Expectations that were too high: A review of Turkish Airlines business class on the Boeing 777
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For aviation geeks like me, flying an airline for the first time is a thrill. Earlier this fall, I had an introduction to Turkey’s flag carrier when I took Turkish Airlines from New York-JFK to Istanbul (IST).
Excited was an understatement for how I felt. I even built in a four-day stop in Istanbul en route to the Maldives, where I was headed to review the newly opened Ritz-Carlton Maldives, Fari Islands.
Before the flight, I knew three things about Turkish Airlines: it has one of the most extensive route networks in the world, a sprawling new hub airport and a reputation for fantastic onboard catering and meals by DO & CO, the highly regarded, Austria-based catering company.
With all this in mind, I had some high expectations for the airline’s “soft product” (food, drinks, service and amenities). Could it compete with the likes of Qatar Airways business class, a TPG staff (and personal) favourite?
Here’s how I thought Turkish Airlines business class measured up:
My flight was booked as a round-trip between New York-JFK and Malé (MLE), with a four-day stopover in Istanbul on the outbound leg. Unfortunately, there was no award availability on the dates that I needed, so TPG paid for this fare in cash.
As a mixed cabin itinerary with business on the outbound and economy on the return, we paid $2,100 (£1,521). Had I been paying for my own flight, I would have used a travel credit card to earn bonus points or miles on the fare.
The total fare with the multi-day stop in Istanbul was the same as one with a short connection. Keep in mind that Turkish Airlines has a generous stopover program and during non-pandemic times, you can even get a complimentary hotel.
I decided to credit my outbound business-class flights in “C” class of service to Turkish’s own Miles & Smiles program, earning me 12,814 miles (20,624 metres).
If you’re using miles, one of the best options is to book directly with Turkish’s Miles & Smiles program. A one-way business-class flight from North America to Europe (including Turkey) is a fantastic 45,000 miles. This is one of the lowest non-promotional award redemptions to Turkey.
Alternatively, you can book with other Star Alliance partners, which may be a better option if you have points with another currency such as Amex Membership Rewards or Chase Ultimate Rewards. Here are some options:
Turkish Airlines operates out of Terminal 1 at JFK.
While the terminal houses a number of international carriers, T1 was fairly quiet late in the morning on a weekday. With fewer flights due to the pandemic and a lull in frequencies during this hour, I didn’t have to contend with many people until standing at the gate area at boarding time.
Say what you want about the rest of Terminal 1, but first impressions matter – and the terminal does well in this regard (especially when there are only a handful of other passengers).
You immediately notice how much light the interior receives upon walking into the check-in area.
There was only one person ahead of me in the business class check-in line. The agent was curt yet efficient. The agent inspected my proof of vaccination, gave me my boarding pass and sent me on my way to security in a matter of minutes.
The hodgepodge of international carriers at this terminal – coupled with the lack of a dedicated TSA PreCheck line – means it often has clogged security lines. I experienced just that.
Even with only about 10 passengers ahead of me, security took way longer than it should have. Since I had PreCheck on my boarding pass, I didn’t have to take off my shoes, but the process wasn’t any faster on the standard line.
Next up, it was time to find the lounge. There’s good and bad news here.
First, the bad news. For my 1 p.m flight, Turkish Airlines was not contracting with any airport lounge. That’s pretty inexcusable considering there are several lounges open in the terminal at this hour.
Typically, Turkish business-class passengers and Star Alliance elites can use the Lufthansa lounge, but its hours of 12:30 p.m to 6 p.m. meant it was off-limits for those with early afternoon or late evening flights.
Thankfully, there’s good news: Priority Pass came to my rescue. The Primeclass lounge was available – and located right next to where my Turkish flight was boarding.
Situated at the far end of Terminal 1 by Gates 8 and 9, the Primeclass Lounge opened in late 2019. It is open to Priority Pass customers, along with business-class passengers of airlines such as Japan Airlines, Royal Air Maroc and Saudia. While the lounge benefit did not include admittance for Turkish Airlines passengers, I was able to access it thanks to one of the several credit cards I carry that allows me to register for Priority Pass.
The 5,000 square-foot (464 metres) space is on the basement level and is one of the nicer contracted lounges that I’ve visited.
