As I write this blogpost, I am in Instanbul trying to get on a flight to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. I flew in to Istanbul on Friday, with my onward flight to Ouagadougou scheduled for Saturday evening (7th January). But, as we landed in Istanbul on Friday evening we realised that the city was being hit by heavy snow. In fact, the conditions on Friday evening were sufficiently bad that the pilot aborted his landing and took a second attempt to land.
Saturday I woke up to continued heavy snow. I tried to find out what was happening about my flight via the hotel where I was staying, but no information was forthcoming. So, I made my way to the airport, only to be met by utter chaos. Thousands of people were stranded at the airport, with nearly all outbound flights cancelled. I was instructed at the check-in desk to join a queue to get my ticket changed for the next available flight. This queue stretched at least 400 metres, and it took over 4 hours to reach the counter to get my flight re-booked.
I was told that there was no available flight the following day (Sunday), but that I was re-booked on the same flight to Ouagadougou on Monday evening (9th January). I was then told that Turkish Airlines would provide me with accommodation, and to join another queue down in the arrival area to be allocated my hotel. I then joined this second queue, about 250 metres long, and waited another 3 hours to reach the front of it.
In groups of 40-50 we were led outside into the driving snow, each of us carrying our luggage (which could not be dragged as there was too much snow on the ground), to a coach/bus which took us to a hotel. In all I spent about 8 hours on my feet queueing at the airport, with no information forthcoming from Turkish Airlines. They did come along the queue on two occasions with sandwiches and refreshments, but no tokens were given to use any of the food outlets at the airport.
On Saturday I was taken to the Best Western hotel in Istanbul. Everyone poured off the bus and then there was an almighty scrum at the reception to get rooms. I eventually got mine, by which time it was gone 11pm, and collapsed on my bed. We were told at reception, as we checked in, that a meal would be available in the restaurant, so despite my tiredness I went down to eat as I had barely eaten since breakfast.
I spent most of Sunday relaxing, trying to recover from the physical and emotional rigours of the previous day. Snow continued to fall throughout Saturday and Sunday, and it is clear that Istanbul is not really geared for coping with snow. I cannot criticise this too much, as cities in the Disunited Kingdom are not either, snow is such a rare event that it is not worth investing the money in too much snow clearing equipment. So, the roads near the hotel were not cleared, and neither were the pavements (sidewalks), making it impossible to walk around. I just decided to stay in the warm of the hotel and try to relax.
It was still snowing on Monday morning, by this time I would say about 15cm (6 inches) of snow had accumulated. In the morning I tried to find out whether my flight to Ouagadougou was going to be departing or not. Again, the hotel were not able to find out any information for me from Turkish Airlines. In addition, a promised shuttle bus to take we stranded passengers to the airport never materialised, so I had to get a taxi there, making sure I got a receipt which I will claim back from Turkish Airlines.
My initial impression when I got to Ataturk airport on Monday was that things looked more hopeful than they had on Saturday. Looking at the departure board, there were far fewer cancelled flights. So, in great expectation, I went to the check in desk. I was told that they did not know whether my flight would be leaving or not, and to go to a different desk to find out. I went to that desk, to be told that the system was down and they could not tell me either.
I then found a Turkish Airlines representative who was able to tell me that she felt there was a 90% chance that my flight would be cancelled. She gave me a piece of paper with a number for Turkish Airlines which I could call to reschedule/rebook my flight, instead of queuing as I had done on Saturday. As the queue was already as long as it had been on Saturday, I decided to accept her 90% probability and try to immediately join the queue to get yet another hotel for Monday night.
The queue for accommodation was as long as it had been on Saturday, so after about 3 hours of queuing I finally reached the front and got led to another waiting bus. Except, this bus was further from the terminal than the one that I had been led to on Saturday, and no snow had been cleared since Saturday, requiring me and others to carry heavy cases for about 300 metres through 15cm of snow. No help was provided by Turkish Airlines or the airport in getting our luggage to the buses. Luckily I was travelling alone, I cannot imagine how I would have managed it had I been travelling with young children, as I have done in the past, and as many were on Saturday.
Unlike on Saturday, on Monday I did not see anyone come around at any time with any sandwiches or refreshments. I was told by other passengers that most of the Turkish Airlines flights out of Ataturk on Monday had been cancelled. One guy that I spoke to had been delayed since Friday, so I guess he was in an even worse position than I was.
Once again we were whisked off in the bus, this time to a different hotel. We all piled out of the hotel, the Point Hotel Taksim, and stood in a queue waiting to check in. 30 minutes later we still had not advanced, so I went to the front of the queue to find out what was happening.
I was told by the lady at reception that the hotel had been given no notice by Turkish Airlines that we were being dropped off there, and that she was trying to call them to find out what was going on. Another 30 minute later and we found out that we had been dropped off at the wrong hotel, and that we should be at the Grand Öztanik Hotel “nearby”. When I asked how nearby, I was told “about 400 metres”. So, again we trudged off with our suitcases, unable to pull them due to all the snow on the ground, and made our way to the correct hotel, which indeed was about 400 metres away.
Again, I was thankful that I was not travelling with small children, or such a trek would have been very very difficult. I joined the now-familiar scrum at the reception, and got myself a room. By this time it was nearly 10pm, and I had arrived at the airport at 3pm. I had not had a chance to call Turkish Airlines to re-book my ticket, I decided to leave it until later the following day (today, Tuesday 10th January), when they MAY know what on earth is going on with their flights.
We were told as we checked in that food would be available, so again I resisted the need to collapse on my bed when I got to my room, and made my way down to get something to eat. I then collapsed into bed, and this morning (Tuesday) I have woken up to see that the snow has stopped. I still don’t know whether I will be on a flight to Ouagadougou today or whether I will have to wait some more days. I tried calling the number given to me on the piece of paper at the airport yesterday, but no one is answering.
As anyone who has read my blog will know, I have been lucky enough to do quite a lot of travelling. In the last few years I have typically been taking 8-10 international flights a year. So far I guess I have been very lucky as this is, as far as I can remember, the first time that I have been delayed in any major way. What has surprised me is how badly prepared Ataturk airport and Turkish Airlines have been for this eventuality. I cannot understand how a major international airport does not have decent snow clearing equipment, and for Turkish Airlines to be so unable to give any information on cancelled flights it appalling.
The flight which I am trying to catch to Ouagadougou is scheduled to leave Ataturk each time it flies at 18:40. The incoming flight from Ouagadougou arrives in the morning, so I find it hard to believe that Turkish Airlines cannot tell me by 9 or 10am whether the evening flight is likely to leave or not. Certainly they should be able to tell me by 2 or 3pm, and yet they have not been able to. They really need to get their act together, or people like myself will stop flying with them.