Little Airline of Horrors

Now this is a story all about how, 
my flights got cancelled three times around,
I’d like to take a minute just sit right there,
I’ll tell you why you should never try to fly Turkish Air.

After six wonderful days in Istanbul it was finally time to head home to Helsinki. We were booked on a morning flight (08.50) from Istanbul to Helsinki on Friday 1.1.2016. We’d had some problems with the online check-In at Helsinki, so we decided to do the check-in at Atatürk Airport.

When we got to the airport we tried to use the machines, but they told us to go to the counters. No explanation was given from the machine apart from directions. Our flight was on the board in Departures, so we didn’t think much of it. Finland is a small country and most services that are designed for “everyone” don’t always work for us. Like the free 15 minutes of WIFI at Atatürk, as we were soon to find out.

We queued to the correct counter with quite a few other people. It took 20min or so. Once we got to the counter we got hit with the news: our flight was cancelled. No explanation was given, but we assumed it was due to the heavy snowfall the day earlier. OK, it had snowed two days in a row, but it was clear and beautiful for the entire day on Friday. We got sent to the supervisor counter, right next to us. 

Enough snow to kill a Turkish airport

Now, I’m not trying to bore you by giving a much detailed explanation on how we moved from one counter to the other. It happens at airports. But in order for you to grasp our situation, I need to be a little bit more detailed than you’d probably like at this point. This entire thing is basically about getting information from Turkish Airlines so bear with me for now.

We queued for the supervisor counter for maybe ten minutes after a member of staff came and told us to move to another supervisor counter that had a shorter line. So we moved and waited for about an hour - hour and a half. Time becomes an odd sticky thing when you’re at airports. You’re never really the master of your own time so you just let it flow and hope for the experience to be over soon. That’s why I can’t be sure about the lengths of all individual waiting periods, but you get the idea anyway.

People in front of us got their luggage sent inside, so we were quite hopeful. When it eventually became our turn, we got the confirmation from a tired looking gentleman. He took a look at our passports and told us that our flight was – indeed – cancelled. He gave us new boarding passes for a 13.35 flight to Helsinki. I tried to ask him whether he believed that this new flight would fly or not, and he didn’t give me an answer. He just muttered something about it not being sure at this point.

Well, we were cheery anyway. We got inside through passport control and security – this took some minutes, the queue wasn’t that long – and started our long waiting period. The time was around 09.00(ish) at this point. My travelling companion went to sleep on one of the benches as I strolled around the airport.

I kept watching the screens for information, as you naturally do at airports. Our cancelled flight was still on board, with the tag “waiting for gate”. Now, I found this strange since it was well after the original departure time and we had already been told that the flight was cancelled. Why would it still be on the board?

There were huge crowds at every big announcement screen. People were actually lying on their backs watching the screens, waiting for information on their flights. I felt sorry for them.

About two hours before our flight was supposed to take off, we went and joined the hundreds of people waiting at the nearest “go to gate” screen for our gate. I had a bad feeling about it, since our previous flight had just magically disappeared from the screens without ever being cancelled and our current flight had the unnerving “waiting for gate” signal on it.

At this point, at around 11.30 my dad called me from Finland. The conversation went something like this:

Dad: Hi, I heard your flight got cancelled

Me: Yeah, we’re waiting for the gate for our new flight.

Dad: The one that is supposed to be in Helsinki at five?

Me: Yeah, that’s the one. How did you know?

Dad: That’s the one that’s cancelled.

Me: What?

Dad: It says so on Helsinki-Vantaa webpage. That flight is cancelled.

Now this is an important point in this story. We were standing at Atatürk International watching the departure gates as my dad called me. Our flight status was still “waiting for gate”. My dad had thought that we were supposed to be coming over on the 13.35 flight not on the 08.50 one. He had known well ahead about our flight before us.

This resulted in a panicked 15 minutes in which we were going through our tickets trying to find a mistake made by my dad, but at around 11.45 our flight status changed on the big screen into “cancelled”.

Now what are you supposed to do when your flight gets cancelled? I don’t know. I’ve never had this happen to me whilst on an airport. It sure isn't taught in schools. We figured that we should try to contact Turkish Airlines. It is the sensible thing you want to do, right? Little did we know, it would lead to a big mistake, but we’ll get to that later.

