Flying Turkish Airlines is generally a good thing -- it's been named the best airline in Europe two years running, you still get free food, and the check-in agents never seem to care if your baggage is a few pounds over the limit. You can also fly directly from Istanbul to New York and Houston (among other places), lessening the jet lag on trips to the US -- when I fly American from here to Dallas, I usually have to go through London, and with the schedule and time differences, it makes for a hard adjustment. Over the last decade, Turkish Airlines has been expanding at a rapid pace, adding new destinations all the time, and it seems to be doing well -- it's a nice airline with good customer service. But lately, politicians have been interfering with airline decisions, and it's stirring up loads of controversy here in Turkey.
The problem stems from the fact that the government owns approximately 49 percent of Turkish Airlines, while the majority 51 percent is public. The current government, headed by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), is pretty powerful -- they're also pretty conservative, and their efforts to make the airline more conservative is not going over well.
Before I get into the details, let me say that one of the things I've noticed about Turkey, especially from my time working at a conservative newspaper here, is that there seems to be a big misunderstanding about what "democracy" means. One reason that the current government is so powerful is that Turkey has just emerged from a coup-filled period -- about every ten years, starting in 1960 and ending in 1997, there was a coup, and each time, it totally shook up society. I've heard this cited as a reason why for Turks personal relationships are more important than rules or contracts. The AKP came into power in 2002, and things in Turkey have been stable since then -- more importantly, the economy has improved. One of the AKP's big promises is that they're going to bring democracy to Turkey, in the form of bringing the coup perpetrators to trial, writing a new constitution, etc. For a long time, for example, women were not allowed to attend university wearing a headscarf -- under the AKP, this has been lifted, and it's a good thing. Democracy means everyone gets to wear what they like...or drink what they like...or say what they like...or practice whatever religion they like in whatever way they choose. But it turns out that the AKP's democracy often only means tolerance for their more conservative way of life. There's a real effort right now to make the population more conservative through legislation, lawsuits and pressure -- and this is where THY comes in.
[Now, don't get me wrong -- I think we see the same warped idea of democracy in the U.S. with the various attempts to legislate morality. However, I think it's more evident here in Turkey as the new conservative powers and the old secular regime battle it out, and it's going to determine the kind of country Turkey is to become.]
In December, the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, began criticizing the popular Turkish soap opera, Muhtesem Yuzyil (Magnificent Century), a Tudors-like show about Suleiman the Magnificent and palace intrigue. (It's apparently broadcast in 43 countries, and I know it's really popular in Middle Eastern countries, drawing loads of Arab tourists to Istanbul -- but of course, in Turkey, it's broadcast in Turkish, so unfortunately, I can't understand it.) It's a soap opera so it's very dramatic (I hear), but Erdogan believes the show humiliates Suleiman (and Turkish values) by showing him as debauched. An AKP deputy has submitted a parliamentary petition to get the show banned, and as a result of Erdogan's comments, Turkish Airlines dropped the show from its planned in-flight entertainment. According to the Daily Hurriyet, a THY official said, "We were about to start screening the show, but we changed our minds following the prime minister's negative opinions."
Now, in the last week or so, some awful, conservative designs for the new THY flight attendants' uniforms were leaked, and reports emerged that THY intends to stop serving alcohol on domestic flights. Photos of the uniforms, designed by Dilek Hanif, were leaked on Twitter last week -- two of the women are wearing robe-coats, which in my opinion look kind of religious, and generally the cloth looks heavy and uncomfortable. After the uproar, THY rushed to say that they were still working on the designs and released other photos, and in those, the women are co, vered from neck to foot. Many people see these proposed uniforms as an effort to expand conservatism, even if it makes working on an airplane more difficult.
The alleged new alcohol policy is a little more confusing. According to the Daily Hurriyet, THY has 36 domestic routes, and supposedly, on domestic flights, THY was only serving alcohol to business class passengers. But 20 of these routes aren't separated into classes, so they were really only serving alcohol on 16 routes, and now, because of lack of demand, they will only serve alcohol on five or six routes. (One story included Izmir, the other didn't.) The five definite routes are either to big cities (Istanbul and Ankara) or vacation destinations (Antalya, Bodrum, and Dalaman). Frankly, low demand strikes me an odd reason. Food, I would understand -- it spoils and goes to waste. But that isn't the case with alcohol. Why couldn't THY just use it on another flight?
THY also doesn't serve alcohol on international routes to certain destinations (Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc) and reportedly, passengers have asked for alcoholic drinks on flights and not been served, with the crew saying someone had forgotten to load it. But the confusing part came today -- a Daily Hurriyet article said that THY confirmed they only provide alcoholic beverages on certain routes due to "fewer business class passengers and lack of demand on other routes," while a Today's Zaman story seems to say this isn't true.
But who are we kidding, it's probably true. And I say that because there have been definite efforts in Turkey to get people to stop drinking. They keep jacking up the taxes on cigarettes and alcohol -- there's a great blog post on "the war against alcohol in Turkey" here -- they banned outdoor seating in Beyoglu (which many saw as an attempt to kill the nightlife) and banned sports teams from using alcohol in their names, and a citizens group tried to shut down a music festival last summer because it was sponsored by a beer company... Some of these things might be for the best, but all taken together, I think it's hard to deny that something is happening. And this is where the democracy thing comes in again -- maybe alcohol is bad for you, maybe drinking it makes you a bad Christian/Muslim/whatever, but in a democracy, everyone gets to choose for themselves. And in a democracy, the government shouldn't be outright banning or "persuading" its citizens through taxes to follow its predetermined path.