Summer strain on airlines worsens delays, overbooking woes in Turkey

Left without a seat on the plane, airline passengers sometimes have to wait at İstanbul Atatürk Airport, the largest of its kind in Turkey, for hours for the next flight they are assigned, which may also be delayed. (PHOTO Sunday’s Zaman, Mehmet Ali Poyraz)

July 08, 2012, Sunday/ 12:26:00

The flying world over, the summer strain of tourist season has for decades meant lengthy flight delays and endless frustrations over overbooked flights, two practices which are made worse in Turkey by the lack of a national set of passenger rights for the beleaguered traveler. 

Regular delays and overbooking proved the perfect storm for a poor customer experience with Turkish Airlines (THY) for customer Ercan Adil, who waited through one of the airline’s notorious “scheduled delays,” which see over 40 percent of flights delayed, only to find out that the flight had been overbooked. Left without a seat on the plane, Adil had to wait at İstanbul Atatürk Airport for over four hours for the next flight, which was then also delayed.

“First the flight to Adana was delayed for 40 minutes. As I waited, I learned that the plane had been overbooked and that I was moved to the next flight, three hours later. I waited, only to learn that this flight had also been delayed for a half hour! I waited four and a half hours,” he said. “I know not everybody has this experience, but it was unacceptable. I had family to visit and lost so much time.”

Adil’s story is more common than Turkey’s domestic and international carriers would like to admit, with the near universal -- and universally loathed -- airline practice of overbooking, or selling more tickets than seats in anticipation of no-shows, rattling the nerves of customers already coping with Atatürk International’s inevitably delayed summer traffic. The airport, Turkey’s largest, has struggled to meet its new role as a domestic and international hub, much less as the de facto gateway for the estimated 11.6 million tourists who will flock to İstanbul this tourist season. According to an April study by FlightStats, a provider of worldwide flight data, Atatürk Airport leads Europe in flight delays and is second in the number of cancellations, registering 2,948 delays and 180 cancellations in just one week in April. Turkish Airlines, which uses the airport as its hub for both international and domestic flights, unsurprisingly wracked up the most delayed and cancelled flights, accounting for a third of the delays and 156 of the 180 cancellations during the week FlightStats studied. Other, smaller-scale carriers hardly fared better, however, and even German airline Lufthansa -- which registers some of the highest numbers for punctuality on FlightStats -- registered an overall “poor performance” for the half hour wait average on all İstanbul flights.

The delays, Turkish Airlines Chairman Hamdi Topçu agrues, come at airlines’ as well as customers’ expense. Speaking to the press after the April FlightStats report was released, Topçu said that the company had lost $10 million in 2011 because of delays and cancellations rooted in the capacity problems at the airport, forcing the airline to compensate passengers for hotel rooms and meals. Topçu suggested that Atatürk be expanded by the turning over of an adjoining military airport, which he believes would solve the airport’s capacity problem.

Overbooking overload

While improving capacity may be a simple matter of expanding the runways, another chief source of frustration may be more difficult to solve. Nearly every airline openly admits that it overbooks flights with the expectation what some passengers will not show up, providing food vouchers, a ticket for the next fligh, and traditionally cash compensation for those who may be denied boarding because of the practice.

The ubiquity of overbooking hardly consoled recent Onurair flyer Murat Öztürk, who found himself forced to wait for a flight two hours after his original flight from İstanbul to İzmir. “There wasn’t even a choice. I and five others were just told that we didn’t have seats on the plane.” Öztürk says he missed the last bus to his village and had to stay the night in Trabzon, an expense Onurair declined to cover. Despite recognizing the frustrations of customers like Öztürk, airlines traditionally refuse to release statistics about the number of persons bumped from their flights.

In the European Union, one way overbooking has been discouraged is by requiring airlines to provide compensation in the hundreds of euros who are bumped from even frequent, short-distance flights. But while Turkish Airlines and other Turkey-based carriers comply with those regulations in Europe, they rarely offer financial compensation for domestic or non-Europe international flights. “They don’t give any compensation for this; they just gave me food while I was in the airport,” says flyer Irmak Kartal, who was bumped from a Turkish Airlines flight last year. “They make millions every year, but they can’t be bothered to compensate you for the wait. It is bad business.”

Indeed, given that Turkish Airlines recorded an operating profit of $185 million and a net profit of $10.3 million in 2011, it may be hard to justify the airline’s use of a practice pioneered by a bankruptcy-hobbled American airline industry that has lost $60 billion over the last decade alone. Frustrated customers like Kartal say as much, stating that “solving these problems matters because frequent delays and getting bumped from flights will make a customer choose another airline next time.”

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