Turkish Airlines: Things That Make You Go Hmmm

While they don’t have the same ‘over the top’ reputation as the “Middle East 3” (Qatar, Etihad, and Emirates), most of that is sizzle – remember that both Qatar and Emirates still fly a substantial number of angled business class seats around the world, and Emirates packs their Boeing 777s with 10 seats across in coach (like American’s reconfigured 777-200s and 777-300s, and like United is supposedly considering moving to).

In fact, when we get down below business class Turkish Airlines made perhaps the world’s biggest bet on premium economy. And some of their Airbus planes have a couple of inches more legroom in economy than US airlines do.

What’s more, when an itinerary contains a forced layover in Istanbul, Turkish will provide a free hotel night even for economy passengers. A work colleague was given the Radisson Blu at the airport when flying economy to and from Eastern Europe.

And Turkish does offer one of the most over the top business class lounge experiences in Istanbul. There’s billiards, golf, a race track, and a movie room with popcorn machine.

They’re certainly expanding at a rapid pace. They are fourth in the world for number of destinations served, and they serve the most countries at 110. They’ve just announced their third destination in South Africa.

In the US they serve Boston, Chicago, New York JFK, Washington Dulles, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Houston, and are launching Miami and Atlanta service in the coming months.

At JFK, LAX, and Miami they’re flying right into the heart of American Airlines territory, and with Atlanta service planned they’ve got a straight forward attack on Delta. They aren’t limiting themselves to cities with Star Alliance connectivity (hence Boston, New York JFK, Miami, and Atlanta).

And they’ve long been state-subsidized.

  • The English translation of the airline’s original name: State Airlines Administration

  • It was late renamed General Directorate of State Airlines

  • The government provided aircraft and capital for the carrier throughout the first 50 years of its existence.

  • By 2004 it was privately owned, sort of — 2% of shares were in private hands with 98% held by the government.

  • The government took its ownership stake down to 75% at that time. But before they did that they placed a $2.8 billion aircraft order.

  • The government still owns over 49% of the airline.

They’re profitable, but so is Emirates (and Etihad claims to be). They’re able to serve routes all over the world that US carriers shy away from with claims of too much competition. And surely they benefit from capital injections over the course of 70 years, even if the government were passive owners today (they aren’t).

And yet there were never screams of unfair competition by Delta, American, and United.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I love flying Turkish Airlines, they offer one of the best business class cabins on ther B777s and it’s hard to top their inflight meals handled by their Flying Chefs.

    I’ll be so please when they begin flying out of MIA in Nov’2015

  2. I tried booking SFO to IST using United miles on the nonstop flight. Did not see a flight for 3+ months. Is this normal?

  3. @Robert It won’t show up if there’s no award availability, so that probably just means that people are buying the seats, not that the flight isn’t operating.

  4. @Robert, you may want to see if you can find connecting through Montreal or Toronto, they usually have better availability.

  5. To your final point about the US3 not having an issue with Turkish. I’d offer 3 reasons:
    – Turkish is a member of an alliance, and doesn’t have an outspoken CEO (heck, I couldn’t even name them!)
    – Turkish flies a substandard product in general, equivalent or worse than the US3, other than any remaining Jet Airways wetleased 77W’s, but in my experience, those are tired by now.
    – Turkish seems to play well with others (although perhaps this is more of a reference to Qatar than the remaining ME3).

  6. There’s some availability SFO-IST in the winter, but generally BOS, IAH, and ORD appear to be easiest to get an award seat in J. But note that BOS is on an A340 with angled seats. Catering indeed excellent (even in coach) but other parts of service spotty. Have had some great crews but also a lot of really indifferent ones. And BTW Etihad (in addition to Emirates) flies ten-abreast in coach in the 777.

  7. Even though Turkish Airlines is a United partner, and you can earn United Miles on Turkish Airlines flights, the booking is harsh. I tried booking economy SFO-IST return (round trip) online through my United Mileage Plus account (for purchase, not using miles) because it’s non-stop. I was going to upgrade it to “Comfort Class” — Turkish version of Premium Economy, and better than United Economy Plus — somewhere in the process, but it wouldn’t book it even in economy. I called United (willing to pay the $25 booking fee to get the itinerary I wanted, even if they wouldn’t waive the fee because of the online difficulty), but was told Turkish Airlines doesn’t allow booking through United. (Supposedly a Turkish rule, not United’s rule.) I was told I could only book directly with Turkish. I ended up booking United flights (including one IST-FRA leg operated by Lufthansa) and got better pricing than if I found on Turkish, even after I upgraded the long over-water legs to Economy Plus. Someday I might try the Turkish Comfort Class non-stop. (The lie-flat Business Class just isn’t worth the extra.)

  8. Used to love using US Air miles to book partner awards on Turkish. Sadly those days are over. Now I’m reading above that you can’t even book Turkish awards through United. If that’s true, it sounds like there is no way to access Turkish through US based carriers, which would be unfortunate as they have a good product. Not as good as it used to be (reverse herringbone business class and an actual first which is also now gone), but still a solid option for JFK-IST.

  9. In response to Trevor’s comments I have always considered Dr. Kotil (the CEO) to be quite outspoken; but he is outspoken about important business issues that he can affect (and does not spend his energy on puffery and non-aviation politics). He frequently speaks within the aviation industry about issues that have helped keep his airline profitable; and he has done a great job building a carrier that generates significant ‘through’ traffic from foreign origin points to foreign destination points (through Istanbul).

    I also found that I disagree with the comment about Turkish flying a “substandard product,” as they appear to be flying a good and well-maintained product.

  10. Ive booked TK revenue flights (CAI to VIE via IST) on United and would expect their SFO-IST would be code shared with UA
    Flew Business award from IST to YUL few months ago and thoroughly enjoyed (it was on Mies&Smiles points purchased during their 50% bonus sale over a year ago; 50k plus 25k bonus or €1,000) and redeemed prior to their devaluation (2 persons at 35k miles each)
    Food was great
    Their IST lounge while big did not impress me much and they don’t serve champagne there

  11. @ThePointsJunkie – UA can book Turkish flights on their 016 ticket stock, just like they can with any number of carriers (partnered with United or otherwise), but they do not codeshare with Turkish on the SFO-IST route. If I’m not mistaken United no longer places its code on any of Turkish’s US-Turkey flights.

  12. @Mike D – Not true. I’ve booked several awards over the past several months (most recently two weeks ago) using United miles on Turkish flights. United.com displays Turkish award availability, too.

  13. @Jason – Fair point on Dr. Kotil.

    As far as the substandard product; they have A340’s with angled J. How is that not a substandard product when compared with airlines that have fully layflat and aisle access J?

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