Flight Reviews: A Decidedly Mixed Bag

A trip report on my flights between Tel Aviv and Istanbul; and then my return home from Istanbul in Turkish Business Class and United Domestic (shudder) Business Class

TLV-IST/IST-TLV: Turkish Airlines Economy

My flights from IST to TLV and back on Turkish in coach were pretty similar. It’s only about a two-hour flight, so really just getting there without any delays or problems is sufficient to make a flight OK. But again, the service delivered by Turkish is definitely a bit odd.

Arriving at Ataturk, check-in was quick and painless. I found my way to my gate and had a seat. After about 15 minutes or so, there was some hubbub among the other passengers – turned out our departure gate had been moved three gates further along. Not that big a deal – except this was never announced. And the monitor at the gate with the gate change message was displayed in a tiny, nearly-invisible red-on-black font. So, essentially, the gate change was communicated by word of mouth.

After we’d all moved to the new gate and another ten minutes had passed, another gate change. Same as the first, though at this point, word spread quickly. And a good thing since of course this new gate was at the opposite end of the airport. Eh, what’re you gonna do?

Anyway, once at the new gate, boarding eventually announced. First, they boarded the VIPs – and then it was basically just a free-for-all, despite there being boarding groups listed on the boarding passes. I think they even called for groups to board, but everyone just started getting on the plane. I don’t even necessarily mind this method of boarding, but it was weird – either announce how it’s gonna work and do that or just announce “All aboard!”

Anyway, I got to my seat, 7C – an aisle seat I’d reserved a week prior (Turkish also has weird timing rules about when you can reserve a seat assignment – and one can’t do it online. Annoying.) After a few minutes, a mom with a babe-in-arms and a daughter of around 6 or 7 boarded and took the seats next to me. Dad was in a center seat across the aisle.

After a few minutes, the mom asked if I’d be willing to switch seats with her husband. Ugh.

Now, I am not unsympathetic to parents traveling with kids (though it does always cross my mind, “Where the fuck does a four-month-old need to go, anyhow – a business meeting in Tel Aviv?” Of course, I’m an a-hole, so this is no surprise) – it must be a real challenge. But I pee a lot, especially when I fly since I drink a lot (of water!) to try to stay hydrated – hence I like the aisle seat so I can get to the lav easily. And that’s why I reserve my seat well in advance and just generally make sure to prepare for my trip in every way possible to make it go smoothly. And I would think if I were traveling with a spouse and children, I would make an even more concerted effort to plan ahead.

Anyhoo, I politely refused her request, indicating that I really wasn’t willing to give up an aisle seat for a center seat. I felt like kind of a jerk – though also kind of put on the spot.  And it’s not like I was planning on giving her dirty looks for the rest of our voyage. I was fully prepared to spend the next couple of hours beside a potentially screaming baby without complaint.

Well, a few minutes later, her husband got up – first, he made kind of a point of leaning over me and invading my space while he chit-chatted with his wife. Then he headed to the back of the plane and returned a few minutes later. “There’s an aisle seat back there in row 18. Would you mind taking that one?”

“Sure, that’s fine,” I replied. I gathered up my stuff and headed back and sat down. That’s when the guy in the middle seat of row 18 took off his sleep mask and told me that the aisle seat was his – and he’d had to move to the center because the aisle seat was broken (it wouldn’t un-recline). Sigh. So, back up to my original seat I went. “Sorry, dude – seat’s broken,” I advised the husband.

But at this point, the guy from row 18 came up and said I could take his center seat with an open aisle seat, he’d take the husband’s center seat and the husband could have mine. So, eventually, everything got sorted – and as it turned out the aisle seat in 18 was only partially broken. I was able to manually pull it into the upright position and get it to stay that way. So, I wound up with an aisle and no one in the center seat.

I should also add that I didn’t get a “thank you” from either the husband or wife at any point during the flight. The whole episode was kind of annoying. I’m sure there are plenty who’ll read this and think I should’ve just taken the husband’s center seat from the get-go to accommodate this family’s wish to sit together. But why should I have to be inconvenienced just because I’m traveling solo? Also, it would’ve been nice if the Turkish Airlines flight crew had been a bit more proactive in figuring this out – they didn’t do a thing to assist at any point in this whole fooferall.

Once we pushed back, the remainder of the flight went smoothly. Including being served an extraordinarily tasty light meal (in coach! They even handed out menus!) consisting of smoked salmon and dill crème fraiche, a tasty salad with chicken slices and a dessert.

Ben Gurion airport was a nice change from the rather chaotic atmosphere of giant Ataturk. Passport control went smoothly and I was out in a taxi pretty quickly after clearing customs.

After nine days in Israel, I headed back to Istanbul, flying with Turkish in coach again. This flight uneventful, save for the disorganized boarding process – which I was now prepared for and just boarded as soon as they opened the jetway, disregarding my boarding group assignment. And I managed to switch to an emergency exit row seat with no one in between me and the other fellow in the row. Yay!

