By now, the world knows all about the “legendary” airlines out of the Middle East and Asia – Emirates, Etihad, Singapore, and Cathay just to name a few. These carriers are champions to the traveling public – or dreaming public – among their industry counterparts because of the extravagant travel experience they promise. Expensive champagne, elaborate meals, plush bedding, and predictive service, are just a few of the things that captivate both those who travel and those wishing to travel.
Keeping with the promise I made myself to explore more of the world in 2015, I decided to finally make a trip out to a place that has long been on my list of places to visit – Istanbul. Fortunately for me, there is a daily flight to Istanbul from Chicago, making the journey an easy non-stop red eye flight. Prior to this journey with Turkish, I had no idea what an extensive network Turkish has – it truly is impressive. Not only do they hit the major gateways in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, and San Francisco, but they also offer flights to Chicago, Houston, and Boston – and will soon start service to Miami and Atlanta. Like the massive airlines in the UAE, Turkish Airlines is an excellent option to connect from one end of the world to the other. Not to mention that Istanbul is a wonderful place for a stopover with plenty of history and no shortage of culture. And for those who look at airline rankings, Turkish recently made the #4 spot on Skytrax’s two airlines in the world list, beating out Emirates and Etihad, and coming in behind Cathay Pacific!
Turkish Airlines TK06
ORD – IST
July 2, 2015
Business Class, Seat 6E
Boeing 777-300ER, TC-JJR
Turkish Airlines’ flight to Istanbul from Chicago departs pretty late at 10:40pm – much later than Emirates’ Dubai flight at 8:30pm and Qatar to Doha at 7:45pm. By the time boarding begins, most dining and shopping outlets at Chicago’s Terminal 5 are closing up shop. Arriving at the gate area at about an hour before departure, there was a sea of people between the main corridor and the boarding door. The gate lounge is a small space share between two flights with similar departure times, causing the chaos – gate agents were constantly reminding passengers that it was not the flight to Istanbul that was boarding. Just before the stated boarding time, my name came on over the PA system calling my to the counter – my upgrade had cleared. Because I was an upgraded passenger, I was informed that a business class entree was not loaded, but all other courses and drinks would be from the business class menu. Perfectly fine with me but I can see where this may bother some passengers (for good reason nonetheless). Boarding for Istanbul commenced at 9:40pm, one hour from scheduled departure, and I was on the aircraft ten minutes later.
Stepping through door 2L, I was greeted by several members of the cabin crew, as well as one of the two onboard chefs Turkish employs on the flight. Turning right into the rear business class cabin, I arrived at seat 6E, a middle business class seat – the business class cabin was booked to 100%, so there was no getting out of this one. My seat mates on either side had not arrived yet, so I took my time taking some photos and grabbed a few things I would need for the flight from my carry-on.
Finally settling into the middle seat, a flight attendant came by with a tray of unorthodox (in a good way) pre-departure drinks. There was your usual champagne and orange juice (this was fresh squeezed), as well as turkish lemonade with mint, some sort of passion fruit drink, and another which I cannot recall. The lemonade with mint definitely hit the spot and cooled me down after wading through a sea of people in the gate lounge.
Boarding took quite a while as there were no shortage of children and babies – there were a good number in business class too. As the last remaining passengers made their way to their seats, the cabin crew came around handing out pamphlets on their onboard turndown service. The service included a large sleeping pillow, a waist pillow (which was comfortable when sitting upright, but not when sleeping), a mattress pad, and a large duvet. This was only the first sign that this experience was going to be exceptional.
At exactly 10:40pm, the doors closed and we made our way to the active 10 minutes later. Or so I thought. After taxiing out to the runway, there was about a 20 minute hold before we were cleared to line up and take off. There was no explanation from the guys up front on what the holdup was all about. But soon enough the massive GE90s came to life and the beast of an airplane rumbled down the asphalt and left earth.
