Friday, 19 June 2015

Hubs, narrowbodies, network and price,- The Turkish option.

I’ve been a frequent, if somewhat reluctant, transfer passenger at Istanbul for a few years now. For a couple of my usual destinations from Copenhagen such as Baku or Cairo it more or less makes sense when coming from northern Europe if a direct flight is impossible, but for my most recent travel to Accra it patently does not, unless ticket price is the number one consideration over travel time (approx 15 hour chock-to-chock schedule as opposed to around 10 hours via Amsterdam, London or Frankfurt). If it was my own money, I would (and indeed have) paid the extra for the better transit time.

Turkish airlines ‘short haul’ and economy class themselves are no better or worse than most others operating in Europe, although you do get a fairly good meal, at least compared to the packet of peanuts that you would be lucky to receive on one of the European ‘full service’ carriers. Seat sizes vary depending on aircraft type. On this round trip of 4 Turkish flights I get to try the A321, B737-900ER (twice), and the A330. The 737 offers the most personal space, the A330 the least (I type this on the A330. It is physically impossible to open the laptop on my own tray table, luckily I have a spare seat next to me so am sitting sideways and using belonging to that. The northbound 737 last night from Accra had the novelty of having seats that did not recline, so while opening a laptop would have been possible had I wanted to work at 2am, a few extra degrees of  nocturnal recline was not available .You obviously cannot have it all, at least not all at the same time.  
 And so to Istanbul. The transfer itself is straightforward when coming from Europe, in that you do not have to go through security or passport control. Coming from Accra, Baku and Cairo (and presumably any other place where the security arrangements are considered by Istanbul to be dubious), you do have to go through security, which can be a long process given the high volume of transfer passengers. Coming from Copenhagen however you are simply herded up to departures and are then free to recover from your last flight and prepare for your next one. In my case, economy class or not, thanks to my Star Alliance gold card this means heading for their excellent, very large, but often still crowded lounge.

Getting to the lounge is tricky though. Not that it is difficult to find, but because Istanbul airport is crowded.  Turkish proudly advertises that it flies to more destinations than any other airline and it shows. The ramp is crowded with A320s and B737s wingtip-to-wingtip, more often than not on remote gates that require buses. Most of the passengers are not flying to or from Istanbul but in transit between 2 other places. Like the “new” Gulf majors that’s what their business model is all about. Inside the terminal, expanded from the copper-roofed polygon I remember from holidays in Turkey in the late 1980s, the masses of transit passengers are loitering, being fed, or getting lost trying to find their next flight. Even the vast, 2-level Turkish Airlines lounge, reputedly the largest in the world, is often very busy, with passengers shuffling between the various different food and drink ‘stalls’ and trying to find a suitable place to sit. The facility itself is great, with good and plentiful things to eat and drink, masses of natural light (though no view of the ramp for the plane spotters) and all laid out in a Grand Bazaar style. I’m just not sure it is meant to feel like the Grand Bazaar in terms of the number of people in it.

 If however you are lucky enough to secure a spot on one of the sofa-type things then you are going to have a reasonable time while you wait.
Next up is getting your next flight. As most gates require buses, boarding typically starts an hour before scheduled departure, and in general is completed on time. However you then hit another feature of Istanbul’s capacity problem. You cannot take off. Typically you face a half hour delay on chock time, followed by 15 – 30 minutes before you actually start flying. This must cause a hub-and-spoke system quite some stress. Turkish seem to schedule about an hour turnaround at their destinations, so if they are close to an hour late on arrival they need to be pretty sharp to get back to their Istanbul hub in time. They do seem to have taken this into account with their schedules, which to put it politely are somewhat generous.  The Istanbul – Copenhagen leg is scheduled at 3 hours 20 whereas the flight time is 2 hours 45. Likewise the schedule for the legs to and from Accra add 30 minutes to the actual flight time.

Once finally lining up to take off, you may then get to experience a very interesting use of runways…

My flight was due to depart from 17R. About 1 in 4 departures are on that runway. The other 3 in 4 were from 35L – that’s  the opposite end of the same runway.
Simultaneously, Runway 05 was being used for arrivals. From experience at Istanbul it is fairly normal to use 05 for arrivals and 35L for departures, but the use of 17R as well is unusual and it would appear to the casual observer potentially quite hazardous. Taking off from 17R requires a gap both in departures from 35L and in arrivals onto 05, as the threshold for 05 is very close to the far end (ie the ‘35L end’) of 17R.
In addition a rise in the middle of 17R /35L means that one end is not visible from the other. No room for a mistake by ATC there. I’d be interested to know why both ends of the same runway are in use. Would it not be simpler and more fail-safe for southbound aircraft such as ours to do a U-Turn after take-off, rather than take off towards the south? The only reason I can think of is that the queue for 35L was getting so long that it was backing onto the apron, and so a few aircraft were directed over to the other end to relieve the pressure by expediting their departures.

Go to link https;//   for pictures of:

1) Waiting near the end of 17R.
2) Turning onto 17R to take off. Note the hill meaning the opposite (35L) end is not visible.
3) After take off from 17R. A couple of plane are visible under the leading edge of the wing waiting to take off from 35L, and the threshold of 05, being used for arrivals.

Finally there’s the question of how far people are willing to fly on a narrow body. The Istanbul – Accra leg is flown by the 737-900ER, and takes close to 7 hours. It does feel like a long way to fly in a small-ish aircraft, but it’s not intrinsically worse than flying in a wide body in my book. Turkish relies on the ‘pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap’ model and it seems that for the majority of its passengers the ticket price is far more important than the width of the tube in which they will be sitting.  The 737 is noticeably bumpier over the Sahara when compared to a larger wide body with more weight and size mass but not to the point of discomfort. More importantly the narrow bodies are usually full, which would imply the either need either to increase frequencies or go for larger aircraft.  Given Istanbul’s runway capacity issue, bigger aircraft would appear to be the only way to go right now.
Turkish Airlines and the Istanbul hub no doubt make sense in a lot of cases .Firstly when ticket cost is the primary driver, as this trip was approximately half the cost of the next-lowest bidder (KLM, BA and Lufthansa, who all had similar higher prices). It also makes sense when there is no direct flight and Istanbul is in a logical direction . My previous transits from Copenhagen to Baku or Cairo fall into this category.  But when flying from north west Europe to west Africa  I’d not choose to go this circuitous way if the decision was mine.

Footnote: On arrival in Copenhagen I found my check in bag was still in Istanbul. Obviously it takes about an hour after landing to figure out that no, yours is not going to arrive. Then you fill out all the forms, queue to hand them in and get a reference number and so on.  Yes, other airlines have lost my baggage too, but especially after an extended journey time it’s the last thing you need.

-Andrew Woodrow-

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