Throughout my hour-long stay, the lounge remained quiet. The combination of plush, white seats, hardwood floors and marble touches made the space modern yet homey. During the lunch hour, there was a hot and cold buffet and a full bar with two complimentary drinks allotted per guest (additional drinks are chargeable).
I had a seat by the window in the lounge, with a fantastic view of a Saudia Boeing 777 parked nearby. After a short while, it was time to head upstairs for boarding my flight to Istanbul.
I arrived a few minutes before boarding was scheduled to begin, but the gate agents had not created any lines. Finally, about 20 minutes later, airline staff organized the crowd that had formed near the gate, creating separate queues for business and economy.
Unfortunately, due to how the lines formed, a few passengers got ahead of me, which meant I didn’t get a chance to get photographs of the business cabin without other folks in it.
After preboarding of families and wheelchair passengers, business class and Star Alliance elites took their turn to step onboard.
Cabin and seat
Turkish Airlines won’t win any awards for the “hard product” – meaning the seat and physical features of the cabin – on its Boeing 777, which is not outfitted nearly as nicely as the airline’s Boeing 787s and Airbus A350s with their newer, all-aisle access business-class product.
Turkish operates two versions of the 777-300ER. Unfortunately, on my New York-JFK to Istanbul (IST) leg, I was on the older version, with a lower-resolution video screen and more dated finishes.
Both versions have a 49-seat business-class cabin arranged in a 2-3-2 configuration which means, yes, there are middle seats, even up front. Business class is split into two sections, with the front cabin containing 28 seats spread over four rows. The rear cabin has 21 seats spread over three rows.
Turkish took delivery of its first Boeing 777 in 2010, and this business-class formation has been around since then. The airline does not have any imminent plans to retrofit the aircraft with the business-class fixtures found on its newer aircraft.
Privacy in premium cabins is all the rage these days, with more and more carriers offering seclusion as a prime selling point.
However, Turkish isn’t alone with this 2-3-2 setup. Airlines such as Emirates (on the Boeing 777-300ER) and Lufthansa (on the Boeing 747-400) still feature forward-facing business-class seats in this type of configuration.
While privacy is sorely lacking on Turkish’s 777, these forward-facing, lie-flat seats do have one plus: a significant amount of legroom. With an open layout, there is no concern about the tight footwells you might find in such seats as Delta One suites or even Singapore’s A350-900.
There is also something to be said about having three windows to yourself (if you snag a window seat).
As for the seats themselves, they feel roomy at 22 inches wide with 78 inches of pitch. That meant in lie-flat mode, I had over six feet to fully stretch out.
Coupled with plenty of space for your feet, that made the Turkish 777 is a comfortable (albeit not very secluded) place to sleep. I got a solid five hours of rest on this 10-hour flight.
Personally, I don’t mind the 2-3-2 arrangement, even as a solo traveller. And while I’d prefer a seat with a door, such as British Airways’ new Club Suite, I liked having so much space to spread out in this open configuration. Even better, the seat next to me wasn’t occupied.
The business cabin was about half full once boarding was complete.
In economy, Turkish has a comfortable 3-3-3 seating arrangement. These days, most airlines outfit their 777s in a 3-4-3 setup, so this is a major improvement in terms of seat width.
Back in business class, I settled into my seat. Even fully stretched out, try as I might, my 5’7″ frame couldn’t reach the footrest.
I was able to squeeze my backpack under the footrest, which was convenient, and then began checking out the other seat features.
There’s a small storage area within the centre console, where one power outlet and one USB port are located. Besides this, there wasn’t much in the way of storage.
While I loved all the legroom, there weren’t many ways to adjust the seat to a comfortable reclined – yet not fully flat – position.
In lie-flat mode, however, the seat was a very pleasant place to be. This was helped by the fact that the crew provided a mattress pad, small pillow and a duvet once I was ready to settle in for the night.
There was also a divider that could be raised to give a small semblance of privacy between the seats.
Amenities and inflight entertainment
As I mentioned, this plane featured one of the airline’s more dated in-flight entertainment systems, with a 15.4″ touchscreen interface.
