Wednesday, 16 February 2022

The Amazing Race 33, Episode 7

Bonifacio, Corsica (France) - Thessaloniki, Macedonia (Greece)

[The original tree-sitter: St. David the Dendrite (tree-dweller), patron saint of Thessaloniki for Orthodox Christians. Note the spelling of “David of Thessaloniki” in Greek in the upper right corner of the fresco. This episode of The Amazing Race 33 included a lecture and quiz on the lives, legends, and iconography of Greek Orthodox saints.]

This episode of The Amazing Race 33 takes place in the environs of the city known today as Thessaloniki, on the north-eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea in the portion of Macedonia that is now part of Greece.

In the USA, popular images of “Greece” and “the Balkans” barely if at all intersect. Few people in the USA think of Greece as a Balkan country. But while borders within the Balkans are, of course, contested, Macedonia is actually quite central to Balkan history and to many maps of the Balkans as a region.

Once upon a time, Macedonia was the center of the empire of Alexander the Great. For those of you who haven’t been keeping score on the latest Balkan wars and changes in names and borders, a substantial part of Macedonia is now in Greece, another large part (formerly part of Yugoslavia) is now the independent country of North Macedonia (extra credit if you can name its capital city, and double points if you can pronounce it!) , and still another sizable part is in Bulgaria. Advocates for a greater Macedonia also include smaller portions of Serbia, Albania, and Kosovo in their claims.

Each of these countries has their own perspective on this paradigmatically Balkanized region and city. If you’re in Thessaloniki and want the dominant local narrative of the most recent century or two of the region’s history, as told by its current inhabitants, a good place to start is the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle in central Thessaloniki. For a longer-term historical view by an outsider, see Mark Mazower’s Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430-1950.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, just as the racers jetted ahead of any ordinary travellers. Between legs of The Amazing Race 33, another chartered jet ferried the cast and crew of the reality-TV show to Thessaloniki from the island of Corsica in the Western Mediterranean. If you don’t have a private jet, how do you get to Thessaloniki in the first place?

Perhaps unintentionally, TV advertisements can lead us to an answer, although not the only one.

The first commercial break in the broadcast of this episode of The Amazing Race 33 that I saw on the CBS station in San Francisco was a re-run of an ad for Expedia first shown last Sunday during the Super Bowl, with the tag line, “Do you think any of us will look back at our lives and regret the things we didn’t buy — or the places we didn’t go?”

This was just one of three ads for travel companies during this year’s Super Bowl, with a fourth during the pregame show. That’s a sign that travel companies think they finally have a chance of convincing viewers to travel again after two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, even if patterns of travel have changed since the years B.C. (Before Coronavirus). VRBO’s pregame ad, for example, played to those changes by promoting the idea of renting a mansion for a family gathering or a party of friends. That might be an attractive idea for a pandemic getaway from working from home, homeschooling, and staying home all the time. But I’m not sure the absentee homeowner’s neighbors would be too pleased at having the house next door rented out for some of the noisy partying shown in the ad.

Long-haul air travel seems likely to be the last major category of travel services to “recover” from the pandemic, if it ever will it all (and maybe it shouldn’t). So it’s especially surprising that not only an airline but an international airline targetting long-haul travellers, Turkish Airlines, advertised on the Super Bowl this year.

This isn’t the first time that Turkish Airlines — still largely unknown in the USA — has tried to buy mindshare with a Super Bowl ad. The timing of its most recent two previous Super Bowl ads has been unlucky. Will the third time be the charm?

For the 2019 Super Bowl, Turkish Airlines commissioned a six-minute promotional mini-drama that highlighted the airline’s in-flight service, the attractions of stopovers in Istanbul between long flights, and its worldwide route network. Part of the dramatic tension in the video was not knowing where in the world the protagonists might be going next. On Turkish Airlines, it could be anywhere. Turkish Airlines has earned the distinction once held by Aeroflot Soviet Airlines of flying to more countries than any other airline in the world. Its 2019 Super Bowl ad was a 30-second trailer for the longer video.

Ambitious, but so is Turkish Airlines, and so is the new Istanbul Airport — by some measures the world’s largest — that was scheduled to open shortly before the 2019 Super Bowl. (Bigger isn’t necessarily better. It can be a long walk between gates at the new Istanbul airport.) The opening of the new Istanbul airport was delayed, however. When I made reservations for flights from the USA to Greece and back on Turkish Airlines in November 2018, I thought I would be travelling by way of the spacious new Istanbul Airport. But in the event, I once again changed planes at the overcrowded old Atatürk Airport. “Istanbul New Airport” didn’t fully open and take over the “IST” airport code until April 2019. The new airport had to be described as “coming soon” in the 2019 Super Bowl ad. Viewers may not have noticed or cared, but that fell short of the airline’s hopes for a grand-opening Super Bowl splash.

In 2020, with its new hub airport belatedly in full operation, Turkish Airlines was back on the Super Bowl broadcast with an ad targetting the more than 100 million people in the USA (nobody actually has an accurate count) who have never been out of the country. If you want to set foot abroad for the first time and “Widen Your World”, the ad suggests, Turkish Airlines can take you to more countries than any other airline. Not a bad pitch for globetrotting, except that it aired just as the COVID-19 outbreak was becoming a worldwide pandemic that largely ruled out all but the most essential international travel for the next two years.

This year’s Turkish Airlines Super Bowl ad is, in line with the continuing pandemic, more about the concept of travel than the currently unpleasant experience of air travel, and more about “connecting those divided by distance” — an implicit nod to travel to visit friends and relatives — than about sightseeing.

