Turkish Airlines Fail – A Case Study in Terrible Customer Service

This will be one of my rare non-technical travel posts. After departing the European Collaboration Summit 2017, my wife Olivera and I headed to South Africa for a holiday, and to attend the Share Conference in South Africa. Our travel plans got suddenly turned upside down after leaving Zagreb, and I felt that it would be useful (and entertaining) to share this cautionary tale. I’ve never experienced anything like it.

Upon landing at the Istanbul airport at approximately 11:00 PM, I turned on my phone, and very quickly received a text message from Turkish Airlines that our connecting flight (Turkish Airlines TK38 to Johannesburg at 1:40 AM June 2) had been cancelled. The message included a phone number. Not wanting to be “that guy” on the phone on an airplane, I elected to wait until we were in the terminal to talk to someone. As we deplaned, we were met by a representative who was there to divert us away from the “connecting flights” route. We asked what we were supposed to do, and were told that the “hotel check in” desk would help. Apparently it was just past passport control.

Now, I had no idea what a hotel would have to do with making alternative travel arrangements, but it was pretty clear that no more information was forthcoming from this guy. OK, we can talk to a Turkish Airlines desk, or so I thought. We then proceeded to passport control, and we came upon the Turkish Airlines Transfer desk, with several employees. “Aha” I thought – here’s where we’ll be able to sort things out. We waited a few moments for our turn, and I presented our boarding passes. I was then informed that the flight had been cancelled (no kidding). I started to ask some clarifying questions, and was only told that I would be helped at the “hotel desk”. I asked about our luggage, and was told that we could pick it up or not – it was up to us. Trying to figure out whether or not we should, I kept asking questions, and finally the rep literally stood up, and walked back into the office.

I tried asking his colleague additional questions, and it was quite clear that he didn’t want to be helpful either. The next step was laid out quite clearly to be passport control. We joined the very long line for passport control. As we proceeded to the line, I noted a large sign across the hall indicating countries for which a visa was required. Canada was not on the list, so I thought little of it. Being Canadian, I’m lucky enough to not require a visa for most destinations. After about one hour, we reached the officer, and he asked for our visa. I simply told him that we didn’t plan on entering Turkey, but he didn’t seem to care much. He pointed across the hall, so off we went, feeling pretty frustrated.

We then joined the line for the electronic visa. Looking around, I couldn’t help but notice the special passport area for Turkish Airlines, and how there was absolutely no staff in it. In fact, there was no staff or help anywhere. I then looked past the electronic visa machines and saw a visa counter. Curious, I walked up to it to find out what it was all about. As it turns out, Canadians need a paper visa, not an electronic one. I waved Olivera up to the counter thinking we had caught a break, there was no line here. I then requested a visa from the lady behind the counter. To put it nicely, it didn’t seem like she felt like being particularly helpful. Firstly, it would not be possible to use a credit card. At this point, I wasn’t all that surprised. I then asked how much I would need, and was told $70 US, and was directed to the ATMs nearby.

The ATMs didn’t work to well (one button consistently required 10 presses to activate) and it turned out that it could only dispense $50 at a time. I then made 2 transactions, incurring two transaction fees, and walked quickly back to the counter to try again. The lady then asked me for $140. Why? Well, that’s for two people of course. To be clear, Olivera was standing beside me when I asked the original question. Off I go, make another transaction, and we finally got our Visas, even though we had never wanted to enter the country. Finally, I should point out that the passport stamp actually says that the visa costs $60, but that’s a minor issue.

We then wait in line again, and this time we get through passport control to the luggage area. Of course, our luggage is nowhere to be seen. Given how long it had taken to get through, it had been stored to be put on the flight that we would ultimately be on. To be clear we still had no idea as to when that might be. We went to the baggage office to get our bags, and were told that they would be “sent along with us” and that we couldn’t retrieve them. At this point, it was past 2 AM, so we felt resigned. We were beat, now missing at least a day, and very tired.

We then proceeded to the “hotel check in”. As it turned out, this was actually a Turkish Airlines office in the airport. Apparently this happens so often that they have an office staffed just to put people up in a hotel overnight.

After standing in line again for about half an hour, we were given a slip of paper and told to wait until our names were called, and then we would be driven to a hotel. We took the opportunity to ask a few questions, like when do we get new boarding passes, and why was the flight cancelled. This began a comedy of answers. Every time someone asked a question, we received a different answer. We were told that there were “operational issues” and that “South Africa had refused entry”. We were also told that the flight was not cancelled and would happen sometime tomorrow, and we would have the same seats. We were also told that no, we would be on the next available flight, whenever that might be and would be assigned new seats. We were told a number of other things as well.

As an aside, when I had checked in, the flight was showing as less than half full. Now combine this, with the fact that hotel rooms in Istanbul are insanely cheap, and a suspicious person would conclude that it was cheaper to put us all up in a hotel, than to fly to Johannesburg less than half full. That doesn’t explain the total lack of information however.