So we tried to find a counter, any counter with Turkish Airlines staff on it. Turns out, there was absolutely no staff anywhere who had any insignia on them. Security guards yes, shop people yes, but no information desks anywhere. There was absolutely no information given out, none on the screens, none via announcements none from staff members. We saw a sign saying “Flight Transfer” and that’s where we went, since there was nothing better to be found.

I honestly don’t know if this was the right place to go. I suppose on a normal airport it might be, but not in Istanbul, not this time.

We went where the flight transfer-signs were telling us to go. After a long corridor we went down a flight of stairs only to meet two non-English speaking ground staff members who were keeping everyone from getting into the flight transfer area. Long gone were the happy faces on Turkish Airlines posters or the chef-hatted flight personnel who are supposed to cook your delicious on-air dish. The male security guard only answered in Turkish and the female one kept repeating "No!" "Keep back!" and so on. Yes, she did speak that much English when forced to, so I guess that made them nearly-non-English speakers.

Things were starting to get a little scary. There were more and more people cramming into this miniature space that was something between a lobby and a room. Most foreign tourists – like us – were trying to find out whether this even was the right place to be. Nobody had told us to come there, we had just hoped to get some information. Then suddenly someone at the centre started to shout really loudly and our tight pack was becoming a multilingual mob. The Turks amongst our mob were clearly not shying away from a fight with authority.

Eventually this uproar caused the female security guard to call someone via phone. She was pregnant, so I’m guessing the imminent threat of a fist fight was not something she was hoping for before maternity leave.

This caused a heftier security man to run in and my first thought was: “Oh shit, we’re so getting teargassed”. The guard looked angry at first, but once he got behind the corner and saw where all the commotion coming from, his face quickly turned from angry to scared. He shouted at the non-english speaking male security guard and signalled to let us all through. First humane and logical member of staff that night – and only one too I’m afraid.

We got to the transfer space which is a long corridor with some gates. I guess it could be used as flight gates, maybe it even is. Right in front of us there were people cramming into a line, so that’s where we went too. We stood there for a while, until the realization hit us that this was not the line, it was in fact the line for the line-cutters. A lovely man in a wheelchair pointed this out to us. He seemed to have been there for a while and had seen the process unfold. “They’re just pushing through here and getting thrown out at the other side, you need to go to the end of the line over there.” Lovely man, hope he got home already.

So we walked at the end of the longest line ever at an airport (turns out there was a longer on the check in side, but I found this out later). I’m guessing around 500-700 meters, with two to six people side by side. Holy Moses. We waited there for maybe 30 minutes before a member of staff came along to look at boarding passes. He took a quick look at it and said if you were in the right line, and of course we weren’t.

OK, at least we figured that we’ve gotten ourselves at the right area, if not the right line. We basically ran towards another line, which was at the other end of the same corridor. All would-be passengers we passed while moving were people behind us in the queue. The second line was shorter at the time we got there, maybe just 100-200 meters. Well this can’t be so bad.

It was, but we'll get to that.

We met a nice couple who were about our age. Internationals, if you will. One Danish the other Swiss with Canadian-Japanese heritage. They spoke excellent English and were more than happy to share their story so far.

They were flying Swissair, but were moved to Turkish. They had been given boarding passes and even got a gate number from the infamous screen. They were waiting for their airliner at the empty gate when an Etihad flight rolled in. The gate from which they were supposed to leave within minutes now had a wrong plane on it. The gate still said Zürich but it was obvious that there was no plane going to Switzerland from there. So they found their way back to the big screen, only to find out the obvious: a cancellation of their flight.

Now the reason I’m telling you this isn’t because they’re nice people to whom I am going to send a link of this text to, oh no. I’m telling you this because what happened next was truly unbelievable.

Remember, we were at the flight transfer line, waiting to get new boarding passes to new flights. So obviously we were frantically trying ty find flights out of Istanbul on our own too. I called a friend asking him to check out a few possibilities, my travelling buddy’s parents were recruited and the Dano-Suisse had the Swiss’ mother trying to pry a flight from Swissair.