While the video library wasn’t as extensive as some of the best in the industry (such as Emirates’ ice system), there was a wide selection to choose from, including a number of first-run movies like “Parasite” and “Joker” and timeless classics like “Casablanca” and “Die Hard”.
Personally, I loved how all the “Harry Potter” movies were available for bingeing.
One thing I didn’t love: The scuffed remote control, which was frustrating to use due to its lack of responsiveness. Although the monitor is touchscreen-enabled, it’s so far away from the seat that you’ll have to use the remote.
The cabin crew handed out noise-cancelling headphones by Denon, but they were so-so in quality. I had forgotten to pack my much better Bose noise-cancelling headset, but the Denon ones were an adequate substitute for the flight.
However, the crew annoyingly collected the headphones about an hour from landing, so I’d highly suggest bringing your own.
Turkish Airlines is one of the few airlines to offer free Wi-Fi for business-class passengers, up to 1 GB of complimentary access. All Miles & Smiles members also get 10 MB of free Wi-Fi access, and while that isn’t much, it’s definitely appreciated.
I didn’t get to do an official speed test, but the connection was consistent throughout the flight and good enough for several hours of emails and writing.
During boarding, the crew passed out Versace amenity kits.
Male-identifying passengers got a brown leather kit while female-identifying passengers got an aqua-coloured kit. Why there is a need to have gender-specific kits is beyond me.
The Versace products inside were part of the Eros line, with a minty yet woodsy fragrance, and included a face mist, lotion and lip balm.
There was also an eye mask, a fluffy pair of socks, a mini-dental kit, floss and stickers that you could place on your seat to let the crew know if you wanted to be awakened for service or not.
A shoe bag with a pair of thin slippers had been waiting at my seat at boarding. However, Turkish doesn’t provide pyjamas, which was a bit disappointing. To be fair, only a handful of airlines, such as Qatar Airways, actually supply pyjamas for long-haul business class – but it would have been nice to have had a set of them to sleep in before changing back into my street clothes.
There are a total of three business-class lavatories: one near the cockpit at the front of the aircraft and two located near the galley between the two business-class cabins.
Each lavatory was stocked with Molton Brown toiletries, including orange and bergamot scented hand wash and hand lotion.
Throughout the flight, the cabin crew kept the lavatories in spotless shape.
In addition, with only about half of the business cabin occupied, the ratio between passengers and toilets was about 8 to 1 and there was rarely a line.
Food and beverage
I thought this was going to be the show-stopping element of the flight – but it ended up being a mixed experience.
Back in May 2021, Turkish announced it was bringing back hot meals after a year’s absence, along with its famed “Flying Chefs” on flights of eight hours or longer.
These in-flight chefs are responsible for overseeing the entire meal service, from taking orders to preparation and seat-side presentation. In fact, it’s a distinguishing aspect of Turkish Airlines’ catering program, and one I was eager to experience for myself.
To get things started, one of the chefs serving my aisle – in full whites and a towering toque – presented both a menu and wine list shortly after boarding.
There were three main course options, but I was disappointed to see that there was just a single appetizer medley and one dessert available.
At this point, I also realized that the flight probably wouldn’t be using display trolleys for each course, as it did before the pandemic. As part of its COVID-19 protocols, there also were no pre-departure beverages, just small bottles of water distributed once all passengers were on board.
Shortly after leveling at cruising altitude, though, the cabin crew sprang into action for the main meal service. The chefs took our drink and main course orders about 30 minutes after takeoff.
Around 10 minutes later, I received my beverages: Turkish’s signature mint lemonade (which was noticeably missing mint) and sparkling water with lemon. I’m not a big drinker, especially when I’m flying, so I can’t critique the wine menu.
At the 50-minute mark after takeoff, I received a tray with the appetizer, mezze and a whole lot of plastic covers.
Once I got the excessive amount of plastic out of the way, the chef who was roaming my aisle placed a piece of bread on my tray.
I found it odd that it wasn’t Turkish pide bread, but instead, a mini French baguette. Nevertheless, I tore it apart and strategically used it to scoop up both the baba ganoush and muhammara.
The baba ganoush was the perfect blend of chunky and creamy, while the muhammara was smooth and had a nice spicy kick to it.
