Farewell to Turkish Airlines

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Boarding at Ataturk International, bound for New York

I wrote this before the protests in Gezi Park began. Something was already in the air, however.

The lead singer for The Replacements wrote a song and dedicated it to his sister, a flight attendant. Set to the tune of the Jesus Freak anthem “Spirit in the Sky,” Paul Westerberg sings:

She don’t wear no pants and she don’t wear no tie

Always on the ball, she’s always on strike

Struttin’ up the aisle, big deal, you get to fly

You ain’t nothin’ but a waitress in the sky.

Despite the attractiveness of spending one’s time between flights in far flung and exotic locations like Baghdad or Islamabad (or the nicer routes like Paris, New York, and Tokyo), being a flight attendant is very hard work for less and less pay.

Since the early 1990s, economy travel has changed the planet (that’s a story for a stand-alone blog). It is fair to say that nowhere is exotic anymore. Travelling to Thailand or Egypt or Namibia or Outer Mongolia was once, not so long ago, a very difficult and expensive endeavor. Now, at least four major airlines have direct flights to Ulan Bator (Aeroflot, Air China, Turkish, and Korean Air), but the airlines that fly to the farthest flung places in the world are those that represent the three ancient empires of Asia: British Airways, Aeroflot, and Turkish Airlines.

British Airlines has always been the Old Faithful of world travelers—never mind the political situation; BA was the Switzerland of the airline industry. When people in the US were tying yellow ribbons around their oak trees while a nation was held hostage, BA was running regular service to Tehran. Apartheid? BA flew to Jo-Burgh and Cape Town. Intifada? Hop on for a ride to Jerusalem. This isn’t a criticism. We the excessively mobile appreciate BA’s willingness to fly in so we can get out, if needed.

The empires of Britain, Russia, and Turkey may not have ended with either World War, or even the fall of the Soviet Union, but the current imperial standard is no longer a flag as much as it is the logo of a the national corporation. BA represents the United Kingdom as much as the Union Jack. Aeroflot, now spiffed up and safe(r), is still the Slavic lumbering giant whose rebranding represents no more the worker’s paradise but rather beams with oligarchic Russian pride. Aeroflot still connects the former Soviet Union, including the heavily dependent Central Asian republics.

Although representing the oldest empire of the three, Turkish Airlines is a Yahya-come-lately to the Asia market.[1] According to the May 2013 editions of THY’s in-flight magazine Skylife, the change in market share since 2003 has been as dramatic as Turkey’s overall economic growth. Its income has doubled—as has its market share globally—while its fleet size has quadrupled. Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport rivals the glitzy shopping mall models of Dubai and Singapore. Poor little Turkey is flying with the big boys now.

I happen to be sitting on a THY 737 at this very moment. The lamestream news continues to do its normal job of incompletely and incompetently reporting world news. It was not until this airplane, bound for Istanbul from Bishkek, was taxiing for take off that I learned that Turkish Airlines employees are on strike. I grabbed the first Turkish flight attendant I could find (many are Kyrgyz) and asked WTF? Why are you flying today? Why is no one picketing the airport? And I thus received a lesson on the nature of unions and labor practices in the shiny new Turkey.

Some employees missed work during negotiations, so all employees who missed work on that day were summarily dismissed, including people who were legitimately ill or were on compassionate or maternity leave. Most THY flight attendants and pilots are part-time employees and receive no benefits. They can be fired for no reason whatsoever. THY is attempting to increase the percentage of part-time employees to 80 percent. Part-timers are not allowed to join the union: union busting at its finest.

Infinitely more disturbing is proposed changes to scheduling for intercontinental flight crews. Turkish Airlines wishes to reduce the turnaround time for flight attendants and PILOTS on intercontinental routes to 24 hours. Based on extensive studies, the FAA recommends a minimum rest period of 72 hours for intercontinental flights to maximize safety. It has concluded that 36 hours rest is far too little to provide adequate rest to compensate for interruption of circadian rhythms from crossing multiple time zones (jet lag).[2] Sleepy, jet-lagged pilots who receive no health insurance: I’m sure nothing could go wrong there.

Aeroflot, here I come.


[1] “English form of Iohannes, the Latin form of the Greek name Ιωαννης (Ioannes), itself derived from the Hebrew name יוֹחָנָן (Yochanan) meaning “‘Yahweh is gracious’” Yahya is the Arabic and Turkish equivalent of Yochanan, or John. http://www.behindthename.com/names/usage/turkish; http://www.behindthename.com/name/john.

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