And you know what, against all odds they succeeded. Whilst in the queue, they actually got a flight out of Istanbul. Not for Friday, but for Sunday anyway. They didn’t have to wait in line any longer. So we wished them good luck and they headed towards passport control.

A few moments later they came back panting. They’d gotten to passport control and there was a lady in front of them. She stood there talking with the stamp-man when they got there and pretty soon the conversation turned into a massive tantrum from the woman. Our newfound friends soon found out why: like the woman, they too were told by the border guard that they needed to go back in line to get their passports copied, so they could get new entry stamps on their passports, or exit stamps voided or something like that.

They had to go back to the line, they had to go through the line and go through any shenanigans Turkish Airlines had decided to put them through. Bad thing was, they had just left the line from a fairly comfortable middle-position, and it had only gotten longer since. “Find the Finns!” was apparently shouted.

So here we were. A merry group of travellers waiting in line to get our passports copied by Turkish Airlines.

And I cannot stress this enough: WE WERE WAITING IN LINE TO GET OUR PASSPORTS COPIED. We weren’t being given new flights, we weren’t being transferred to other airlines, we were just waiting for a member of staff to give us a copy of our own passports.

I'd love to tell you what was the actual reason we needed to get our passports copied, but no one ever told us that. Not even @TK_helpdesk twitterprofile after I asked them (and provided a clear description of the situation via direct message)

In hindsight, we should’ve never entered the transfer zone, but we didn’t know it at the time. Also, we should’ve never gone through passport control before we were sure our flight was boarding. Would’ve, could’ve, should’ve. Fat good it did to us at this point. We were truly and totally knee deep in Turkish Air (yes, it is a synonym).

We waited in this line for whopping three hours. My travelling buddy went quite early on to search for something to eat – there was none. There was no way to get anything to eat or drink while we were at the transfer terminal. Our original idea was to eat something once our gate was confirmed, but this obviously didn’t happen. So thirsty and hungry we were, trapped like cattle in a slow long queue. We couldn’t go back and we couldn’t go forward. There was only one way out and it was controlled by the actions of Turkish Airways.

After maybe two hours we had reached the part of the line where there’s usually a zigzagging part – you know the kind that all airports have. Well, surely enough this wasn’t the case this time. Instead of an orderly queue, there was a mob pushing its way towards the counter. People were pushing themselves tighter against the backs of other people, while waiving their passports in the air, trying to get a member of staff to notice them. Slowly but surely we started to squeeze deeper into the mob.

We could see the ground staff copying passports and boarding passes and every now and then a man would stand up on the counter to shout out people’s names. Now, I don’t want to say that this unorganized hell was their fault. I’m sure they didn’t make the rules nor did they organize the queueing system, but here’s the point: no one did! It was a total chaos. People were being shoved around, a lady next to us had to leave because she was fainting and older people weren’t helped because they couldn’t go into the hot and pressurised centre of the mob. 

Have you ever been to a really busy nightclub? You know, the kind where you go to the bar counter to get drinks, only to find that there’s just one bartender serving ten meters of bar and people are pushing against each other in seven rows. The air is hot, your back and your chest are tightly between two people, and you can feel the pressure mounting. Imagine that for more than an hour, in a space where the air is not moving, people are shouting, you can’t get anything to drink, you can’t go to the bathroom anymore and the worst part: you know it will not help you in any way.

We were somewhat lucky to have the somewhat taller Dane with us, because he could hand our passports to the counter from well further than I ever could have.

So eventually we gave them our passports and moved to the other side of the counter, away from the mob. We were sweaty and tired. My legs felt like I'd been jumping up stairs for an hour. The counterstander-gentleman was trying to hand out passports only to that side, so let’s give him a little credit for trying to manage the chaos. I feel a little sorry for the staff too, because after seeing the pandemonium going on at around 15.00 I can only imagine what it was like later on.

We got our passports about 30 minutes later and walked through passport control into the baggage claim area. So we were heading out of the airport. Again, no one was to be found who could give us any information and we had to decide what to do next.

Basically we had four options:

1. Get our bags and go back to the check-in counters (where we had waited for two hours before getting our boarding passes). The problem was, our luggage was nowhere to be seen, so this really wasn’t an option.

