Are you sitting comfortably? I am. Are you being pampered? I am. Are you sitting in the economy cabin of a Turkish Airlines flight from London Heathrow to Istanbul Ataturk? It’s a very comfortable place to be, especially when the two of us are sharing three seats.
A Turkish-style breakfast has just been served. Olives, tomato, white and yellow cheese, followed by a warm, cheese-flavoured filo pastry, some red peppers, a hot roll with strawberry jam and a piece of almond cake. All washed down with a choice of beer, wine, spirits, fruit juice and water. Tomato juice and water were just fine for us today. And then the trolley came round with tea and coffee. A very satisfactory experience.
The day had started badly, but essentially, with the alarm going off at 4.30 am as planned. Still far, far too early for retired persons. It felt as though bedtime was two minutes ago. A quick shower, a bit of last minute packing, emptying the rubbish and a final tidy round the house and the taxi arrived at the door, bang on 5.30 as ordered. A final check that curtains were set the way we like them, that two radios were on quietly to deter unwanted guests during our prolonged sojourn in Turkey, a last minute panic search for the door keys, and the journey to our Turkish villa started.
At this time of the morning the time to Heathrow Airport was only 20 minutes. Terminal 3 was quiet. Once inside the departures hall we were greeted by a Turkish Airlines official who suggested we might like to try their brand new self-service check-in. Why not – although I had thought that we’d been through check-in at home using their on-line system. Anyway, he seemed to be enjoying the novelty and insisted that he would do everything for us – so much for self-service! He took our passports and pre-printed boarding cards and the machine scanned them and rejected them! “Teething trouble” he said and directed us over to the manned desks. The manned system worked quickly and perfectly. Our cases were soon disappearing down the conveyor belt hopefully not to be seen again until Dalaman Airport in the early evening.
Then it was through security and another brand new set of technologies. The self-scan of our boarding cards worked, the gates opened, and we were in the security zone. Capacious plastic trays were efficiently dispensed and we loaded our bits and pieces onto them. There was a conventional arch-style body scanner and a full-body scanner – the electronic stripper. I went through the arch and was waved on, Margaret went through the arch and was directed to the “stripper” by a lady member of staff. It seemed like ages before she was allowed out. All the time the “stripper” and a hand-held scanner were emitting ominous bleeping sounds. Meanwhile the baggage scanner was being over-zealous and many of the trays were being diverted for further checks – fortunately not ours. It seems that “teething troubles” were the order of the day.
During the latter half of my working life I had a lot of involvement with self-service technologies. As long as the business processes are adapted for the world of self-service and the customer is placed centre stage, then they work well. Given the choice I will always choose self-service. In our local high street Waitrose, M&S, Tesco and WH Smiths have all installed it. The problem with all the systems is that they are not totally intuitive in operation. This is amply illustrated by the number of staff they need on hand to explain things to customers. At WH Smiths in Terminal 3 this morning, there were three staff manning the self-service terminals and none at the conventional checkouts. This must be madness.
Why is it that the gate for your flight is always the furthest away? Today was no exception. Actually I exaggerate. It was the second furthest away down a long, long corridor. When we eventually got to the gate at least there were no queues and we were quickly through the gate formalities and onto the plane. The flight was not busy and the man assigned to the third seat in our row moved to another seat in an empty row – great. We settled down for the 3 ¼ hour flight to Istanbul.
I mentioned the meal earlier and was fairly glowing about the experience. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not The Ritz but it is like the airline experience used to be in the 60’s and 70’s. Turks are very good at service and it really shows. And, by the way, in case you were wondering, the “Globally Yours” phrase in the title of this blog is the current slogan of Turkish Airlines.
Europe was covered in cloud this morning until we got over the Carpathian Mountains between Hungary and Bulgaria. Looking out of the window it took a double take to realize that the white clouds below where actually snow-capped mountain tops. Very picturesque. Soon after this, the captain announced the beginning of the descent. We passed along the Black Sea coast and then did a right turn over the Bosphorus where massive freighters were being escorted through the narrow channel. We passed briefly across the Asian side of Istanbul then, as the aircraft turned back toward the airport on the European side of the city, Sultanahmet was clearly visible with its two giant mosques – the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofia – and the fortress of Topkapi. The final sight before landing was what looked like an enormous prison complex very close to the airport perimeter. Maybe it was just extremely regimented identikit housing blocs.
