The travel adviser: Airline tales – Turkish delight or US Air?

One bonus for Turkish Air: With six flights a day departing from Tel Aviv compared to US Air’s solo flight, the airfares on Turkish are usually going to be less.

Ben Gurion Airport (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Ben Gurion Airport
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
It was the best of times, it was the best of times. (Apologies to Mr. Dickens, but it is nearly impossible to describe otherwise.) One can find small complaints about both of them, and as you read on you’ll discover their shortfalls, but by and large both US Airways and Turkish Airlines fulfilled our expectations.
As oft is the case, I’ve gotten ahead of my narrative, so let’s start at the beginning.
The Evite came very far in advance, which at first confused the “dickens” out of us. “Daniella and Adam announce their union will take place on Memorial Day weekend, 2014.” Passover and Easter had just ended, so I was a bit miffed about being sent an invite by email to a wedding on a different continent for the very next month. She Who Must be Obeyed sagely pointed out that it was for the following year, giving us plenty of time to make plans.
As this would be the first marriage of the offspring of my closest college friends, I relished the thought of the old gang getting together one more time. Sure, 30 years may have passed, but those bonds remained steadfast and while we were the only couple who had stayed in Israel, I was certain that with some gentle cajoling on my part, everyone would make an appearance.
Between work and family commitments, it became quite apparent that I would be able to fly into Baltimore, where the wedding would take place, for Memorial Day weekend only. Thus the search commenced for an airline that could fly me into the region comfortably with little downtime, and would not have me looking or feeling too much like a zombie. With time to spare, I reviewed Delta Airlines via New York’s JFK, Turkish to Washington via Istanbul, Lufthansa via Frankfurt, United via Newark, Air France via Paris and US Air via Philadelphia.
There were pluses and minuses among all. I had decided to treat myself to business class, figuring that if anyone was fool enough to fly so many hours for such a short trip, and could afford it, a little spoiling would be in order.
My companion wisely opined that I was crazy and that if she were to partake in my madness, she would fly the previous day to ward off her jet lag, and stay a few days later to enjoy the boundless goodies the US stores had to offer. Our youngest chimed in that she could miss a few days of university and would join her mother for a trip to the Big Apple, provided her parents would treat her. Her travel requirements were such that she had to first attend Jerusalem’s White Night event, and thus would only take an early morning flight to New York.
I elected not to fly El Al, since with such a short trip planned I did not want to make a connection on one of their partner airlines via JFK or Newark. When possible, it’s always recommended to take one carrier all the way, and I had no inclination to change that precept.
Months went by and in the end, our trio ended up on three different airlines. My trusted companion chose Turkish Airlines via Istanbul; the prodigal daughter chose Iberia via Madrid; and I opted to try out US Air via Philly.
Beseeching my family members to take copious notes on their flights so I could adequately compare and contrast them provided the following: Dutiful daughter loved Iberia; she believes her flight experience to JFK was enhanced by being so exhausted that she collapsed on the plane to Madrid and slept soundly on the connecting flight to JFK. Her wise travel agent had booked her a window seat where someone had already booked an aisle seat, and on the transatlantic route she ended up with an empty middle seat.
She has no memory of the food or the entertainment selection, but was quite impressed that her ticket cost in the very low four figures. Of course, what she didn’t realize is her father had purchased it four months in advance, when the price was at its nadir.
My trusted companion was not impressed with the check-in facilities at Ben-Gurion Airport for Turkish Air; she felt the lines were too crowded and there was not enough personnel at the counter. She thought the flight to Istanbul was nothing special but was blown away by the facilities at the business lounge in Istanbul airport, as she whiled away three hours before her connecting flight to Washington.
Describing it as a business lounge on steroids, she pointed out that it reminded her of a small train station, filled with food stations, business centers and entertainment sections galore. Upon walking in, there is a massive library with a pool table. As you walk deeper in you find a movie theater and a grand piano, but probably what amazes most people is the food. There are so many food options, starting with the extensive meze salad bar, with a number of these stations throughout the lounge; there are also separate olive bars and fruit stations. In addition to all of these cold stations, which would satisfy most passengers who keep kosher, there are several hot stations – the two most popular ones seeming to be the pizza and grilled meats stations. This lounge also has showers and private sleeping rooms; Wi-fi is of course free and there is even a separate kid’s play area.
Leaving this small part of heaven was made easier knowing she would be stretching out in business class on her 11.5-hour flight. My companion had already noted at Ben-Gurion Airport that all passengers, whether in economy or business class, were permitted two checked bags for free. As she boarded the aircraft, she also saw that every passenger received a complimentary amenity bag filled with hand cream and toothpaste – something she had not seen in economy class for several years. She loved the service on the plane, felt the flight crew was very attentive and was pleased with the fact that cabin attendants brought each course on a separate plate, clearing it before bringing the next course. Soundly she slept and felt that on this occasion, her travel agent had done her well.
This leaves me by my lonesome, traipsing to the airport to fly US Air to Philadelphia. Not to be found where the vast majority of airlines check in their passengers, US Air has chosen to be on the ground level, near where passengers enter Israel. Having no checked bags since I had wisely given my suit to my better half, I literally skipped past security, whizzed through passport control and found myself in the Dan Lounge, the business lounge used by every airline in Israel except El Al. Unlike the Turkish lounge in Istanbul, the Dan Lounge resembles a train car, long and narrow with slim food pickings but comfortable chairs in which to relax and avoid being seduced by all the Duty-Free stores.