And, par for the course, all the other passengers in the emergency exit row had their TV monitors out of the armrests for all of taxi, takeoff and landing – so essentially they’d set up physical barriers between the aisle and the designated emergency egress. And no comments from the flight crew – though they did make the guy who’d reclined put his seat up. Very peculiar.

Served another shockingly tasty meal  – a really delicious cold chicken with masala sauce, eggplant and red lentils; salad; and some dessert. And actually, Turkish Airlines may be onto something here. Flying in coach and then being served any meal at all  – let alone one that was really quite good! – in economy is such an unexpected surprised that it colors one’s entire impression of the experience. If anything, my flights to and from Israel were unremarkable – and, in fact, given the disorganized boarding process and the disengaged demeanor of the crew, I could’ve left with a not-so-great impression. But for the couple of bucks it cost to feed me, I was left with a generally favorable view of the overall experience.

Arriving at Ataturk in mid-afternoon was not pleasant – passport control took forever and was mobbed. But what’re you gonna do?

IST – Turkish Airlines CIP Lounge

If you’re flying Turkish Business Class, take note: check-in for all business class passengers is at counter E; disregard the counters listed on the departure board and just head straight for E. I didn’t discover this until I’d already waited in line at counter B with all the coach travelers. I didn’t have to wait too long (though I did have to listen to the terrible couple in front of me argue the entire time), but it looked like there was no wait at all when I passed section E. I did make sure to find out where the Fast Track passport line was – and thank Zeus, because the regular one was very long.

Anyway, I hurried myself to the Turkish CIP Lounge. I’d read nothing but good things about it – and turns out they are all true. Now THIS is a lounge!

I’ll start off with the only downside – the lounge is very busy. That is, it’s not exactly an oasis of calm. That being said, it is also huge, so there are plenty of places to sit – and as one explores further, there were areas toward the back corner of the place that were somewhat less populated. And trust me, I’m really kind of quibbling here.

So, what do they have? FOOD. Multiple mezes bars, olive bars, a whole section of sweets and cakes, hot soup, fresh fruit (gross!), a chef preparing hot flat breads in four varieties, various bar carts stocked with wine and beer (not sure if there was champagne) and spirits, fridges throughout with water and other soft drinks, strong wifi, lovely décor with plants and trees throughout, a grand piano that plays itself.

There are also storage cupboards for leaving one’s luggage near the entrance. It’s a nice touch – let’s you wander the place without having to lug everything.

And let me tell you, people go ape-shit for some free food. The chef guy had served all of his previous batch of flatbreads, so I was lurking nearby waiting for the next batch to come out of the oven. When he took them out to serve, I meandered over to get in line behind the two ladies already waiting – when some dude materialized from behind the column to my left and pushed his way ahead of me. Jesus, you greedy thing – relax, there’s plenty for everyone… Oh, and all four varieties were totally delicious. Took mine to a table in back and dug in while sipping another glass of wine.

There are signs throughout reminding visitors that flights aren’t announced – which is fine, since they’ve got monitors of departure times in several locations. I proceeded to the gate when the monitor read “PROCEED TO GATE” – only to discover boarding was not in process. Somewhat annoying, but eh.

IST-IAH: Turkish Airlines Business Class

I actually don’t recall if Business Class was called to board first. I think so – or it may very well have been the usual rush to the jetway. Anway, got onboard and settled into 2C – the left aisle seat of the center section. Business is set-up 2-3-2, which is not ideal for solo travelers – I chose 2C in hopes that 2D would remain empty – and so it did. Hooray!

The business class cabin felt very spacious (it’s their highest class of service – no first class). The seats were pretty comfy – perhaps a tad narrow, but a huge amount of space between me and the seat in front of me. I suspect with three across it might’ve felt a bit tighter, but luckily that was a non-issue this flight.

Also, it looks like there’s actually a bit more distance between 2C and 2D – the shared armrest is wider than the one between 2D and 2E. This appears to be to make room for the remotes, seat adjustment, power, etc. for both seats. So, again, appears that C seats are best for single traveler.

Pre-flight drinks served – I had champagne, of course… Gosset, IIRC – and the chef came around offering a tray of Godiva chocolates (does anyone actually like Godiva? I’m sorry, but they’re just not that good. I mean, I ate it obv, but still…). We were also presented with menus, detailing the quite lavish meal service to come.

After we’d gotten to cruising altitude, the chef and the FAs rolled out the mezes cart – shrimp, Caesar salad, lebneh, some really tasty tuna canapés, dolmas, eggplant. And it was all delicious – not as in “well, this is pretty good food for an airplane” but as in if I were eating it on the ground I would declare it delicious. Really the most impressive food I’ve ever been served at 30K feet. Oh, and a selection of breads was also proffered. Then a soup course.

