The Travel Advisor: Turks vs. quirks

Turkish and United step up their business-class service with amenities galore.

July 6, 2019 21:54
Drilling Boat

A TURKISH national flag hangs in the foreground as drilling vessel ‘Fatih’ is seen off the Mediterranean resort city of Antalya, Turkey, in October. (photo credit: REUTERS)

I really love to fly. The crowds at the airport allow me to people watch to my heart’s content. The ability to visit a new airport and experience a new plane all rank high on my to-do list. So when I had to fly to Los Angeles, I decided to forego the only airline that flies nonstop, El Al, and experience up closer and personal Turkish Airlines & United Airlines.

Both airlines acquiesced to my request to fly with them. Both were generous enough to put me in business class. Turkish Airlines via Istanbul took me to LA, while United Airlines via San Francisco returned me back to Israel. My timing couldn’t have been better, as the new airport at Istanbul had just begun operations and Turkish Airlines’ famed business-class lounge was up and running.
Checking in at Ben-Gurion Airport went smoothly, and entry into the Dan Lounge was quickly completed. There are business lounges all over the world, some fancier than others. The Dan Lounge is used by almost all the airlines flying to and from Israel with the glaring exception of El Al and her King David Lounge. The Dan Lounge lets all business-class passengers free entry along with cardholders of platinum credit cards, and those passengers wishing to pay to gain some respite from the loud public areas of the airport. Regrettably, the lounge is both crowded and noisy, and it is sometimes difficult to find a free seat. Its food offerings are slim, but I knew soon I’d begin my 18-hour journey so I was bemused by the paucity of libations.

The aircraft to Istanbul was an Airbus 321, and the business-class seat was hardly wider than the economy-class seat. As it was early in the morning, the steward’s constant attempts to ply me with alcohol fell on deaf ears, and I managed to sleep a few hours before arriving at the newest airport in the world. The airport is massive and pretentious, and quite simply an ego project built to show off. The distances in the airport are long, and early reports told of passengers missing their connection.

The focus is on the mall aspects with very limited public seating. In fact, there were so many retail stores to the detriment of any restaurant space. There is no free Wi-Fi, and I couldn’t see anywhere to charge one’s devices. Flying business class on Turkish Airlines, though, changes everything.

You go up an escalator to one of the best business-class lounges in the world. First, there are two business-class lounges with Turkish Airlines – one solely for their business class passengers with an identical lounge for Star Alliance Gold frequent flier members. With a lounge concierge, day beds and showers, it’s a step above most lounges. When you add in food stations galore, a library and a putt-putt area, you realize that spending several hours here would be pure pleasure. You can sit in recliners or at table, in a quiet area or in cafés. It’s large enough to get lost in, yet warm enough to be described as cozy. Leaving it for the connecting flight wasn’t easy.

I BOARDED through the second set of doors, where I was greeted by the cabin chief and another flight attendant, and pointed left toward my seat. Turkish has 49 business-class seats on their 777s, in a 2-3-2 configuration. The forward cabin has four rows of seats, while the rear cabin has another three rows. Having reserved well in advance, I was in a two-seater. I sure wouldn’t want to end up in a middle seat in business class between two strangers on a flight. Each seat had a seat-back entertainment screen, as well as an ottoman that contained a large storage compartment. I like that each seat has its own storage compartment, and also like that when you sleep there’s no small cubby that you have to squeeze your feet into.

While I don’t like the seven-abreast configuration, I at least appreciated that they had significant privacy partitions between seats. While I usually prefer having an aisle seat on a long-haul flight, my preference here would be to choose a window seat, as you have significantly more privacy there. Also waiting at my seat on boarding were a basic pillow and blanket and a bag with slippers.

Turkish has onboard chefs on their long-haul flights, and our flight had two of them. As the other flight attendants came around to serve drinks, the chefs came through the cabin distributing menus and drink lists. Once the crew finished distributing drinks and menus, they passed through the cabin with a cart that had magazines, newspapers, headphones and amenity kits. As is the mode, warm towels were distributed on individual plates. After the first round of drinks was served, tables were set in preparation for the meal service. What a beautiful display. This included a fake candle, as well as a small plate on which they placed the bread (they had a big selection in the basket). Shortly thereafter, food and drink flowed as if it was my last supper. Appetizer carts were followed by dinner service and then by desert carts.

After the meal, I was asked if I wanted turn-down service, which I agreed to. While that was being done, I checked out one of the business-class lavatories. There are two located between the two business-class cabins, and then one in front of the forward cabin. The lavatories are large, and they even have sinks where you push a button and the water stays on. I was also impressed by how clean the lavatory was kept throughout the flight. The crew constantly refreshed it, and it was almost always spotless.

 The bedding consisted of a second pillow, a mattress, sheet, and a large duvet. The bedding was quite good, and I found the seat to be comfortable. I briefly browsed the entertainment selection, which was solid. There were dozens of decent movies and TV shows, and I also liked that they had no ads before the programming. In order to connect to the Wi-Fi, you’re asked to enter your ticket number from your boarding pass. The bad news was that the Wi-Fi was outrageously slow. Expect this to work for text messaging, but that’s about it. Anyway, I ended up going to sleep with just under 10 hours remaining to Los Angeles, and woke up about three hours before arrival. That’s some solid sleep! Another meal was served, one more warm towel provided, and we gently touched down at LAX.

