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AA - BA in J to Istanbul (new airport) + St. Regis

AA - BA in J to Istanbul (new airport) + St. Regis

Old May 28, 19, 2:14 pm
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Join Date: Apr 2000
Location: Palm Beach/ New England
Programs: AA EXP 3MM, DL GM, Marriott Platinum
Posts: 3,919
AA - BA in J to Istanbul (new airport) + St. Regis

AA - BA in J (Business/ Club) to Istanbul (new airport) + St. Regis Istanbul

TL; DR -- AA and BA continue to have a decent hard product in Business/ Club but with several opportunities for improvement, rating 7/10; St. Regis Istanbul gets 8/10.

I was thrilled last winter to find multiple "U" (international business) availability options for this trip to Turkey, burning 57,500 AA points per ticket each way. I also redeemed an old-program, week-long Marriott travel package voucher for one room (one week) at the St. Regis Istanbul. I then paid cash for a second room for an additional guest. These redemptions kept the costs for a high-season trip to Europe to a minimum.

AA MCI-CLT-JFK domestic First Class
Check-in at MCI was pleasant despite the early hour. All four boarding cards were printed, including the LHR-IST segment on BA. My Turkish electronic visa (ironically, delivered as a printed copy) was closely examined and the number was entered into the ticketing agent computer. My colleague who originated elsewhere but was on the same flights from JFK-LHR-IST was not asked at all about his Turkish visa. More on that later.

MCI-CLT: full bar PDB offered. Drinks continually refreshed throughout the flight. Light bite breakfast sandwich served. Flight was efficient and uneventful. The recently renovated concourse B club at CLT was clean and quiet midday. The usual light snacks and soups were available. The CLT airport and its B club looks much nicer during bright daylight hours than during my normal evening connections -- also less crowded and hectic. CLT-JFK -- no PDB, otherwise fine service. No problems on either flight with a standard-US-sized rollaboard.

AA100, JFK-LHR
My colleague and I walked to the Flagship complex in the A concourse of JFK terminal 8. Checked with the AAngels about upgrading to Flagship First, but they noted that mileage awards are not upgradeable even with SWUs (I think I knew this, but worth a try). We were directed toward the business section (although I am entitled as EXP to the first section). This large Business Class lounge was at capacity but well-managed. French Champagne and constant snack refreshes noted. The staff were courteous and mostly quiet. One cleaner used a trash can in the open lounge to clean off dishes, often banging them against the adjacent wall in the process.

Boarding was smooth and on-time. Standard international PBDs offered from a tray. After the door closed, the purser made an almost theatrical PA that someone had smoked in a lavatory. The door was re-opened, and after a series of further public announcements (about smoking and when it was disallowed on US carriers; about safety; about this unfortunate delay which was not truly a delay as Heathrow opens only at 6am), the offender was ordered to gather belongings and deplane. We pushed, one hour late. The first pass through J was nuts and drinks, the second pass was the full meal tray. Refills offered throughout the night. No Fast Track card was offered however, which I noticed only after deplaning at LHR Terminal 3.

My continued gripe about AA-BA connections (which comprise at least 50% of my international connections) is the terminal switch. The bus is simply annoying, and the bag-recheck also redundant. This trip, a particularly petulant agent insisted that all liquids (including those that were in the inbound amenity kit) be combined into a small, plastic 'Zip-Loc' style bag. A few items are inevitably missed (US pre-check customers, aka most US frequent flyers, are not subject to this separate liquids check), and this righteous dude confiscated several items, necessitating an immediate visit to Boots. Huge waste of time and needlessly irritating.

BA 676, LHR-IST (Istanbul new airport)
Galleries First lounge served a hearty English breakfast. The showers featured a one-hour wait. The shower cubicles are overdue for a replacement -- they look like something out of cold war West Germany. LHR Terminal 5, despite its young-ish age, feels too crowded, especially around the A gates which compete with the "high street" shopping pathway. Nevertheless the terminal is kept tidy -- I observed a dirty diaper that had been abandoned near Fortnum & Mason as it was promptly removed. Istanbul boarding was smoothly managed despite some agent eyeing of my cabin bags, and boarding via jetway revealed 12 rows -- 48 of us -- in Club Europe.

No PDBs in Club Europe, but service began almost immediately after 10,000 feet. Only six salads were catered, so those of us in rows 5 and beyond chose among pasta and chicken. I enjoyed the "British roast chicken" with broad beans -- would order it again. Why we no longer see the broad green ("Romano" or sometimes "Italian") beans in the US is a puzzle -- they were common in my 1970s childhood, and I prefer this variety to the "haricots verts" kind, which now dominate US grocers. Cheerful service and drink refills for the 3.5 hour trek to Istanbul. One question: do Club Europe rows 1-4 have more pitch than 5+ ? I was in row 5 outbound and row 4 return, and row 4 felt noticeably roomier (may have been a 737 outbound, definitely an A320 return).

We approached the new airport via a long, slow arc over the Black Sea. The airport landscaping has not yet completed, so the runways and taxiways appeared as pavement strips in the sand. We arrived at a close-in jetway gate (no bus), and exited quickly through immigration (cursory glance at visa, no scan) and customs to our waiting black car service. I used an airport ATM, which required a 37.5 Lira fee, lowering my effective exchange rate by 10 basis points. We made it into the Macka Park neighborhood in 45 minutes on Ramadan-emptied roads.

