This is part 19 in a series about my summer 2017 trip, which took me to Norway, the Netherlands, and Malta. You can read an overview of the trip here.
Yes, it’s already been 2.5 months since I got back but I’m finally reaching the conclusion of my long between-jobs journey through Europe. Malta really isn’t that hard a connection to the US. You can get to JFK in under 13 hours via London, Paris, Dusseldorf, Munich, Zurich, Frankfurt, Vienna, or Rome. Alas for me it would be a 17.5 hr journey. Since I rebooked my return fairly close-in, there weren’t a ton of options using miles, but I was able to get a ticket in business class from Malta to New York via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines. I have been intentionally avoiding Turkish Airlines because of the repressive regime it is a part of, which has used the airline as part of its propaganda regime. (More on that later.) Unfortunately, I didn’t have many options for getting home. I had actually flown Turkish once before – all the way back in 2010 on a short hop from Istanbul to Budapest (pre-blog). I remember thinking the soft product was great, and it still was. As for the hard product, on the short Malta-Istanbul leg it was great, but it’s a bit outdated. One thing I was concerned about ended up a non-issue – Turkish flights from Istanbul were covered by the odd short-lived “no electronics larger than a phone” ban by the US Government. Turkish had been offering loaner laptops and a gate laptop check service I was prepared to take advantage of, but while I was traveling the policy was released. I’ll discuss the security protocol at IST in the next post. Now, on with it.
The cheap transfer I had booked back to the airport in Malta arrived right on time at the Radisson Blu St. Julian’s 7:50am, and despite two other pickups and some traffic, I was at Malta International Airport at 8:30am. Turkish doesn’t have a particularly large presence at the airport, but along with Emirates, it carries a lot of Asia-bound passengers, as they are the only flights that head that direction (and Emirates’ flight stops in Larnaca in Cyprus; also, technically Air Malta flies to Tel Aviv but I don’t think there’s much connecting traffic there). There was a huge group using the priority check-in lane, and then a second large group with a ton of A/V equipment to check using the economy lane, but eventually I made my way up and dropped my bag all the way through to JFK and got a lounge invitation.
I had “fast track” stamped on my boarding card but lines were sufficiently short that it didn’t provide any real advantage. Security dumped me out into duty free, and I made my way up an elevator to the one lounge at the airport – La Valette. The lounge was actually quite excellent. It accepts Priority Pass, and was one of the nicest Priority Pass lounges I’ve ever been to. It helped that I was literally the only passenger when I arrived, but I arrived just after the morning flights would have boarded (9 Air Malta ones alone!), and the only flights before mine were on Ryanair and Transavia.
The lounge was spotless and the staff was cleaning anyway. There were 5 staff members of the lounge who were pretty friendly, in addition to several cleaning staff members. It must have been very recently remodeled as you could smell the leather of the seating, which was in cream, brown and black. Overall the design was very chic and modern, yet luxurious. There was a lot of different seating styles, plentiful outlets, and good views of the runway – as well as an outdoor terrace. There was also a computer station with new apple computers.
As for food, it was fairly standard continental breakfast, though nicely presented. There were Lavazza espresso machines, and lots of muffins, breads, etc. I’d had a muffin in my hotel room and knew the day would be an orgy of food, so just had a cappuccino and a small egg on baguette.
One thing I did notice was a “High Altitude Lounge” off to the side behind a glass door. I wondered if perhaps airlines use it for First Class passengers (Emirates is the only carrier who flies a three-cabin plane to MLA, though), but also discovered online that you can buy a special membership for it, and can use it for meeting. Eventually, a family bound for Stockholm on the SAS flight after mine arrived using Priority Pass, but otherwise it was just me and the staff, so I sat for an hour and had some coffee, using the good lounge wi-fi.
I wasn’t sure how long I’d need to clear immigration, but not much. I left the lounge 10 minutes before boarding and whizzed through the Schengen departure desk- but you might need more time if you’re at a time with multiple UK-bound flights. The Non-Schengen area was much smaller than I’d expected, with three gates, a coffee shop, and a small duty-free shop, as well as a prayer room. There was ample seating, though it did get more crowded as folks started arriving for the Ryanair flight to Dublin.
The Istanbul flight does a quick turn in Malta, but it landed late, so it didn’t even start deplaning inbound passengers until 10:05 – a time when the delay really would have been helpfully posted before I left the lounge. Thankfully there was free airport wifi and I passed the time. (My note also indicate I was surprised by how many French speakers there were given how out of the way Istanbul is to reach France.) At 10:25, boarding began en masse, without any announcement, and we walked directly from the gate onto the tarmac outside, and up exterior stairs onto the 737-800.
Turkish has two kinds of 737s, some of which are configured like other intra-Europe carriers with business class only being a blocked middle seat in a row of economy. The one I was on, though, had a business class more similar to US carriers’ first – and actually a little nicer, more like some new premium economy products on long-haul, with recliner seats and in-seat USB and AC power. There was also a ton of legroom; each row was two windows. There were 4 rows of 4 seats, but there were only 2 other passengers besides me in the cabin. (Coach was about 2/3 full.)
Once boarding slowed, a flight attendant came to offer me headphones and a choice of water or one of three non-alcoholic juices. Oddly, no words were spoken. The FA did make up a full of about 12 glasses despite there only being three passengers.
This was followed by a cart with about 15 different newspapers which was offered to coach passengers as well. I perused a pamphlet about investing in the Turkish government, which was uncomfortable, as well as the Turkish magazine, which coincidentally had articles on both Oslo and Malta that month, as well as this propaganda:
There was a cute safety video featuring “Magician” Zach King (I didn’t know who he was either, but apparently a “Vine” star). For some reason it played twice. While we were still on the initial climb up, the flight attendant came and offered hot towels followed by a drink order, addressing me by name. Even though it was already afternoon in Istanbul and 11:30 in Malta, it was a breakfast service – which was quite substantial for a flight with under 2 hours flight time. I remember there being a menu in coach on my 2010 IST-BUD flight, so it was a bit of a surprise there wasn’t one on this flight – and it actually led to some confusion. Turkish uses DO & Co. catering, like Austrian, and is generally rated highly for its food. My experience was mixed.
First there was a deli plate of cheese and turkey and vegetables, with sides of yogurt, lox, and olives. What I thought was a piece of cheese was actually butter – which I realized after I popped the cube into my mouth. It was accompanied by both a sweet bread basket and a savory bread basket. The raisin croissant was particularly yummy. I also thought the little salt and pepper shakers were cute.
I was surprised that there was then a second course. They must have only catered two. One of the passengers had a special meal, and the guy in front of me had been asked what he wanted (in Turkish) and was brought something that looked very different, like eggs, with a bread. I wasn’t given any choices, and mine was like a spinach pie and a turnip or something and meh it was not very good. After dishes were cleared, I was brought a package of hazelnuts.
The remainder of the flight was uneventful. The magazine mentioned that in-flight wi-fi was free for business class passengers, but there wasn’t any on that flight. The service wasn’t very attentive, as the three FAs stayed in the forward galley with the curtain closed most of the flight. 20 mins before landing, I was told I had to turn my Kindle off, which was a first, but oh well. We were on the ground at 2:15pm, followed by a long taxi all the way to the end of the airport – a fifteen-minute trip to our parking spot. There was a dedicated bus for business class passengers that then took us on a 10-minute ride to the terminal, where I’ll pick up on the final post from this trip.