This is a lesson in geography.
Istanbul has two active airports, one on the European side and the other on the Asian side.
The European side airport is called Atatürk.
The Asian side airport is called Sabiha Gökçen.
To appreciate our little story, it is important to understand that the two airports are more than 40 miles apart, over 65 kilometers, in opposing directions from the city center.
This means Istanbul’s entire, densely populated core urban area sits between them.
Therefore, to get yourself from one of these airports to the other would be a major undertaking, unless perhaps you could fly. You would have to traverse the vast city of Istanbul, and somehow get yourself across the Bosphorus Strait as well.
Now, let’s add one more factor that gravely affects the amount of traffic on Istanbul’s roads: It is the morning of first day of the new school year.
Today is the day when every primary and secondary school in Istanbul opens its doors to students after the summer vacation.
On this particular morning in Istanbul, you will find the heaviest traffic of the entire year. The roads are overwhelmed with vehicles.
If you were to listen to a traffic report on the radio, you would hear the reporter say the Turkish equivalent of “it’s a mess out there!”
See the set-up for this story? Of course you do.
Our memorable 10-day visit to Istanbul was drawing to a close. Our next destination was Italy. We were scheduled to meet Frank’s sister Peggy and Peggy’s daughter and granddaughter in Rome.
Before that, we wanted to visit Tivoli, a famous town on the outskirts of Rome.
We went online and found cheap fares on Pegasus Airlines, a discount carrier owned by Turkish Airlines. It was a bargain to get from Istanbul to Rome.
We took public transportation to the airport from our apartment near the Galata Tower in central Istanbul.
It was pretty straightforward to get the subway from the Sishane Station in our neighborhood. With only one transfer, we were able to arrive without difficulty at the airport.
Once inside the large international terminal, we were a little surprised when we could not find a counter for Pegasus Airlines. That’s odd, we thought. Could they be in another terminal?
We saw a Turkish Airlines agent with no passengers at her counter, so we paused and asked her for directions to the Pegasus check-in area.
“Pegasus?” she said quizzically. Well, yes, we thought, how difficult could that be?
She called out to anther Turkish Airlines employee, a baggage handler, a short distance from her counter. In Turkish, she asked if he knew where Pegasus was. His response was lengthy. We could not understand his Turkish but we sensed trouble.
The agent then provided the translation: Pegasus is not at this airport. This is Atatürk Airport. Pegasus flies out of the Sabiha Gökçen Airport.
Oh, it was a funny moment!
In a flash, our concept of what was happening was completely transformed.
We had been thinking to ourselves that the Turkish Airline employees, although pleasant and earnest, were poorly trained or inadequately informed.
What’s wrong with them? How could they be stumped by our simple inquiry about the location of the Pegasus Airlines check-in counter? Are they so insular they don’t know the basics about their own sister company?
Now it was if a lightening bolt had struck. We were in the wrong airport, dammit!
The fault lay with us. The Turkish Airlines employees were not to blame at all.
Our first reaction was to inquire with an information desk about the prospect of catching a taxi or shuttle van over to Sabiha Gökçen Airport. We still had well over two hours before our scheduled departure time.
That’s when we got the geography lesson outlined above, along with the sobering news that this was the first day of school in Istanbul.
It would be a fool’s errand to try to hustle over to the other airport, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, in time for our flight. This much was now clear.
We inquired with a Turkish Airlines agent about the cost of a one-way flight to Rome from Atatürk. There was a flight available in about four hours, but the cost was prohibitive, something like €1,000 for the two of us.
Happily, a less costly solution did emerge. Right there in the departures terminal, across the aisle from the Turkish Airlines ticketing counter, was a series of booths operated by travel agencies.
The woman at the first booth we approached was rude, pointing to a sign that said “no information provided.” We were not after “information,” we explained, we wanted to book a flight to Rome.
We found a second counter where the agent was warm and friendly and sympathetic to our predicament. She found us a couple of tickets for about €500. We did not hesitate. We purchased the tickets. It was the same Turkish Airlines flight that would have cost double that amount if purchased directly from the airline across the aisle.
Four hours later, we were thrilled to be on a non-stop flight to Rome.
We arrived in Tivoli that evening in plenty of time for dinner. And so our story had a happy ending.
It was a costly little mistake, to be sure, but we did have a good laugh at ourselves.
Viewed in this light, actually the cost was reasonable.
This reminds me of taking a trip from Heathrow to Casablanca some years ago. I had also visited my mother in the north of England so arrived at the airport with hours to spare. Turns out that I was directed to the wrong terminal. Flights to Africa go from one place but it is not obvious that for some reason flights to Morocco leave from another. I sorted it out and waited at the correct terminal for the friends I was meeting. Everyone was boarded and my friends still had not arrived and I was feeling slightly panicked as British Airways were about to remove their luggage which had been checked on at SFO. I was wondering if I should just continue on the flight and hope I would recognise my friend’s brother who was meeting us. Finally my friends appeared, literally running as fast as they could. They had also been directed to the wrong terminal. Thank you BA!