“Salonika” was once part of the Ottoman Empire, just as its sister city across the Aegean Sea, “Smynra” in Asia Minor (today’s Izmir, Turkey) was at other past times part of greater Greece. But all that was a hundred years ago. Here and now, what does a Turkish airline have to do with getting to Greece?

One might as well ask what an airline based in the United Arab Emirates has to do with getting to India. Most of the people on Turkish Airlines flights from the USA aren’t going to Turkey, and the whole point of the Turkish Airlines ads is to get people to think of it as an airline that can connect them via Turkey to other places. Turkish Airlines sees its competitors not as European or USA-based airlines but as Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar Airways.

Why should you care?

For budget travellers, the big advantage of Turkish Airlines over its better-known “big three” competitors is that because it doesn’t have as fancified a reputation, it has to sell tickets at lower prices and/or with fewer restrictions and extra fees (for checked bags, stopovers, changes, etc.) to fill its flights. Air travellers pay a huge premium to fly on more prestigious or better-known airlines, even when they are flying on the same models of Boeing or Airbus planes, distinguishable only by the colors of the paint outside and the upholstery on the seats inside. For what it’s worth, having flown long distance in coach/economy class on both Emirates and Turkish, I’d choose Turkish, without hesitation, for quality of customer service on the ground and in the air.

The advantages of Turkish Airlines for all travellers, regardless of price sensitivity, are that Istanbul is a far more enjoyable stopover than Dubai, Abu Dhabi, or Doha, especially on a budget, and that Turkish Airlines flies to far more places in Europe than its major competitors or any other airline not based in Europe (and, in fact, more than most European airlines). That makes Turkish Airlines especially likely to offer the best long-haul connections, even if price is no object, to and from secondary and tertiary European cities with little or no direct long-haul service — like Thessaloniki, which has no year-round direct flights to anywhere further away than London.

The routes and schedules of a government-owned airline such as Turkish Airlines reflect political as much as, and sometimes more than, economic decisions. Almost all airlines, certainly including those based in the USA, receive direct and indirect government subsidies. Spending by Turkey’s government on a new airport designed primarily to serve as a hub for Turkish Airlines is obviously a subsidy to the airline, but doesn’t appear as such in the government’s budget or on the airline’s balance sheet. The same goes for government contributions to the construction of the new Berlin airport. But European Union rules theoretically designed to ensure fair competition between airlines based in different EU members countries bar most direct government subsidies to EU-based airlines. As the airline not based in the EU and not subject to these rules with the most extensive network of European flights, Turkish Airlines is free to use subsidies from the Turkish government to poach long-haul passengers from EU-based airlines. I might not like this if I were a Turkish taxpayer (or maybe I would, if it helps support cheaper, more frequent flights between Istanbul and the EU for visits to friends and family in the Turkish-European diaspora), but I’m the beneficiary of these government policies when I get cheap tickets to and from Europe on Turkish Airlines.

You might assume that the way to get to Thessaloniki, the second city of Greece, would be via the largest city and capital of Greece, Athens. Athens is an aviation backwater, however, and may have less long-haul air service than any other city its size in Europe except Berlin, which has had its own problems and its own new airport fiasco. The new Berlin Brandenburg Airport finally opened in October 2020 with greatly reduced pandemic traffic — years late, billions of dollars over budget, and still with hardly any long-haul flights.

The formerly government-owned Greek national airline, Olympic Air, used to fly to New York, Boston, and Montréal to serve Greek immigrant communities in the Americas. It went out of business in 2009 after the Greek government, facing its own financial crisis, could no longer afford to subsidize it enough to keep it flying. There are only a few direct flights between Athens and the USA, most of them seasonal. European airlines have more flights to Greek beach destinations and the Greek islands — many of them seasonal and package-holiday charter flights — than to Athens.

Connecting by air through Athens to Thessaloniki can be expensive and inconvenient. You have to claim your bags to clear customs in Athens, then re-check them. Relatively few airlines offer through interline fares or “add-ons” to Thessaloniki, so you may have to pay a separate fare for the flights between Athens and Thessaloniki on any of the Greek domestic airlines.

You can fly to Athens and take a train or bus to Thessaloniki, but that adds the cost of a separate ticket and at least 4 hours on the fastest train, longer by bus, plus the time and nuisance of a transfer between the Athens airport and the train or long-distance bus station downtown. The distance from Istanbul isn’t very much greater than from Athens, but buses from Istanbul are scheduled to take much longer due to the possibility of major delays at the hostile, fortified Greece-Turkey border. There is no longer any passenger train between Istanbul and Thessaloniki. The overnight sleeping-car service I took from Istanbul through Thrace to Thessaloniki and back in 2008 (with two long halts in the middle of the night for customs and immigration checks on both sides of the border), the last vestigial piece of the classic “Orient Express” route, has been discontinued. The European Union is working to restore and improve both freight and passenger rail connections between Europe and Turkey, which had been operating until the pandemic, but on routes further north via Bucharest or Sofia, not Thessaloniki.

Flying to Thessaloniki via Istanbul is easier and typically cheaper than flying via Athens. If you aren’t stopping over (but why would anyone pass up a free stopover in Istanbul, if you aren’t in too much of a hurry?) you can transit Istanbul between other countries without having to claim your bags or go through any customs or immigration checks. Turkish Airlines typically charges the same price for through connections via Istanbul to Thessaloniki as to Athens. Thessaloniki is the closest city in Europe to Istanbul, so flying via Istanbul doesn’t take you much out of your way, and the connecting flight is very short.

Link | Posted by Edward on Wednesday, 16 February 2022, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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