For my main course, I chose lamb chops (I think the other options were fish and something vegetarian). They were pretty darn tasty, though the potatoes were a bit mealy (again, I’m quibbling). This food was good, but not in the same league as the mezes. But still impressive. Enjoyed some rosé with my meal – I think it was Turkish but it may have been French.

Next the dessert tray – cheese, fresh fruit (as if), chocolate soufflé balls, Turkish semolina cake and baklava (I had both and declared them excellent), ice cream with berry sauce, tiramisu. It was quite a spread.

After meal service ended, I decided to relax and take in a couple of movies. The AVOD system on Turkish was great – a really wide selection (I wound up watching three recent movies I’d wanted to see – and was glad I hadn’t paid good money to see any of them  in the theaters…). Plus the wifi worked quite well for nearly the entire 13-hour flight – and it was free! And I’m pretty sure it was free for all passengers, including coach – take that, United!

As for the seat, it was certainly a big step up from economy – though I suspect it may have been somewhat better for sleeping in than sitting. It was a flat seat and back, plus the leg and foot rest. I certainly wouldn’t call it uncomfortable – but it was hard to find a position that felt just right. Though, again, not complaining, just observing – much better than coach, for sure.

I did doze for a bit. The flight crew were certainly the most engaged of the four Turkish flights I’d taken thus far – though once meal service was over, they were not around so much. Drink refills weren’t offered, though they were happy to pour more at my request.

As we got closer to arrival, a second meal was served: a first course of a variety of prepared cold appetizers (chicken, cheese, dolmas, hummus), followed by a hot entrée. I chose chicken, served with risotto and greens. All of it very, very good – Turkish really does an amazing job with their in-flight meals.

All in all, a great flight – this was the longest I’ve ever had to spend in an airplane and what a treat to get to spend it being wined and dined.

IAH: United Club

There must’ve been half-a-dozen or more planeloads of people waiting to get through immigration. The line initially moved at a steady clip – until three of the six counters closed down. Really aggravating that they can’t keep some personnel on hand to deal with the rush.

Once through it was quick trip to the United Club in Terminal E. Well, I didn’t exactly have high hopes, especially after the glorious CIP Lounge at Ataturk – and it’s a good thing, because it was no great shakes. I was able to grab a shower in an OK bathroom. The lounge itself was quiet and had good wifi. Many of the seats were stained and shop-worn and the selection of food on the second floor was packaged cheese slices, crackers, pretzels, coffee and an urn of ice water with plastic cups. Not exactly the lap of luxury, but quiet at least. There may have been some other beverages on the first floor, but I didn’t bother to explore. A pretty ho-hum experience.

IAH-SFO: United Business First

My flight was scheduled to leave at 9:50 for SFO, with boarding at 9:30, I think? So, I headed to the gate and got there just at the time boarding was supposed to have started per the departure monitors – but the equipment wasn’t even at the gate. Of course, the monitors and gate info all still showed “ON TIME” – and they displayed that even when the passengers from the arriving flight started deboarding at 9:45. It’s really infuriating – and this is not unique to United. If equipment is not at the gate to board on time, it’s not going to leave on time. If it’s still deplaning at five minutes before ETD, it’s not going to leave on time! I don’t mind a delay, especially if it’s only 15-20 minutes – but let us know! Update the monitors! It’s not rocket science! While it was no CIP Lounge, I’d rather chill out in the United Club than at the gate.

Anyway, we eventually boarded about 15 minutes late. The equipment was an A320 which was presumably once piloted by the Wright Brothers. I was quite shocked that United had the gall to refer to anything in their “Business First” cabin as “first” or “premier.” Now, I certainly knew not to expect anything like their international service – but the seats were shabby and old, the whole cabin felt dirty (I couldn’t tell whether the little drink tray between me and the guy next to me was grime-covered or the plastic was simply disintegrating), no power ports, no foot rest. I did get an actual glass for my split of wine, so there’s that… And while I’m sure it was better than coach on the same plane (which presumably looked something like this), I flew ORD-SFO last year on UA in a newly upgraded 777 Econ Plus cabin  – and that felt like Global First compared to this disgraceful excuse for “first class”  in which I was currently seated. Really, really bad – and if I had paid money out of my own pocket to purchase or upgrade on this flight, I’d’ve been livid.

I slept for the first two hours and missed the snack service. But the friendly FA served me at my request. In the saddest possible coincidence, it was a small plate of vaguely Middle Eastern cold chicken and tabbouleh – under any circumstance other than having just dined in splendor on Turkish Airlines, it might’ve seemed passable. But it simply reinforced the sub-par experience of this flight.

Finally, back home to SFO. A great vacation, a mostly-great experience getting to fly in United’s “real” first class to LHR and experience Turkish Airlines’ amazing food, its spacious business class and its sometimes odd in-flight service. All in all, 117,500 miles very well spent, I’d say…

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