Ask the pilot

What's more enjoyable than flying? A ride on a Turkish bus, of course.

By Patrick Smith
April 21, 2006 12:59PM (UTC)
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Every one of the contoured, softly upholstered chairs is immaculately groomed. Each has a leather headrest, tray table, cup holder, three-way adjustable footrest and coat hook. At the window seats, heavy fabric curtains help block the sun. The glass sparkles and the floor is vacuumed clean. Everything looks crisp, new and in perfect working order. We depart on time, and within an hour the attendant has come around twice, handing out snacks, coffee and tea. Later, after sunrise, there will be complimentary champagne.

One of those fancy foreign airlines I'm always going on about? Well, it could be that too. Except this time, I'm not on an airplane at all. I'm on a Turkish bus, speeding up the highway from Istanbul to Bulgaria.


Now, most of the world I have never seen, but I've been to enough places to confidently submit that there is nowhere else with a long-distance bus system quite like Turkey's. The nation has only a skeletal web of railroads, but a massive network of more than 120,000 modern, comfortable motor coaches, many of them designed and manufactured in-country, go everywhere and anywhere -- comfortably, reliably and inexpensively. If you've ever seen the mammoth otogars (stations) in Istanbul or Ankara, you have a sense of just how truly vast the system is. Inside these airport-size depots, miles of counter space are divided elbow-to-elbow among literally hundreds of independent operators, each with its own ticket stall. Garishly painted signs advertise each company's routes and departure times, while touts scour the crowds rounding up customers. "Izmir! Adana! Göreme!" There are enough billboards and hawkers to make you think each of Turkey's 70 million inhabitants has his own private bus line. For the tourist it's explosively colorful and a bit overwhelming, yet sensibly organized and easy to navigate.

And safe. It's no secret that Turkey is a world leader in traffic accidents, with about 400,000 wrecks annually. And, unfortunately, many people's perception of Turkish buses is drawn from the highway crash fantasies of Orhan Pamuk's "The New Life." But after four visits to Turkey, all featuring bus trips of one kind or another, I have witnessed no roadside carnage and can happily attest to the professionalism and courtesy of the nation's bus drivers. (Taxi drivers, on the other hand, are a totally different story.) Unless I've just been lucky, since according to a 2002 report from the U.S. State Department, Turkey's buses were involved in over 36,000 accidents that year alone.

There is no smoking on Turkish buses. Or, more accurately, only one person is allowed to smoke on a Turkish bus -- the driver. Which makes sense, maybe, since the last thing you want on such notoriously hazardous roads is a jittery driver in the throes of a nic fit. (That nobody else is permitted to smoke is nothing trivial in Turkey, where approximately 100 percent of the population over age 12 is addicted to tobacco.)


As elsewhere around the globe, air travel within Turkey is expanding rapidly. Turkish Airlines, the government-controlled national carrier, founded in 1933, is a highly respected operator with an ultramodern fleet and reasonable fares, but a growing number of upstarts are putting the pressure on. More than a dozen carriers -- Atlasjet, Onur Air, Pegasus, SunExpress -- have sprung up over the past 15 years, catering both to the local population and to the approximately 18 million vacationers, most of them European, who flock to the country's beaches and historical sites. What this means for the bus lines isn't really known, though effects are likely to be minimal. But strange as it might sound, it's the buses whose example the airlines ought to be striving to emulate, and not vice versa. The bus companies are clean, cheap, cordial and punctual. How many airlines nowadays can lay claim to all four of those adjectives? At Istanbul's Büyük otogar, settling into my Bulgaria-bound coach, noting its spotless decor and the many useful accouterments of my seat, the question that rushed to mind was: Why can't more airplanes be like this?

Granted I'm romanticizing to some extent. A bus is still a bus, even in Turkey. The seats are too small, the border crossings interminable, and that hostess dispensing drinks and snacks looked more depressed than a Comair stewardess just handed her furlough notice. But my emphasizing the unexpected pleasures of a journey by bus is to underscore the ever-worsening distresses of a journey by plane.

Historically, we've held the airplane in haughty regard over the lowly earthbound bus, but that gap has narrowed drastically. Not because bus travel is exciting and glamorous, but because air travel has sunk to such depravity. Our defeat of gravity, we thought, would soar us into a new and forever better realm of speed, efficiency and comfort. Decades later, the mad dichotomy of commercial flying is exposed: We step aboard insanely expensive machines that soar high above the Earth, crossing tens of thousands of miles at almost the speed of sound -- all in nearly perfect safety. Yet the experience is, for most fliers, somewhere between marginally tolerable and patently awful.


A substandard airline might be mockingly called "the Trailways of the skies," while a common knock on airports is that they're becoming more and more like bus terminals. What could be a more pitiful indictment? The thing is, more and more bus terminals in fact outshine a growing number of airports. Visit the bus annex to Boston's renovated South Station, for example, and compare it with JFK Airport's Terminal 3, or with the decrepit American Airlines departure lounges in Atlanta. Tell me, where would you rather be stuck for two hours?

On the other hand, we can easily argue that for planes to become more like buses is, at heart, a good and successful progression. One of the reasons flying used to be more luxurious and enjoyable is that only a privileged minority could afford it. Accessibility -- which is to say the reality of cheap fares for everyone -- does not excuse the airlines from attending to the basic tenets of customer service, but it does frame the comparison somewhat differently: Planes are more like buses? Of course they are, and good for that. Perhaps this is not the slow decay of air travel, but rather its ultimate realization.


And with that it's hard not to smile, or else flinch, when you consider the very name of the world's second-largest maker of commercial airplanes. In his book "The Airport," author James Kaplan describes the Airbus consortium's choice of a moniker as a "capitulation to the inevitable." It was, I suppose, as lousy a choice as possible, though made in a time -- the late 1960s -- when the pejorative wasn't so obvious. How things change.


RE: Reuters gaffe contest


Thanks to everybody who participated in Ask the Pilot's April 14 reader quiz. More answers were submitted -- well over 200 -- than for any prior contest. Andrew Dalke, of Santa Fe, N.M., was first to sleuth out the two minor errors in the April 7 Reuters article about the evacuation of a Spanish airliner in Holland. Dalke wins one of these.

The Spanish national carrier, Iberia, was misidentified as "Iberian Airlines," and Amsterdam's Schiphol airport was spelled wrong. Turns out there was a third mistake in the 77-word story, which I didn't notice at the time. Reuters stated that 165 passengers were aboard the Iberia A320. The correct number was 156.

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Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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