Nightmare and Narrow Escape at İstanbul Sabiha Gökçen International Airport

We took a flight via Turkish Airlines from Kuala Lumpur to Ataturk, and stayed a night in Istanbul for transit. On the next day, we flew from the second Airport in Istanbul, Sabiha Gökçen International Airport to Milan. We chose this flight for two reasons, it was significantly cheaper, after considering the additional hotel and transport cost, and we could have a short stopover in Istanbul to have a look at the city at night.

After checked in at Sabiha Airport, we walked to the passport control counters, and we were shocked at the view of long queue. The photo below would speak the words :

The queue was almost as long as the airport, it went from almost one end of the airport to the other end. We were talking about hundreds of people queueing to enter passport control counters. We needed to catch out flight in 1.5 hours, the view of this extra ordinary long queue raised an alarm.

Yes, it started with an alarm, and as we tried to find ways to catch our flight, it turned into nightmare ! At one point, we felt so hopeless that we could miss the flights.

We tried to seek help from a few airport officers who were standing near the queue and looking at the crowd. They all turned deaf ears against us. All they said were, "Just line up."  Finally, one officer said, "Which is your airlines, go to the check in counter to ask for help."  And so we did, we went back to Turkish Airline check in counter, showing our tickets and the limited time we had. Disappointedly, all she said was, "Just queue up the line." (Hint: I knew later that you could ask for Fast Track Pass from the counter. However, it may not always be helpful.)

Then, we saw there was a Fast Track Lane. However, there was no information on any board explaining how we could get into this Fast Track Lane. Then, I heard someone saying that you could buy something from the adjacent shop to get a Fast Track card / pass in order to use the Fast Track Lane.  So, we tried. Unfortunately, the shopkeeper said they have given out all the Fast Track Card.

So, we went back to the very long, normal queue again, and we did the worst thing we could do, jump queue, excusing ourselves and squeezing throught the crowd, showing our boarding passes. Some travellers allow us through, some blocked us. So, we could only go a certain distance.

When we were near enough to see the Passport control counters, we saw that only ONE counter was opened, to serve these hundreds of people ! So, that was the culprit.

Then, thanked God, after seemed like ages, a few more counters opened. Not all. Only 3 out of 5 counters. And the queue started to move faster. In half an hour, we managed to get through the Passport control counters.

(When we were near the counters, we saw the officers were not trying to make things faster for us. They were seen chit chatting to each others, and checking the passport at ease.)

(The Fast Track Counter was not moving at all, or moving so slowly that it didn't look like it was moving. Only one Fast Track counter was serving. Our normal queue line was much faster.)

Then, we had to go through the security checks. After the security checks, we only had 15 minutes before our flight departure. So, we ran as fast as we could. And we reached the boarding gate 10 minutes before departure time. The officer was kind enough to accept us. Right behind us was a family of three. They were initially rejected, the officer said, "Gate closed."  After some pleading, they managed to go through. We boarded the bus which were bringing us to the plane. When the officer joint us at the bus, we could still see people running to the counter which were closed, and unmanned.

Thank God for our narrow escape.

Next time, if we had to take Turkish Airlines with transit in Istanbul, we will do the following :

1. Get off the plane and go as quickly as we can to the transit gate.
2. If we are going to airport from hotel, be at the airport at least 3 hours before flight departure time
3. Get the Fast Track Card from Check in Counter.
4. Ataturk Airport has 2 passport control entrances, check on both to choose the shorter queue.

Jan 2017 : Snowstorm in Istanbul causing chaos in Ataturk Istanbul Airport and Turkish Airlines

On 6th of Jan, 2017, I was taking a flight via Turkish Airlines from Stockholm to Kuala Lumpur, transitting in Istanbul.  The departure was on time, and the flight was smooth, not much turbulence. However, thirty minutes before arrival, I saw on my screen, the aeroplane was turning in circle. Then, the plane went straight passed Istanbul airport.

There was still no announcement from the pilot.  It gave me a brief scare, thinking of MH370. A few rows down my seat, suddenly, I saw a passenger pressing the button calling the stewardess. He repeated the button pressing a few times, before I saw a stewardess walking towards him. After exchanging a few words, I saw stewardess walking towards the front cabin.

Then, we heard the announcement in Turkish language from the pilot, followed by a shorter message in English language.  Our plane has been diverted to Samsun airport due to snowstorm in Istanbul. Samsun airport is about 1 hour flight away from Istanbul.

We landed at Samsun airport safely. The weather was fine, no snow, no rain, and temperature was about 20 deg C.  Upon arrival, we were asked to wait in the plane for about 1 hour, before we were asked to bring our hand luggages down the plane. There was no announcement on what will happen after we left the plane. We presumed we will be informed.

Problem 1 :  Visa payment

While queueing up the passport control line, I saw a few passengers having problems with visa payment.  They were transitting and did not expect to pay visa. But now they have to fork out their own money to pay for the visa, so as to enter Turkey. They are hoping Turkish Airlines will compensate them on that, but it has not been the case.