SO LET’S summarize it: Turkish Airlines business class is phenomenal, and is easily one of the most underrated business-class products out there. Let’s start with the negative, which is the seats. Turkish’s hard product on all their long-haul aircraft is outdated, and that includes their flagship 777 aircraft. I don’t mind this when traveling with someone, but it’s not ideal if traveling alone.

Other than that, Turkish business class is exceptional. The crew was friendly and professional, the amenities were great, and I love how they inject some aspects of Turkish culture into the experience. In spite of Turkey’s antisemitic president, Turkish is a great way to fly, especially when you consider that they fly to more countries than any other airline in the world.

A week in LA had me ready to head home, and this time United Airlines would do me the honors. At LAX, United has their own terminal, and while the shuttle bus dropped me off in front, I never did find the check-in counters. Doing the self check-in, I tagged my bag and made my way through the laborious path through US security. No shoes, no belts, no loose change finally got me through security, and I darted into United Airlines’ Polaris Lounge. It sets the standard for a US business-class lounge with good food and drink, great service and comfortable seating.

I spent an hour in the lounge and it never got crowded. Seating resembles other Polaris lounges in the network, with oversized little suites that include a comfortable chair, worktable, lamp and plenty of power ports. The terminal has a rotunda around which the lounge was built. On one side of the rotunda is the buffet, while the other side has a wine cabinet and seating. Others might flock to the bar which stretches around the heart of the lounge and offers a wide selection of hand-crafted cocktails, beer, wine, spirits and barista-made coffee. I resigned myself to some work and soon boarded my first flight up to San Francisco.

Originally scheduled to be on a 737-800 MAX, the continued grounding of the fleet had me instead flying on an Embraer E175. The flight took less than 90 minutes, and aside from a welcome drink, no interaction with the flight crew took place.

Disembarking at SFO had me quickly whisked into the Polaris lounge there. A slightly larger version of the one in LA. I met some clients and spent an enjoyable time whiling away the time until we could board. United’s Polaris cabin on the 777-300ER is massive, with a total of 60 seats in a 1-2-1 configuration. There are 28 seats ahead of the second set of doors, and 32 seats behind. While each Polaris seat features direct aisle access, the seats alternate between being closer to the aisle and being closer to the window. Odd-numbered seats are more private and are further from the aisle, while even-numbered seats are closer to it.

WAITING AT my seat was an impressive amount of bedding, both a lighter blanket and a quilted duvet. Slippers were there as well, but the pièce de résistance was that one could ask for pajamas. Yes, lovely Saks Fifth Avenue pajamas were provided, and my request for a mattress cushion was gracefully fulfilled. As I was flying solo, I made sure I had a seat on the side, so I was completely isolated the entire journey. There was also a lamp, as well as a small storage compartment toward the back of the seat, along with United’s branded headphones. Ahead of me was the tray table, as well as the ottoman. The ottoman was a decent size. It wasn’t that spacious but also wasn’t as restrictive as some others. Literally a minute after getting to my seat, I was greeted by the flight attendant who would be taking care of me. “Welcome to Polaris! Can I get you something to drink?”

There are a total of four lavatories in the Polaris cabin – two between the two cabins, and two at the very front of the plane. There was often a queue for these, as they were also shared with the crew. The lavatories weren’t large, though they were fairly nicely appointed. The entertainment selection seemed unlimited, and having touch screens as well as hand controls made navigating quite easy.

 Unlike Turkish Air’s free Wi-Fi, United’s Wi-Fi costs, and initially I was unable to connect. Food service on United, while not as comprehensive as on Turkish Airlines, did offer one thankful caveat: You could request your entire meal all at once. As it was late at this stage, I chose to bypass my meal and stretch out. After a lengthy sojourn, I awoke with a rumbling in my stomach. I had heard a lot about United’s mid-flight snacks, so I decided to check that out. The snack menu had lots of fruits and nuts and assorted sandwiches that were exactly what I craved. There was also a small bar setup in the galley with even more snacks.

A few hours before arriving in Tel Aviv, another meal was served. More warm towels were distributed, and soon after we had landed.

I’m glad I had the chance to experience United’s 777-300 Polaris in international service. Ultimately, this represents a huge improvement for United, though the product as such is hardly revolutionary. The new seats are a big improvement over United’s other seats, and the configuration is far better than many of their competitors. United has done a really great job with the Polaris amenities, including the bedding, amenity kits, pajamas, etc.

I thought the food was solid, though nothing special. While there are some nice aspects to the service, like the wine flight and great mid-flight snack, the meal as such didn’t seem materially different from what I’ve had on other flights operated by US airlines, though clients do rave about their desert cart with premium ice cream and many toppings. Overall, Polaris represents a great improvement for United, and having it on their flights to Newark, San Francisco and now Washington from Tel Aviv makes the airline an intelligent choice.

Personally, I love the Turkish experience. Having a chef “cook” your food at 32,000 feet enhances the flying experience. The airline’s lounge in Istanbul Airport is superior to United’s Polaris Lounge. But if I’m spending thousands of dollars and flying in business class by myself, I most definitely want my privacy. Polaris gives me that, and the seats on United seemed to me a wee bit more comfortable. On the other hand, on average, the price of Turkish Airline tickets can be as much as 20% less than on United, which can lead to a significant savings.

Common sense leads one to believe there is a knack to flying, and once you have flown either Turkish or United you’ll realize they both have learned it.

The writer is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem.

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