YAVUZ BAYDAR

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YAVUZ BAYDAR
February 19, 2013, Tuesday

To protect a global brand

It was a scene I have witnessed more than once. The first one was on a flight between the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, namely İstanbul and Çanakkale. The second between the unfortunately named Sabiha Gökçen Airport of İstanbul to Ankara. Both journeys took no longer than 40-45 minutes; they were simply felt as a landing immediately following takeoff. I imagine they still do.

But for the poor cabin crew of Turkish Airlines (THY), it must have felt like a test of stress durability. They had to serve the full aircraft menus, which were not -- as it is in many other Western airlines -- a basic choice between coffee and tea, backed by something that barely looks like a sandwich. Theirs was a rich plate with various refreshments, and also warm drinks, plus alternatives to eat.

As the pilots were ready to announce the approach for landing, some of those poor souls were still struggling to serve picky, careless passengers, while the others were busy rushing through the aisle, picking up as much as they could of the leftovers and garbage. What a useless and hazardous exercise in excess for the airline, I thought. Each time this has happened I have shared my pity with the staff, shared their exasperation, which they accepted with bitter nods.

The service could have been much simpler, and probably nobody -- if very few -- would complain. Some would argue that it is this sort of approach that helps THY stand out as a first league airline, but I will not at all be impressed, because the latest debate on its policy of alcohol service and new uniforms seems to be the wrong focus -- a useless distraction, from real priorities.

I was worried at first, not certain whether the decision was made on the new dress code, those freak uniforms, as displayed some days ago. What is wrong with the current ones, I don't know. Some foreign passengers I asked were of the same opinion; in their current elegant simplicity, the uniforms were widely accepted, seemingly appreciated. No problem.

Then came the announcement that the airline has decided to stop serving alcohol in business class on all domestic flights except six destinations (İstanbul, Ankara, İzmir, Bodrum, Dalaman, Antalya) and on eight international flights. The ultra-secular camp reacted to this with a loud “Aha, haven't we told you so” outcry, while the conservative pundits took the official clarification by THY without rational criticism, basing their arguments on the widely applied “Well, there is no demand” line. Flights to eight international destinations would be without alcohol service since it was those countries that demanded it to be so, they added.

One may see the ultra-secular outcry as exaggerated, immature, too political, but there are also some flaws in the way THY and conservative pundits argue for limitations of service. To shape company policies on vaguely measured demands (questionnaires, surveys?) is risky, if you are in an aggressive global game for expansion with an aim to compete among the best in this business.

THY as of January is carrying 23 percent more passengers than last year, flying to 98 countries. Foreign passengers are choosing the airline in greatly increasing numbers. As I indicated before, I can understand the short flights having a limited service and, in those that lack business class, no alcoholic beverages. But in destinations that attract tourists in all seasons -- beaches, trekking, spas or skiing -- and businesspeople, particularly those with 90-plus minutes' flight time, alcohol service must be available as an option.

Turkey's drive for globalization has been admired for over a decade. It is a country that, being already diverse, should strive more for tolerance and mutual respect. It is flourishing in the free market, so it must endorse freedom of choice in consumption everywhere without discrimination. THY is also the symbol of Turkey's impressive opening to the world. It must have a smart balance between modern and conservative. Its messages, by way of policy choices, are very important. They should be gentle and intelligent. Seeking shelter in the “demand” argument will fail to convince.

The same applies to uniforms. Those displayed as new choices lack the value of minimal esthetics. They should be simple, smart and comfortable. But they should also give room to the diversity of the new Turkey: headscarf wearing among staff should be free/optional; display a rich blend.

THY is a powerful, valuable global brand. It should not lose any of this because of hasty, ill-considered, confusing, irritating steps.

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