Problem 2 : No announcement

Upon picking up our luggages, I was hoping there is announcement on what we should do next. There wasn't.  A few Turkish Airlines officer are seen to entertain customer individually. So, not knowing what to do, I approached him, telling him that I have missed my connecting flight. He led me to Turkish Airlines counter down the hall.  At the counter, the officer said that we will  be brought to the hotel, and our expenses will be covered by the airlines.  They could have made these process easier by making announcement, asking all the passenger to board the bus outside the arrival hall, to travel to the hotel they have arranged.  It was not clear.

A bus conductor came and brought us to the bus, where we saw many passengers were already boarding the bus, while some were still waiting for empty buses to come.

There were a few buses waiting there, and nobody told us which bus to board.  So, we jump on the next available bus, assuming that all the buses are the same. It was 3am in the morning, there wouldn't be other buses coming to fetch people at this wee hours in the morning, would they ? So, we acted based on our assumption since there was no Turkish Airlines officer to be seen  for a long time until we are already in the bus.  For those waiting for more information, they are left waiting on the road for later buses to arrive.

After 45 minutes drive, we arrive at the Samsun city centre, and the hotel. It was a 3 star hotel - Amisos. The hotel reception was very efficient.  He made a copy of our passport, write down our room number and immediately pass us the room key. So the queue was not very long, and we could unwind in our room.

Problem 3 :  Snowstorm continues in Istanbul and we were not given information in the hotel

After a good night sleep and morning breakfast, we thought that the Airlines would contact us. It was a quiet day. Nobody contacted us. So, I googled for Istanbul weather and learnt that snowstorm continued on the 7th and 8th Jan, and all flights are cancelled. Then, there were a few hours of cloudy, no snow weather on 8th Jan which gave me some hope. I also saw some flights taking off from Ataturk Airport webpage below :

Ataturk Istanbul Airport Flight Info 

Then, I visited Turkish Airlines facebook page. There were so many people who similar fate as me. Some were far worst, below are the list of incidents :

1. They are left waiting for long hours in airport without food or drinks.  After a while, I saw some passenger thanked for the sandwich.
2. They find their own hotel, pay for their hotel, food, and taxi to airport.
3. They call the airlines numbers given, noone answer the phone.
4. All emails sent are ignored.
5. Facebook messages were replied with cut and paste apologetic messages. Though some got private messages replied.
6. Public post on Turkish Airlines facebook messages were hiden.
7. People rebooked their flight but failed to get e-ticket, due to system down or overloaded.
8. People rebooked their flights many times, but failed.
9. For my case, I received an email and sms asking me to cancel for full refund or rebook my flight online or call the general line. When I tried to rebook it online, I was not allowed too. If that's case, why send me the email or sms, asking me to rebook ? The messages are very confusing and contradictory.
10. Istanbul airport is packed with people with super long queue, trying to reach the counter to rebook ticket, ask for flight info, ask for hotel accomodation, etc.
11. If customers take connecting flights from different airlines, they have to rebook those flights separately. And if the rebooked flights are cancelled, they have to rebook all the flights again, which can incur more and more cost.
12. Some managed to checked in at airport, then the flights were cancelled. And many have problem retrieving their checked-in luggages. After a long wait, they have to retire to hotel with no luggages and that lasted for a few days. They have no extra clothes to wear at the hotel. A passenger wore the same shirt for 4 days!
13. Then, some got lucky, and managed to fly, either to their intended destination, or a town nearby.
The subsequent problem was, their luggages did not arrive. The luggage handling system was in a mess. Probably the workers are overworked or the system was down and lack of proper tracking. A passenger reported that in Berlin, 100 passengers arrived with 300 baggages !
14. Some rerouted their destination, and managed to fly and arrived at a town not too far away, and took a train home after paying hotel, taxi and train at their own cost.

Turkish Airlines Facebook Customers' Cry

Turkish Airlines Flight Cancellation

Turkish Airlines Flight Cancellation Link

It just showed that Turkish Airlines and Ataturk Airport are not ready to handle the emergency situation.

With 400 flights cancelled a day, starting from 7th - 9th Jan, that would be 3 days. So, I presume 1200 flights were cancelled. Assuming there are an average of 200 passengers per flight, that would be 240,000 passengers with flight cancellation and rebooking/refund problems.

The amount of work peaked in such short time. The Airport staff, Airlines staff are overloaded, The airline system is also overloaded with sudden increase in work, hence going down.

To make the matter worst, the weather in Istanbul is not following the forecast. Rebooked flights are cancelled and requires rebooking. And the circle of problems go on and on.

The runway for aeroplane have been cleared up by thousands of workers and lots of trucks, but only limited runways are available.  And then, the snowstorm started again.

It is madness !

Snow in Istanbul :