The mozzarella and tomato salad, while quite fresh, was a tad bland, even with the olive oil and vinegar dressing that came alongside it.
For my main, I went with the polenta and chicken breast, which didn’t have the most elegant presentation but was quite tasty. It’s easy for chicken on an aircraft to come out dry, but this cut of meat was juicy, tender and well-seasoned.
Meanwhile, the somewhat nondescript chocolate mousse dessert was already on the tray.
I’m not a picky eater, but one of the very few things that I don’t eat is chocolate in any shape or form, so I passed on this. Instead, I ordered a tea to finish things off. I also asked the chef for a Turkish delight sweet.
Instead, he gave me an assortment of snacks including savory crackers, Pringles and a chocolate bar, and told me they weren’t serving Turkish delight due to the pandemic. Odd.
Once my tray and tea were both cleared, we were just over an hour and a half into the flight.
Overall, I was a bit underwhelmed by the meal itself, from the single-tray service to the limited menu entries. I had just been expecting a bit more, pandemic or not.
However, I do realize that Turkish has not brought back its full onboard service and doesn’t have an expected date for when it will. That meant no trolleys, separate plated dishes, dessert options, pre-departure beverages or battery-operated candles to set the mood.
In addition, for an early afternoon departure and a scheduled flight time of nearly 10 hours, I was surprised to see the crew finish the meal service so quickly. From there, they shut off the lights – and unless you pressed the call button, there was no service of any kind until the pre-arrival meal.
Disappointingly, the only snacks available in between the meal service were of the pre-packaged (read: unhealthy) variety.
Finally, about two and a half hours before landing, the pre-arrival service began. I thought this timing was a bit early, since I was deep in sleep when I heard the crew begin preparing for breakfast.
I wasn’t very hungry, but instead of trying to go back to sleep, I woke up for review purposes and ordered a coffee to perk me up.
A lovely continental spread of yogurt, cold cuts, cheese and fruit started things off. The chef working my aisle also came around with a bread basket, with options of a chocolate croissant, plain croissant or mini baguettes (again).
There was both a savory and a sweet option for the breakfast main. For breakfast, nine times out of 10 I go for savory, and that’s what I did here.
My mozzarella and tomato omelet that arrived was buttery and fluffy, with the side of potatoes perfectly crisp. Like chicken, eggs are often overcooked on flights so I was pleasantly surprised at how well they turned out.
All in all, I found the food – both the main dinner course and pre-arrival breakfast – to be high quality and well prepared. At the same time, the catering wasn’t head and shoulders above other business-class meals that I have had on other airlines.
First, I have to acknowledge that no element of the service was objectively terrible. But overall, it just didn’t feel very polished or elegant.
The crew often seemed in a hurry to finish their tasks, with few pleasantries or even words spoken.
For instance, whenever I made a request, the crew would be so quick to depart that I often didn’t even finish saying what I wanted. While this could be due to a lack of command of English, I didn’t see the crew interact much with Turkish-speaking passengers, either.
I was hoping for the crew to not only be a bit more personable but also to just stay by my seat long enough to hear my drink order before leaving.
Finally, without the trolleys and individually plated service, I didn’t entirely understand the point of having onboard chefs. Meals were served pre-plated and with a cover. The in-flight chefs looked slick, but other than taking the meal orders, they essentially disappeared on my flight.
Turkish Airlines has a lot going for it. There is an extensive route network and a gorgeous (albeit slightly soulless) new airport in Istanbul. And from a passenger experience perspective, Turkish has a reputation for fantastic onboard catering.
There’s no question that Turkish’s 777s have a dated business-class cabin. And on my flight, service from the crew felt indifferent and not particularly distinguished.
In practice, the onboard catering with its current service adjustments couldn’t make up for these two downsides – so I wasn’t completely satisfied by my first Turkish Airlines business class experience.
I realize now that I boarded the flight with expectations that were slightly too high. If I had tempered them, especially knowing about the more limited service, I would have been more likely to enjoy Turkish business class on the 777. I’d love to try Turkish again once its full catering operation has returned – especially if it is onboard a Boeing 787 or Airbus A350 with newer business-class seats.
Featured photo by Chris Dong/The Points Guy.
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