The landing was smooth and we were soon approaching the terminal building and our assigned air-bridge. In true Turkish tradition, as soon as the plane paused on the taxiway, half the passengers were up and moving up and down the aisle to retrieve their carry-on luggage from the overhead bins. This included a number of families with children. The cabin crew said nothing as the plane continued to roll across the tarmac with the “fasten seatbelts” sign glowing.
Immigration worked like clockwork, not something that is often said when civil servants are involved in this country. As an aside, the new electronic visa system worked well. The initial application process – back home in London – had been simple and was supported by a very easy to use websites. At the end of the process there was an opportunity to make comments. Having had a good internet experience, that’s exactly what I wrote. And within half an hour a very polite “thank you” email arrived written in good English. Ten out of ten to Turkish immigration. Back to today, the only rough edge was that you still have to present a bit of home-printed paper to confirm that you have bought a visa. Why can’t the electronic system match the passport with the valid visa in an electronic way?
We had hoped to spend the next three hours in the HSBC business lounge but it is now designated as a departures only facility. So it was off to the domestic terminal and a chance to renew our acquaintance with Turkey and its people en masse.
After a short while sitting in some typical airport plastic seats, our eyes were attracted to a sign to “The Botanic” which turned out to be an excellent Turkish-style lokanta (canteen). To get there involved negotiating a narrow passage that doubled as a general storage area. With some trepidation we pressed on and turned an uninviting corner only to find ourselves in a clean, open cafeteria. We went to the counter and tried to work out what was on offer and how the ordering system worked. Half way through this culture and language trial, one of the staff told us that this counter was closed but we could go round the corner for food. This we did and came to a serving area where you could buy, what turned out to be, a set meal. And excellent it was. Spicy soup, a choice of beef or chicken stew, rice, bread and a bowl to fill at the self-service (that phrase again!) section. There was a jug of water on the table and the whole bill came to 35TL – less than £10 at current exchange rates – what a bargain, especially in an airort.
As we sat and observed our fellow diners it was clear that they were all airport and airline staff, not another passenger in sight. The room, which probably had some forty four-seater tables, was over half full. On returning to the main terminal hall we rather pitied those passengers who had chosen to eat and drink at the very lack-lustre and no doubt expensive choices available there.
Our mini adventure had used up a fair bit of the time between flights so we headed through security into the airside departure hall and the gate area. The plane boarded and we departed on time flying into the twilight. Our seats were in the front row of economy which was great. Fairly soon the trolley was passing down the aisle delivering a tasty light meal and drinks – strictly non-alcoholic. Not sure that we needed this although about 2 hours had passed since we left the lokanta – how time flies. The food was a smoked aubergine puree followed by a fat turkey and cheese roll and finally a chocolate and banana mousse. All delicious. How can one airline get their food right whilst others make such a hash of it?
On landing at Dalaman the international passengers were taken by bus to the international terminal to collect baggage and go through customs. Normally the latter is a very perfunctory exercise but now a baggage scanner had been installed and our cases were given the x-ray treatment. Don’t know what they were looking for but they didn’t detect our illegal bacon. Before customs we had the first opportunity to buy duty free supplies. Surprisingly they were only allowing one bottle of booze per passport. Normally Turkish customs are not so fussy.
Outside the terminal a voice in the distance was calling our names. It could be none other than Ramazan, Turkey’s safest, and our favourite, taxi driver. For some unexplained reason he had brought a 12-seater high-roofed minibus for just us two. So we travelled in spacious splendour all the way to Kalkan. At two points Ramazan handed us his phone – for you, he said. The first time it was Mehmet our property manager to send his apologies as he was entertaining at home and would not be at the villa to greet us. The second call was from a man called Ibo – who was this? It turned out to be Ramazan’s son-in-law who was being called into service as an ad hoc translator. Ramazan and ourselves have but a rudimentary knowledge of each other’s languages and we were trying to discuss the problems with the major road repairs in the old town of Kalkan. Ibo put us all right.
There was a full moon in the sky and so not long after arriving at the villa we were on the roof terrace with a bottle of wine, a few nibbles and comfy seats. Even at 10pm the air temperature was around 14C and we could sit happily in our shirt sleeves. A perfect end to a long day.