On our way to cruising altitude, my feet were freed from my travel boots and found the provided slippers. I have found that my secret to surviving long haul travel is to have a set of slippers on board – socks alone don’t quite cut it for me. Even when not flying in a premium cabin, its pretty easy to grab the pair of slippers provided by a hotel before checking out and heading to the airport.
On seat comfort, while a middle seat in business class may seem disturbing in this day and age, the Turkish Airlines seats are actually pretty comfortable and have plenty of pitch – not to mention, they are true lie-flat beds. The ottoman is pretty much a flat bench with no obstacles above or beside it, so it actually feels spacious even as the passenger in the middle seat. The color scheme of dark navy and off-white also helps to keep the seats looking clean and clutter free. There were little cubbies in the seat-back in front, next to the IFE monitors, holding headsets with room for other items – though I do not recommend putting any personal belongings there as the cubbies are pretty deep and you can easily forget that you left something there. Under the armrests were the IFE controls, headset jack, and power port, as well as just enough room for a tablet or book. Excluding the space under the ottoman (large enough for a regular backpack or briefcase), there was not much storage space for personal belongings.
When the seatbelt sign came off, I paid a quick visit to the toilet to find a nicely furnished restroom with refreshing spray, aroma sticks, refreshing towels, a full length mirror, modern sink, and (what I believe to be a must have on all modern/refurbished airplanes) a sensor activated faucet.
Returning to my seat, I passed by the galley in full swing setting up for the meal service. One of the trolley was being prepped with the table setting for business class. Soon after, the flight attendants came by and distributed menus for the flight and take initial drink orders. There was a separate wine list, as well as a breakfast order form (similar to the room service breakfast door sign found at hotels). Because I was an upgrade, I didn’t receive one – and took a photo of my seat mate’s. Catering on Turkish Airlines is carried out by boutique catering company Turkish Do & Co, a venture with Turkish Airlines. The greater Do & Co company is actually headquartered in Vienna, Austria.
There was no shortage of options on the menu. Not only was there a plate of canapés, but there was also a soup course after the appetizer! So all in all, this was a five course meal in business class. As the crew came by with drinks and a bowl of mixed nuts, the onboard chefs came around to take down orders for the main course, everything else was served via a trolley where you can see your options before choosing – just like the old days of flying! Each passenger received a plate of canapés shortly after containing foie gras on toast, a tart with some sort of paté, and a steak and peppers skewer.
As the cabin crew came around with the trolley to distribute table settings, there was something that stood out immediately, the faux-candle lanterns.
I absolutely love the concept of the “candle-lit dinner” in the sky – its absolutely brilliant. Unfortunately, photos are not able to capture the cabin ambiance while these candles flickered at every single business class seat. It was all too cool. With a quick turn, the cabin crew came down the aisle with the trolley once again, containing large bowls of each appetizer. I only selected three of the eight (!) available options, but the crew actually encouraged everyone to choose more.
The soup course followed; a very umami cream of wild mushroom soup served in an elegant bronze colored bowl on a matte black plate.
Next came the “upgraded” downgraded main course. As I said earlier, because of the capabilities of the flight kitchen at ORD and the prep times, day of departure upgraded passengers do not have a business class main course loaded for them. There were 6 upgraded passengers on the flight. But with the chefs on board, they prepared a passable business class meal with economy sourced ingredients. Ultimately I ended up with roasted broccoli, baked chicken, and potatoes au gratin. I think the chefs left the entire course in the oven a bit too long as everything was dry.
Already pretty full, most of my setting was cleared, and the dessert trolley came down the aisle – again with an abundance of options. I simply selected a green tea tiramisu to finish off the meal. After dessert, another trolley with post-meal beverages made the rounds. The setup was once again elaborate with a large selection of teas, designer cups, and a large turkish tea kettle.
By the time the meal service concluded, it was well past bedtime in Chicago – about 1:30am local time. After clearing all the service ware, the flight attendants offered to make my bed. It was a little awkward being in the middle seat, as they had to work over the passenger to my left. The mattress pads had elastic bands on each end that gripped onto the head and footrest to stay in place during the flight – another simple but ingenius detail.