2. Not get our luggage and go to the check-in counters (where we had waited for two hours in the morning) and risk maybe having to get back to file a report on lost luggage.

3. File a lost luggage report and go wait for unmentionable hours.

4. File a lost luggage report, get the hell out of Atatürk and get new tickets from the internet.

We went to the lost luggage counter and had to file a report. This took another hour. At one point I tried to ask the Dane about a tag number, if he knew anything about it, and couldn’t keep the paper still enough in my hand for him to read it. It was both embarrassing and scary. I hadn’t realised how deprived of nutrition and moisture I was. I was literally shaking.

There was Coca-cola and sandwiches being handed out by Turkish Airlines, so I’ll give them that. They tried to kill me, but also they saved me just before doing me in. Reminded me a little of my time in the Finnish military service. With all the queues, deprivation and false information.

So when I listed our four options, I lied a little. We honestly didn’t have any other option than to file a missing luggage report and get as far away from Turkish Airlines and Atatürk Airport as we possibly could. We were given no information, and the little information that was given was either false or overoptimistic. Seeing later on what was happening at check-in, I'm pretty glad we decided to head out. (remember the link earlier on, this one)

To sum things up: I’m pretty sure the supervisor knew as early as 09.00 that morning that we weren’t going to fly and at around 11.00 my dad knew we weren’t going to fly. I’m only guessing here, but I’m sure Turkish Airlines knew all along what they were doing. They were trying to move people around the airport so they all wouldn’t head over to the flight transfer desks at once, or even worse, go to the check-in counters. They were withholding information from passengers in order to look good.

When I got to the hotel I checked flightaware for Atatürk stats. It says that only 10% of all flight from Atatürk were cancelled on Friday and 3% got delayed. Now I had a long good look at their runways for three incredibly long and frustrating hours, and I can guarantee this stat is not true. Either Atatürk International is quieter on January first than Helsinki-Vantaa is on a Tuesday night during Midsummer, or Turkish flight officials create the types of flights like our first one that go from “waiting for gate” to simply disappearing. 

Screencapture from FlightAware.com on the stats of January 1st 2016
Now I’m not saying that no flights got out of Istanbul that day. I saw people running to gates and I saw planes rolling into the airport. So it might be that some planes did in fact leave, but for the thousands of people who were queueing with me will pretty much agree that this stat is a lie.

Thank you for reading this far. I’m sure my English is appalling and not quite up to my usual literal standards, at least to my usual readers. 


Sure you must think it’s all over now? We got new tickets and flew home? FUCK NO! THIS STORY JUST REACHED ITS MIDDLE, IT IS TIME FOR ACT TWO!!!!!! 

Revenge of the Istanbul Atatürk Airport.

In this part of the story there is no more gross negligence, only horrid customer service, a very badly organized ground staff and a company that truly has to hate travellers going to Finland.

We got tickets for Sunday. One way flight straight to Helsinki, yay. We had checked the weather forecast and it signalled for more snow on Saturday so we figured it would be best playing it safe by travelling on Sunday. Turns out it was a good idea, since half of our two person group got sick on Saturday, and it’s not nice to fly when your temperature is rising rapidly.

I used my Saturday for angry Twitter messages, angry customer feedback to our travel agent and an angry phone call to my insurance company. Their 24/hour helpline did not answer on the seven times I tried to call them on Friday, so maybe it's open for 24 hours and then closed for the next 24.

We got to Atatürk around 11.00 on Sunday. Our first flight was the famous 13.35 this time. We didn’t want to wake up early due to sickness and prior experience, so we got the later one.

I put my passport in the machine and the words came out: “No seats available, please contact check-in desk” or something quite similar. I cannot tell you how much this pissed me off.

Being wiser this time I grabbed the first person standing next to the machines and asked him, whether this meant that we needed to see the check-in counter or the supervisor check-in counter. It was the supervisor, obviously.

And here I was back in the same queue as two days earlier. The wait took around one hour this time, and when I finally got to the person she told me - of course - that I needed to go to another queue. This time it was overbooked/sales -counter that I needed to see. I grabbed the closest person I could find and asked them to take me to the sales-counter.

