendants came through with U.S. Customs forms and shortly after, an amenity kit. The amenity kit was pretty basic and I would say below what I have experienced elsewhere on long-haul economy. A missed opportunity: There was no pen, something I’ve come to expect. Sure, I had my own pen, but it was stowed.
As I stared out the window watching the clouds and hoping for a jump to super-sonic speed, the passenger in 51A reclined her seat to within just a few inches of my chest. Something had to give. Time was passing slowly, and my knees were throbbing, so I decided it would be best to try to sleep.
Turkish Airlines economy service comes with a nice over-sized pillow which I looked forward to trying. Sadly, the gap between the seat and the side wall was large enough that I could not comfortably lean in. Additionally, the armrest on the side of the wall would not raise. So, while there was an additional three to four inches of room at my disposal, I couldn’t take advantage of it. This was another serious miss. Sleeping on this flight would not be an option unless I reclined my seat (which I don’t do) and tried sleeping on my back. As a “side sleeper” this wasn’t going to happen.
The in-flight entertainment in Turkish Airlines economy is the same, or nearly the same as what I experienced up front. Large screens, with a diverse range of TV shows, movies, and music from around the globe. One option “live news text,” didn’t work.
In-flight connectivity is complimentary for business passengers and offered for a nominal fee in economy at $9.99 (US) for one hour, or $14.99 for the duration of the flight. I decided against paying for the service.
Around five hours in I decided to stare at the flight map and count down the time until the half-way mark for the flight. I was hot, uncomfortable, my knees were throbbing. Put simply, the novelty had long worn off, and I was anxious to conclude the experience. Instead, counting down the minutes to the midpoint of the flight would have to do.
Once we tipped the five-hour and twenty-two minute mark, indicating more than half of the flight had completed, I had to find something else to keep me entertained. I noticed that my seatmate had been gone for a while and looked about the cabin. Although seat belt sign was lit, many of my fellow passengers were congregating wherever they could chatting amongst themselves, laughing and carrying on. It seemed they were having a good time, a better time than I was, at least.
About an hour and a half before landing, our second meal service started. I do not recall having a meal choice, but thankfully the meal I was given was naturally vegetarian-friendly. While the photo above doesn’t look terribly appealing, it was good. I assumed the side in the upper left-hand corner was potato salad, but I was wrong. Whatever it was, it went uneaten. Everything else was fine, even the shriveled and sad looking tomato slice. It was at this point I realized I had not seen a flying chef since boarding. I was under the impression that there were two per flight, one for business class, one for economy. Perhaps I was mistaken…
Shortly after the second meal service was collected, the downtown Chicago skyline came into view. It was a welcome sight and an indication the flight was nearly over.
A side effect of sitting all the way in the back is being one of the last to deplane. As long as it took, I expected my checked bag, which Turkish Airlines had graciously tagged as “priority” would be waiting for me. By the time I made it to baggage claim, non-priority bags from my flight were being unloaded, so I patiently waited for my bag to come around. On a whim I used the stopwatch on my iPhone. 23 minutes later, my priority bag showed up co-mingled with non-priority bags. So much for that.
Turkish Airlines Economy: Conclusion
True to our satirical The Economy Flight Review piece, this flight left a lot to be desired. I did not expect the extravagance I had experienced up front. But there were a number of misses that I just can’t let go. Particularly for an airline that offers such a polished experience in business and is so openly aggressive with trying to differentiate itself from the pack.
In my opinion, to realize its ambitions the following enhancements need to be made to the Turkish Airlines economy product:
- Install individual passenger air vents or, lower the temperature and let folks use the supplied blankets if need be.
- Allow the sidewall armrest to be raised thus allowing access to multiple inches of unused room.
- Increase legroom to be in-line with what is offered on domestic economy flights and other Trans-Atlantic-configured planes. For the record, the ME3 each offer 31-to-34 inches of pitch on the same aircraft. For what it’s worth, the legroom on my United E175 flight from Chicago to Kansas City was better. That is a disparity I can’t, in good conscious, not mention.
- Don’t change gates to the other side of the airport less than an hour before flight.
- Ensure special meal requests “stick.”
- Treat priority bags as priority.
Disclosure: Travel and accommodations provided by Turkish Airlines. My opinions are always my own.