A company’s reputation is one of those ‘off balance sheet’ items that can make or break it – something that a company like Turkish Airlines really ought to be aware of, especially as the airline markets itself as one of the best in the world.
As Warren Buffet said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that you’ll do things differently.”
So, what are the lessons to be learnt from the epically bad experience my wife and I had with Turkish Airlines last week?
Let me start with what happened with our two flights as we were returning from London Gatwick to Cape Town, via Istanbul, at the end of a number of weeks travel which had covered the west of Canada, France and the UK. Our flights booked were TK1998 (LGW-IST) departing Gatwick on 25th August at 17:10 for a 4 hour flight, followed by a 1:40 transit time in Istanbul before catching TK044 (IST-CPT), due to depart Istanbul at 01:50 on 26th August and reach Cape Town a little over 10 hours later.
Being cautious in these days as international travel recovers post-pandemic, we arrived at the check in desk some 3 hours ahead of the scheduled departure time to find there were already massive queues for Turkish Airlines, with nothing apparently happening. After a while we were told that the incoming flight was delayed and we would be given more information a little later.
I then spoke with somebody at the desk (we were premium class passengers, so our queue was a little shorter) and managed to establish that they were trying to understand what would happen with connecting flights in Istanbul as the flight from Gatwick was expected to miss some of these.
After about an hour we managed to get checked in for the flight from Gatwick (almost all the staff at other desks had disappeared, and nobody there was being processed), being told that they did not know when it would leave, when we would reach Istanbul or what would happen with our connecting flight from Istanbul, so just to watch the departures board from the terminal.
Eventually, at about 19:15 we saw a notice come up telling us to go to the departure gate, although there was still no clear departure time. Getting to the gate we saw no aircraft (it arrived about 10 minutes later) and so stood around waiting to board for about 40 minutes. Quick boarding and the flight left at 20:31.
The staff on board, in contrast to all but one person from the ground crew – the lady who checked us in and was trying to help – who were completely disinterested in the passengers, tried to be friendly and helpful and expressed confidence that the flight to Cape Town would depart late as there were a number of people on this flight due to catch it, as well as those from other European flights which were running late due to weather in Istanbul the previous night.
Arriving in Istanbul at 01:47 local time, we found ourselves on our own – simply being told to go to the transfer desk as we disembarked. We reached the transfer desk, albeit without help or guidance (Istanbul is a big airport), and after nearly an hour waiting there (again, in the premium queue) were told by the person at the desk to go to the lounge as they had more people who might be able to help (he had yet to resolve one person’s issues by that time).
We found our way to the lounge (again, without help) and joined a new queue, although at least this time there were 3 people answering questions. About an hour later we were rebooked on the same flight the following day – apparently this was the quickest routing available – although my wife and I were now 8 rows apart and told to make our own arrangements with other passengers if we wanted to sit together. We asked about a hotel for the remainder of the night (it was now around 4am) and the day, and were told there were no rooms available, so to check back in an hour or two.
I asked how there could be no rooms available in a city the size of Istanbul and was told that Turkish Airlines only had arrangements with a small number of hotels and these were full. They would not consider other hotels, nor would reimburse me if I hired a room myself. I pointed out that in terms of Turkish Airlines’ own Passenger Rights Document we were entitled to hotel accommodation, which they acknowledged but just repeated there were no rooms. Frankly, the staff were completely disinterested in trying to help. I asked to speak with a supervisor, to no avail.
An hour later I returned to the desk for a repeat performance – no rooms, try again in 2 hours. I did manage to speak with a supervisor (most senior person available) who repeated what I had already been told, and showed a total lack of interest. I returned again 2 hours later with the same result. I tried again to have the issue escalated but the most senior person was the supervisor I had spoken with previously and they would, or could, not contact anyone else.
A third attempt a couple of hours later (now with a new shift of people but, unfortunately, not a new attitude to customers) yielded nothing further. Again, the most senior person to speak with was the shift supervisor who, like others, agreed we were entitled to accommodation but said there was none available. His best suggestion was for us to clear passport control, collect our luggage and find the Hotel Desk in the arrivals hall and to wait there in case something became available – clearly an unworkable solution which would have put us in a worse situation than remaining in the lounge.