For 20 minutes I stood in front of a counter where a woman was just “waiting for her colleague”. Only that, if you don't count playing with your nails. This was the sales desk without anyone handling sales. Eventually the woman got bored and walked our little line to another sales desk that had maybe six people in front of us.

Welcome to the lovely world of handling the chaos caused by several missed flights, that have resulted in overbookings which have caused more missed flights. I stood in this line for two hours. It wasn’t all unpleasant, I met two Finnish women who I consulted in getting as far away from Istanbul as possible. Also, this time we weren’t in a blank corridor waiting for someone to copy our passports so I got to eat a Whopper and drank plentyful.

After two hours we got a flight. We could have gotten home on that day but because of the long wait, no connecting flights were available. There were some earlier, but not anymore. So we got booked on a Monday flight to Helsinki via Münich. But here’s the catch: we got booked, we didn’t get the tickets.

The sales counters were so crowded, they had moved employees over at substations such as ours, where they could handle bookings. But in order to get the tickets, you still needed to get to the main ticket office, where they would print them out for you. So instead of one massive queue that looks bad on Twitter, they had numerous mini lines, where you just got a "booking".

So there we went. Over to the main ticket sales counter. The line was long, yet again. But with two employees working it, it only took an extra hour of my life to get through it. We got our tickets, yay! I tried to ask them about accommodation and the answer was: "You need to go to supervisor desk". I had no intention on doing that, whatever the reason.

Imagine as a Finn watching this closed counter for an hour, while waiting for service on another airline.

Our flight was really early in the morning, at 07.40, so we decided to do the check-in right away. It had two upsides: first we got to know if everything was OK with our tickets (no overbookings), and second, we wouldn’t have to do the check-in in the morning. So over to the machines again we went.

I put my passport in the machine and, would you believe it: NO RESERVATION FOUND UNDER THIS NAME!

I again grabbed the closest person standing next to me and painstakingly pointed out to her the e-ticket numbers that we had. She said that we should go over to the supervisor desk. We weren’t polite to this person, I have to admit. But she did say to us: “You cannot have been stuck here since Friday, that’s impossible”

Yeah, sure it was indeed. We weren’t at Atatürk the whole time. We got new tickets to the first plausible flight we could imagine and went back to the city. No, we didn’t try to let them move us from one queue to another for an extra day, although had someone told us at the airport that after the baggage claim we needed to contact the sales desk, we probably would’ve.

But again, no information was given at Atatürk on Friday the 1st of January 2016. And most of the information that we got was either lies or deliberate misinformation.

Anyway, here I was again. Waiting at the supervisor line. It took maybe an hour, I couldn’t keep up anymore. I was exhausted. I had spent a lot less time at the airport this time, but during this time I had stood in lines as much or even more than on Friday.

The man at the counter was, surprisingly enough, quiet. He scanned the code for our lost luggage but said nothing of it (I'm guessing it's because I had to re-do my lost luggage report in Finland - it wasn't filed by staff in Istanbul, could you believe it?). We might never see them again. He also gave us boarding passes for Münich, not Helsinki. He told us we needed to change in Münich to Finnair, which honest to all the gods and demons high and low was the best news I’ve gotten from any Turk ever! I have even worked with a Turk last summer.

After prying it out of the man, he yielded to tell us we could go to the Turkish Airlines Airport Hotel Desk to get accommodation for the night. And we went there, only to find the longest queue of the day. (and it might have been impossible to get a room, who knows)

And so I put my credit card to its best use ever: getting an airport hotel room from one of the merchants.

All good things must come to an end sooner or later, and even this long story has its ending. I’m currently sitting in a Finnair Airbus A320, on my way to Finland. The Finnish captain just apologized for the delay of 15 minutes, which caused me to laugh out oud loud for the first time during this ordeal.

Our transfer time in Münich was a tremendous 20 minutes in its entirety, the last revenge of the Turkish Airways sales counter personnel, but thanks to a very helpful German transfer desk lady, we were ushered through the gates and past all lines.

Summa summarum: I don’t know. Maybe we were stupid, wanted too much and didn’t know the correct procedures.

Or maybe Turkish Airlines is just one crappy airline with good onflight meals.

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