Why are flight schedules to Turkey so punishing?

Plane Talk: It’s all to do with what else is required from the plane

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Thursday 31 May 2018 17:57 BST
Worth a journey: The resort of Alanya, near Antalya in southern Turkey
Worth a journey: The resort of Alanya, near Antalya in southern Turkey (Simon Calder)

Seeing the sense behind flight schedules is usually straightforward. Between London and New York, for example, the dozens of daily departures range from early morning (5.50am, Gatwick-JFK, Norwegian) to mid-evening (8.10pm, Heathrow-JFK, Virgin Atlantic), with a bulge around the middle of the day. The flights at extremes cater for the specific requirements of people who need to get to New York really early or leave London really late, but most allow plenty of time to get to the departure airport and from the arrival gateway.

Yet coming back, apart from a handful of services between about 8am and 11am, departures don’t begin until 6pm – whereupon they are leaving sometimes every five or 10 minutes. That’s because the five-hour difference and 3,544-mile journey means your departure time from New York pm is roughly your arrival time in London am: leave at 8pm, arrive at 8am and so on.

No one wants to arrive in the UK at 3am (and, at Heathrow, airlines wouldn’t be allowed to schedule such a flight), so there’s no 3pm departure. It’s all about the passenger’s interests.

But Mark M describes the timetable of holiday flights to Turkish resorts as “awful”.

“When we fly to most European holiday destinations we can normally get a good choice of flight times. But for Turkey they’re always late night/early morning arrivals. Any reason for this?”

I set out to investigate, starting with the schedules for next Saturday from Britain’s top holiday airports, Gatwick and Manchester, to Dalaman and Antalya – the two leading Turkish holiday gateways.

Of the total of 14 departures, almost all are in a band between 2pm and 9pm. With a flying time of four hours-plus, and the two-hour time difference with Turkey, that implies an arrival time from 8pm to beyond 3am – not at all convenient if you have a two-hour transfer to your resort.

The two exceptions are both Manchester-Dalaman flights; easyJet at 6.05am and Thomas Cook at 8am, which means an uncomfortably early start.

The same pattern emerges for all the other UK airports I have tried, including Bristol, Birmingham, East Midlands, Edinburgh, Leeds Bradford and Newcastle.

For comparison, on the same day, Gatwick offers 13 departures to Malaga alone, spread fairly evenly from 5.45am on easyJet to 8.20pm on Norwegian.

So why is there no departure to Antalya or Dalaman at, say, 10am? Such a flight would provide plenty of time to reach the airport, and an arrival in Turkey around 4pm. The inbound passengers would be grateful, too, with a homeward flight at perhaps 5.30pm, touching down before 8pm.

I reckon it is all to do with what else is required from the plane. Airlines like to get the first wave of departures going at 6am or 7am. A jet can make it comfortably to Alicante, Malaga or Faro and back by about 1pm. So 2pm or 3pm is a good time to get going to Turkey, with the inbound plane getting home around midnight.

During the summer, ideally the aircraft should work even harder, and be earning money all through the night. So airlines can slot in another Iberian round trip during the afternoon, making the plane ready for a 9pm departure to Turkey – and bringing it back by about 7am ready for the next day’s operation.

The problem is: no one likes arriving blearily at a foreign airport at 3am. The thinking seems to be that people who are choosing Turkey for their holidays are (a) resigned to a long flight, and (b) price sensitive, and therefore more prepared to tolerate overnight travel in return for a good deal.

Tim Jeans, former commercial director of Ryanair and managing director of Monarch, says another factor can come into play on longer flights: crew hours.

"With an early departure, flight time limitations can come into play," he says, "whereas an afternoon departure gives airlines and their crewing departments more flexibility."

But Mark’s question triggers another issue: is there a market for a “civilised” departure to a Turkish holiday airport?

Possibly. I have studied the flight pattern to the island of Cyprus, which is essentially the same distance. The Saturday departure schedule to Larnaca and Paphos from Gatwick and Manchester follows the same basic pattern: mostly afternoon/evening flights, with a few early morning departures.

Yet British Airways has a departure from Gatwick to Larnaca at 12.10pm and to Paphos at 12.55pm, each arriving in good time for dinner, with the corresponding inbound flights getting home before midnight.

If the strong demand to Turkey continues through the summer, BA may decide to try something similar for 2019.

Until that happens, my advice is to make a virtue of necessity and build in a stop in Istanbul. Fares on Turkish Airlines and Pegasus are, like the timings, generally friendly. From the London airports, they offer five departures between 10.35am and around noon. Or save a day (and a night’s accommodation) by catching the midnight plane from Stansted on Pegasus, arriving shortly before 6am in one of the greatest cities on earth – an option that I would choose over a 3am touchdown anywhere.

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