Boarding the Airbus 330 plane, I noted that the configuration in economy class has two seats on the side, four in the middle and two on the side. Business class has 50-percent less seats, with the same configuration – one on each side, with two in the middle. Relishing the opportunity to fly almost 13 hours sans spouse and children, I opted to reserve a seat by myself, knowing I could experience a zen-like silence for the entire journey with zero responsibility to anyone else. My goal, as is usual on transatlantic flights, was to catch five to six hours of sleep.
Upon sitting down, a flight attendant offered me a glass of wine, water or juice. Menus were given and a short while after take-off, dinner was served. Professional yes, pleasing yes, but no wow factor and excusing the offer of dessert or wine, I had them remove my tray.
Stretched out in my now-completely flat seat, I enjoyed a gentle slumber.
Many hours later I awoke to review the entertainment system. While Turkish Air’s lounge may have passengers drooling over the facilities, much can be written about US Air’s entertainment system. Business class passengers were offered Bose noise reducing headphones, so gentle on my ears I made the mistake of looking up their price online and at $299.95, decided a bit of noise would be OK in the future. Mulling their selections, I was amazed at both the quality and quantity of movies, TV shows, games and music. Being the social snob I am, I availed myself of seeing a picture that had eluded me in the past, and sat back to enjoy Frozen. Humming along with the music, I was aware of the cabin lights being turned on, signaling another meal was about to be served.
Breakfast was both filling and fulfilling, with strong, hot coffee. No small talk from the attendants, they did their job quite professionally but with little human interaction.
In fact, I realized that throughout the entire flight, I had been approached four times, three for the food and drinks provided and one with the menu and headphones.
No other time did anyone inquire as to my well-being. Moreover, as we were descending into Philadelphia Airport, I asked my flight attendant how long she had been on the route and she told me not for very long, but had done this flight in the past. She asked my opinion of their service and I therefore felt confident sharing my outlook with her. “While I found the flight and service to be excellent, I would have liked a slightly different demeanor from the flight crew.” She curtly asked what I was talking about and given the opportunity, I took it: “A smile!” Yes, that little gesture means so much to a consumer, makes everything go a little bit smoother and more importantly, deepens the connection. In fact, any good salesperson will tell you that even when talking on the phone, if you’re smiling it will come across in your words. So when you’re serving people at 35,000 feet, it’s almost imperative that a smile appears once or twice.
In any case, suffice is to say that the reunion and wedding were staggeringly successful. A more radiant bride I have seldom seen. The Monday brunch at our friends’ house was a lovely way to end the weekend, but the little woman asked if I would take her to the train station earlier, as she was making her way to New York to begin the second half of her trip. While my flight wasn’t until 6:40 p.m., I decided it would be wise to accede to her request.
When I arrived at Baltimore Airport, the idea of spending four hours there instead of the business lounge at US Air’s home airport in Philadelphia had me seeking out an earlier flight. There she was, a US Air Express plane scheduled to depart at 2:29 p.m. Making a note of the gate number, I began to walk there quickly in the hope of snagging a seat. It must have been a very small plane as the gate number was the very last one, tucked in an isolated corner of the airport.
Arriving there at 2:15 p.m., the place was already totally deserted except for two US Air ground attendants.
Asking if I could take the earlier flight, they perused my ticket and said they didn’t think it was possible at this late hour. Pointing out that it was Memorial Day and flights were chock full, they did say there still was one empty seat left and that if the ticketed passenger didn’t show up, it was mine. As the clock ticked by, slowly by my account, at 2:25 they gave me the boarding pass and told me to walk on the tarmac to the 50-seat puddle jumper.
Just as they opened the doors to the tarmac, the errant passenger, a rather large man sweating profusely, made his presence known. Sternly told that the gate had closed five minutes earlier, he looked at me; I gallantly told him that he could have my (his) seat. He looked at me like I was crazy, grabbed my boarding pass and lumbered out to the plane.
It was only one minute later when the pilot appeared on the steps of the plane and yelled out, “Mr. Feldman, would you mind sitting in the ‘jump seat?’” His grin could have lit up the terminal – I smiled back in acquiescence and sprinted out to the plane. Sitting alongside me for the 20-minute flight was a US Air pilot who was catching a ride home. She had been flying for six years with Piedmont Air, a wholly owned subsidiary of US Air, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to ask her about the merger with American Airlines and if she was concerned.
“Look, we operate a separate unit in US Air. We’re 400 pilots and our salaries are quite low by industry standards. What could they possibly do to us? Worse-case scenario, I can always find a job with another airline.”
Taking down her details I thought how lucky El Al would be to have pilots like her.
Arriving in Philly, I meandered over to their lounge.
Having been told in tedious detail by my companion about how the Turkish Air lounge operated, this was of course quite a letdown. Yes, it was large and spacious with computer outlets at every table, but rather than having the huge buffet of food that was prominent in Istanbul, I was left to nibble on fruit and munchies and sip water or soft drinks while watching CNN on their TV screens. To be fair to US Air, the United Lounge in Newark is no better and seasoned travelers have long complained that compared to the spread offered at El Al’s King David Lounge, American Airlines business lounges are nothing to write home about.
In conclusion, would I recommend the night flight of US Air versus the daytime flights on Turkish? It’s a matter of taste; those who sleep on planes will always prefer a night flight, those who enjoy pampering, to say nothing of a second free checked bag, will opt for Turkish.
One bonus for Turkish Air: With six flights a day departing from Tel Aviv compared to US Air’s solo flight, the airfares on Turkish are usually going to be less.
The writer is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions
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