St. Regis Istanbul
Overall, a superior hotel. Not sure if it rates the same ranking as the Four Seasons which we visited once for lunch. But the St. Regis is certainly one of the nicer hotels in the city, and its location cannot be beat. I was offered only a view upgrade on my points room, and likewise the same category on the cash room. The hotel had 40% occupancy per a talkative waiter, but the suites (2 per floor) appeared occupied when I walked around the hotel that night. The assigned "superior" rooms were more than satisfactory; the carpeting could use a refresh. The staff were all attentive. The 140 Lira breakfast was hearty, if repetitive over the course of a week. As appears to be the custom in Turkey, most prices were negotiable. This extended to services arranged by the concierge. Sometimes, these negotiated prices were unilaterally changed (always later and always upward), which caused extra work at checkout. The nickel-and-dime mentality also extended to the Bazaar and shopping generally. One fixed price exception -- the high quality grocer just uphill from the hotel entrance.

Taxis were also a challenge. Several well-known taxi scams were attempted. Some problematic Uber drivers (about half of the drivers we summoned in our week-long experience) also encountered -- cancellations, non-moving vehicles, endless questioning within the app. New for me was an Uber scam where the driver insisted he had not received payment from Uber upon arrival... Fortunately, we were able to show the doorman that payment was reflected within the Uber app. Over time, as these markets mature, I hope that ride-sharing and back-end payments (without any cash changing hands) will put an end to these obstacles to easy transportation. We were three people travelling together, but I can see how a single woman might be intimidated by some of these tactics.

The spa at the St. Regis was pleasant, with several small plunge pools. I wonder if this arrangement precluded a roof deck pool. The Spago outlet up top was quite fun -- and a 15% discount for hotel guests made it an easy choice some evenings. Another great option nearby: the restaurant Develi, opposite the back of the hotel. Despite what my guide books say, 10% tipping appears to be expected at Istanbul restaurants nowadays.

BA675, IST-LHR
We departed with the same black car sedan driver as our arrival -- at 6am, so before breakfast. Checkout took 15 minutes with only one agent in the lobby. Then 45 minutes again out to the distant new airport. The driver dropped us in the outermost lane on the departures (upper) level near doorway 6 for BA -- not sure if that was the only lane available for private car services. After securing a luggage cart, we entered the terminal. Fortunately, I had printed copies of all three ticket receipts, which were carefully examined by a lane dragon guarding a stanchion for pre-ticketing X-ray. (first of three X-rays that morning). She appeared initially to refuse us as BA customers (Turkish only, I understood her to say -- Turkish Airlines? Turkish language? Turkish passports?). But she relented -- this was clearly the nearest X-ray to the BA ticket counter "island M". Unsolicted, I offered our printed Turkish e-visas -- not examined.

We were checked-in, after some clucking about our standard-size rollaboards. They had fit handily on the way to IST, but this is a constant struggle with many European carriers. Immigration and a second X-ray followed, but this time we were herded well to the other side of the terminal for the BA lanes. I offered the Turkish visas -- not examined. Then backtracking toward our departure (bus) among the A gates, we stopped briefly at the shared IGA lounge. No Champagne was available, and a meager food offering (it was now almost 7:30am) encouraged us to head to the gate.

At the hectic bus gate, a third luggage examination ensued. This one more intrusive than the first two. I offered the Turkish visas -- not examined. In fact, they were taken from my hand and discarded in the trash! Boarding was first two zones on the first bus, remaining zones on the second and final bus. We just made the first bus, so I would advise passengers on the BA675 (listed departure time of 8:20am) to arrive at the airport by 6:30am at the latest. At 6:45am, we were a bit harried. A failed APU meant a 10-minute delay for remote engine start. No PBDs, but the usual excellent service once in the air. Drinks served right until we were over the Thames.

AA105, LHR-JFK
The manic terminal change happened again, this time in reverse. And if I thought the Terminal 5 shopping area was crowded, Terminal 3 is positively packed like sardines. The area where duty free tobacco is sold struck me as obsessively shaming -- down a dark alley like buying booze in Arabia. The AA Flagship Lounge was pleasant and well-stocked if not inspiring, and the AAngels helped (after some pushing) to get my colleague re-ticketed to the LHR-MIA nonstop (from a JFK layover). (AAdvantage was requested to open up a single U class seat).

My AA105 to JFK boarded on time. These Terminal 3 gate waiting areas are downright depressing however, especially compared to T5. I hope AA can move over to T5 someday soon. The flight was excellent, with service coming in a paced manner -- nuts and drinks then appetizer on the tray then the main course -- drinks refilled throughout. JFK arrival was easy, thanks to an orange flight coupon envelope waiting for me at the jetway (new benefit to EXP?). It allowed me to exit the automated passport question area right to an immigration agent at the far end of the holding room. No checked luggage, and I was soon back in the Flagship lounge complex.

This time I turned right to the Flagship First lounge (NB, not the Flagship Dining section -- that is actually accessible through the Business Lounge area), and I regretted it quickly. The noise was far too loud -- the door behind the bar to the shared complex kitchen was propped ajar, and staff were banging dishes in preparation for the afternoon rush. Unable to find a quiet spot, I walked to the far concourse and the domestic Admirals Club near my gate for my onward domestic flights. Both domestic legs were well executed, with PDBs, plenty of room overhead for my rollaboard, and ontime arrivals, so that I completed the whole return journey in one calendar day.
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