As the clock approached 2am local time in Chicago, the lights finally began to dim. While everyone was finished with the meal service, and all the service ware was cleared, one item from the service remained – the lanterns. The cabin crew placed every lantern on a flat surface atop each seat, once again creating a magnificent ambiance. Instead of a candle-lit dinner, these lanterns served as twinkling stars as passengers slept. Along with the mood lighting, it was quite the sight as we rocketed through the sky towards Istanbul.
The middle seat is definitely the least desirable on a long haul flight, but the saving grace on Turkish is that the arm rests actually raise up to create a partition at the push of a button. The underside even has a reading light so as to not disturb the passengers beside you; never seen that before.
After about three hours of sleep, I was not able to get myself to fall back a sleep. So I decided to test out the onboard wifi; to my surprise and pleasure, the onboard wifi is available to business class passengers free of charge. The verification process was simple, requiring a seat number and the last name associated with the seat. For passengers in economy, the charge was pretty hefty at $10USD for one hour but a little more reasonable at $15 for 24 hours. With a need to create an account, I suspect that passengers connecting to an onward Turkish flight can keep using the wifi by just logging in.
Not in the mood for a movie, I just browsed the web using the relatively fast wifi for the next three hours. Before I knew it, the mood lighting started to change into a sunrise theme. There was already light clinking in the galley as the chefs started to prepare breakfast made to order. Shortly after, the lights were brightened up to a point where the cabin crew could safely offer a full service, and they came around with hot towels and fresh squeezed orange juice and dates.
Although the cabin crew made sure that passengers filled out the breakfast order forms before going to bed, the on board chefs came around to take breakfast orders – which I thought was strange as it sort of defeats the purpose of having the form… The service started off with a tray consisting of a plate of fresh fruit, a bowl of plain yoghurt, and some cheese. I had a cup of black tea to go with it all. I was offered a choice of the omelette or fried eggs by the cabin crew, to which I asked for the latter. When the dish came I was a little surprised, expecting something more like scrambled eggs. It was more like eggs boiled in a dish.
It wasn’t until after the breakfast service concluded did I realize we were still pretty far from Istanbul. There was about another hour before we started the final descent. The worst part about a middle seat is not being able to look out the window on approach into a new city. From my spot in the middle, it looked like a beautiful day outside. The final treat the cabin crew gave out was a box consisting a single Godiva truffle before landing – a nice touch.
The approach path took us over Asia, out over the sea, before a straight in final into Istanbul Ataturk Airport. As an airline experiencing tremendous growth, the terminal was not able to accommodate all of Turkish’s flights at once. To my delight, the aircraft came to a stop at a hard stand. I don’t remember the last time I arrived from an international flight via air stairs. For an avgeek like me, this was a dream – seeing a less than two year old 777-300ER up close on the outside.
It was a quick drive over to the customs area at the main concourse, seeing some exotic birds along the way. All things considered, it was a pretty pleasant arrival experience as there was a fast track lane for business class passengers – just need to show the boarding pass stub. The queue for immigration took less than 5 minutes!
I was simply blown away by the Turkish Airlines experience. Its actually quite amazing how the crew is able to fit in such an elaborate service with the number of passengers there are, roughly 50 seats in business class. There was so much detail involved, everywhere from the cabin interior, to the dinnerware, menus, bedding, and actual meal. The only thing that was slightly lacking was the cabin crews’ pace during the service. It looked like they were rushing back and forth during the meal service, for good reason, but it does create a less relaxing atmosphere in the cabin – perhaps they could learn to keep up the pace but “tread softly”. Aside from that, there is no lack of amenities and pampering during the journey, this has to be one of the best business class experiences money or miles can buy. Chatting with my seat mate revealed that he paid $3200USD for his round trip business class ticket when booking several months in advance – quite the bargain. I guess the only thing to do now is to try out the Austrian Airlines version of the Do & Co inflight experience!