At no point did any member of the Turkish Airlines staff apologise for the delay, attempt to find a solution (even to one where they stayed in contact with the hotel desk and would call us if anything changed – it was down to us to come back every two hours and ask) or try to find another solution. All appeared disinterested at best, and many clearly viewed their passengers (all premium ones here) as a nuisance.
Bottom line – we spent 24 hours sitting in the lounge…
I have subsequently seen that any passengers with a connecting international flight that means a transit time of between 6 and 24 hours can request a complimentary Touristanbul service. This would have relieved some of the monotony of the wait – why was it not offered?
So, in an organisation which is truly world-class and has a decent culture, rather than just marketing itself as such, what should have happened?
- Staff should have been fully briefed on the delay and the reasons for this. There should have been a clear idea of approximately what time the incoming flight could be expected, After all, it’s a 4-hour flight from Istanbul so there could have been an ‘educated guess’ by the time we reached the check-in facility. Communication in these cases is vital!
- The departure board could have been updated with expected flight departure time well in advance, too, and a Turkish Airlines person could have taken mobile numbers of passengers, created a WhatsApp group and let everyone know of updates (there was free WiFi at the airport so no charges for passengers).
- Passengers not in premium class could have been supplied with food and drink in some way while waiting.
- Knowing which passengers had connecting flights, and to where, as the airline would, Turkish Airlines could have looked at delaying some outbound flights where passenger numbers made this feasible. It’s worth noting that in the week preceding the CPT flight on which we were booked, this flight departed late every day. Sometimes, as on 26th, just 15-20 minutes late, but of the 6 preceding flights over the 10 preceding days, 5 were between 57 minutes and 2 hours 31 minutes late in leaving) – a time period that would have allowed for the connection to be made, and would have resulted in less congestion at Istanbul and happier customers all around.
- If, for some reason, it was not possible to delay the connecting flight, new boarding passes and routes could have been arranged while the passengers were en route to Istanbul, and handed to them as they disembarked, with hotel accommodation arranged – even in hotels where the airline did not have a prior formal agreement. The passengers could then have been escorted in small groups to where they then needed to go next. This would have turned a potentially bad experience into a much more positive one.
- Instead of being left to find transfer desks, etc., on their own, passengers could have been escorted to the desks which could have been staffed up with additional people given the number of passengers with missed connections. The same applies to the reception / ‘help’ desks at the lounge(s).
- Turkish Airlines should have ensured staff went out of their way to make the difficult situation as pleasant as possible for their passengers, instead of treating them as a bit of a nuisance and with the least possible help.
- Finally, Turkish Airlines staff should be empowered to make arrangements for their passengers and provide the best possible customer service. It’s about accountability.
The bottom line here is that I will now find ways to avoid Turkish Airlines, as will many other people with whom I spoke (one being the daughter of a travel agent who has been recommending Turkish Airlines, another being an Elite Plus customer of theirs for the past decade or more, but there were many more, too). The lifetime cost to the airline of losing these disgruntled passengers will run to millions of dollars.
Remember, every unhappy customer tells 15-20 people of their experience – three times more than happy customers relate their experience. Given that a 2% increase in customer retention has the same effect on the bottom line as a decrease in costs of 10%, can the airline really afford this, particularly in these difficult times?
Having said all of this, I don’t blame the staff. They clearly have not been properly trained in customer service, they appear demotivated in their jobs and the culture is obviously one where they simply cannot take decisions on their own or show any initiative, while management is simply absent from the front line.
It’s a chronic failure of leadership and management.
Remember, as Henry Ford said, “The two most important things in any company do not appear in its balance sheet: its reputation and its people.”
What do you think?
I work with successful owner-led businesses to enhance their growth, profitability, cash flow and business value.
If you’d like to have a conversation about your business, its culture and team dynamics, or any other business challenges or concerns, book a free 30-minute call with me here. I’d be delighted to talk with you.
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