The one clear message was that we must go to the hotel, and wait for a phone call from the front desk advising us further. Under no circumstances should we leave the hotel as the flight could happen anytime, and they would not contact our cell phones directly. Finally, after waiting for another half hour or so we were taken to the hotel, where we again got to wait another half an hour to check in. After being given food vouchers, we got a room, and were told that we would be picked up at 11:00 PM the following night, but don’t leave because it could be sooner.

We got to sleep at about 5:30 AM that night.

The next day, I set about making alternative arrangements, notifying our destination, etc. At lunch, we started speaking with some fellow passengers who had had various communications indicating that it didn’t look good for the next nights flight, and that even if it did go, it was already full. We ran back to our room, and I called Turkish Airlines. Olivera started looking for one way flights to Johannesburg. I got through to Turkish airlines, and the rep there (who wasn’t rude – I mention this because that was the exception) told me that the flight was NOT cancelled, and was showing as active. As such they could do nothing for me (including a refund) and that I would have to call the office at the airport. For the next half hour, I tried, and not once was the phone picked up. Just constant ringing. Later on, we talked to someone that did get through and was told that it was a political issue, it came from head office, and there was nothing they could tell them at all.

In the meantime, Olivera found $400 flights on Emirates air that night to Johannesburg. We bought them – at least we knew we’d get to our destination. The Emirates flight was at 7:30 that night, and it was currently 1:30 PM. Given the way that things moved, I figured that we had just enough time to make it.

We jumped in a cab, and headed to the airport. “International arrivals” I told the cab driver, and explained why. He nodded and took us on a rather adventurous ride to the airport. Once we got there, I could see that he was taking us to departures. Next he tried to take us to domestic. I wound up reading signs and telling him where to go.

Upon arrival and a security check to enter the building, we headed back to the hotel desk to retrieve our luggage. We were then directed to an information desk where we were handed a number for Turkish Airlines baggage and told to call it. They were apparently needed to come out, walk us back through customs to retrieve our bags. We tried calling, and got no answer. However, there were two other ladies there in the same situation that we were, and one of them had gotten through about 15 minutes previously, and were told someone would be there in 5 minutes. After waiting a further 10, “Mr. Helpful” showed up.

Mr. Helpful

Mr. Helpful took everyone’s passports and baggage tags, and then led them all back through. There were two of us so I elected to stay behind to watch everyone’s carry ons, and Olivera went with the ladies and Mr. Helpful. Then time passed. A lot of time – 45 minutes in total. Finally, Olivera came back out concerned that I had to go upstairs to finalize the Emirates ticket sale. I had received email indicating that it was already finalized, but she had no signal in the area. She needed to go back in, so we called the number. No answer. Another couple had shown up and were also trying to get through, but to no avail. Olivera decided to go ask a nice man with a machine gun to let her back in. Incredibly, this worked.

After another 15 minutes, she emerged with our bags, and one of the ladies. However, we were still watching the carry on for the other lady, so we needed to stay put. We were anxious to go check in, so we asked the new couple if they would mind taking it to her when they went in, and they agreed. In the meantime, they had gotten through to the office and Mr. Helpful showed up, and went through the same routine. I then asked them if he could take the bag to the lady, given that he knew who she was. He literally looked at me and shrugged his shoulders. I said, ok, fine, could you just point her out to this couple? He shrugged his shoulders again.

I am not one to lash out at service workers, but apparently that was the final straw. I had my luggage, and he couldn’t slow me down any longer, so suddenly a stream of profanities escaped me in his direction as he shuffled down the hall. The other couple had the lady’s luggage in tow, and presumably that worked out well.

As a final insult, we went upstairs to departures, to check in with Emirates. We couldn’t find their desk, so we asked am employee where we might find it. She looked, shrugged her shoulders, pointed at the information board (which was no help) and walked away.

Finally, we found the Emirates counter at the end of the hall, and it was as if we’d walked into a meadow with fresh air. The staff were genuinely helpful and friendly, they got us checked in, found us exit row seats, and even gave us tickets for the express line for our trouble, even though it wasn’t their fault. We had no more incidents after this point.

Now, to be clear, the experience that we had with Turkish Airlines staff on the ground in Toronto and Zagreb was just fine. The experience in the air was above expectations – really quite good. But the experience at the Istanbul airport was the worst I have ever experienced, by a long stretch. Not all of it was Turkish Airlines’ fault either. Some of it was the airport staff. Things happen when flying, even cancellations, and I can understand that. However, it is how these events are handled that matter. They should have had staff walk all connecting passengers through the process, confirmed what was happening, and set our expectations for the following day, That would have led to a completely different experience. However, the airline’s complete lack of communication and lack of any assistant whatsoever has cost us the price of a flight on a competing airline, and has cost them any business from us, and potentially anyone reading this in the future.

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