Why I’m FASCINATED By Turkmenistan Airlines

Live and Let’s Fly and I had been discussing the possibility of a trip to Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, because, well, why not?

Hyatt doesn’t have a huge global portfolio (at least compared to their competitors), but they do have a property in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Who knew?!?


The Hyatt Regency Dushanbe actually looks nice

As an airline nerd, the first thing I think about when visiting a new country is what kind of an airline they have. After all, reviewing airlines is what I do.

For this trip that’s mostly easy enough. Uzbekistan Airways flies from New York to Tashkent using a brand new 787 (they even route via Riga, Latvia, though soon they’ll also begin operating nonstop flights), so that’s an easy enough way to get to the region.

However, while doing some research yesterday I came across Turkmenistan Airlines which is. Blowing. My. Mind. This airline is soooo interesting.

Turkmenistan apparently has a fleet consisting of 777s, 757s, and 737s. According to Airfleets, they have three 777s, one 757, and 11 737s.

I had absolutely no clue that this airline has 777s. So after seeing that I was determined to fly with them.

In looking at Turkmenistan’s timetables, I notice that they fly to London, Frankfurt, Paris, Beijing, Bangkok, etc. They have fixed pricing, so there’s no complex inventory management here, but rather if there’s a seat available you pay whatever the published price is.

For example, here’s their London to Ashgabat timetable:

Here’s the crazy part. Turkmenistan flights don’t show up in the GDS, and their flights aren’t bookable through any online travel agencies. So the only way to book them (seemingly) is directly through Turkmenistan’s website, which is… wow.

Their online booking experience is similar to what online shopping was like for retailers over a decade ago.

For example, you can book them from London to Bangkok.

The next page just shows when you depart and arrive, but doesn’t show connection info, etc. (though I guess you can look that up in the timetable). Under $1,000 for a one-way business class ticket from London to Bangkok is pretty good too.

When you click on flight info, it says “Non-stop flight operated by Boeing 737/757/777-200LR. Equipment may vary.” Am I going to spend 12 hours on a 777 or 737?!?

The further issue is that the airline publishes almost nothing about their business class product. The only picture they have of their business class is the below one (yes, that’s the actual size they use).

Great photo!

That sure looks like a 777, but what does their 757 and 737 business class look like? Is it like European airlines, where it’s just economy with a blocked middle, does it feature something similar to what you get in the US, or is it as nice as Air Astana’s 757 business class, which I flew last year from Almaty to London? Even Googling I can’t find a single picture of their 737 or 757 product.

The bizarre part is that their timetable doesn’t list any routes as being operated by their 777. So then I used Airfleets to look up the tail numbers for their 777s, which are EZ-A777, EZ-A778, and EZ-A779.

If Flightradar is to be trusted, then neither EZ-A777 or EZ-A778 have flown recently. Meanwhile EZ-A779 is flying primarily to Beijing and Istanbul. If Turkmenistan’s website is to be trusted, then the airline doesn’t even fly to Istanbul.


Featured image via Ken H / @chippyho

What the heck?!? Turkmenistan’s 777s are the most mysterious ones since MH370.

The only thing that seems better than Turkmenistan’s IT is their customer service. Skytrax gives them two stars (making them better than Air Koryo), but some of the customer reviews are hilarious:

Was booked on Turkmenistan Airlines to return to the UK after completing a work assignment in the Caspian. First of all, by their nature, the Turkmen people are standoffish. Multiply this by 20 if they wear any form of uniform, so going through Ashgabat Airport is not an enjoyable experience. The aircraft, a Boeing 777, looked fairly new and as I was flying Business Class I had high expectations. The cabin crew were emotionless and stilted when I was shown my seat, and I was offered a plastic cup of water or Pepsi as a pre-flight drink. I asked if there was any Champagne but was told “No -a lcohol is not allowed” There were only 6 pax in Business Class, but Economy was full. Crew were very lax completing pre take off safety checks, and we took off with 2 passengers with their seats in lay flat bed mode. The minute the wheels left the tarmac the crew released their seat belts and started walking around the galley and cabin. There are large seat back TV screens, but there is no entertainment onboard. Food is served piping hot, but is so bad that it is inedible. Around an hour into the 6 hour flight a male FA plonked himself down in the empty seat across the aisle from me, reclined the seat and then watched a movie on his smart phone. When the seatbelt sign came on for landing at Birmingham the crew went through the motions of pre-landing safety checks, but did not ensure that seats were upright or that window blinds were open. One stewardess was still walking around the galley when we landed. Avoid flying with them if possible!

Where do I sign up?!?!

IS THIS AIRLINE FASCINATING OR WHAT?!?

So, anyone have any insights here? Where exactly do Turkmenistan’s 777s fly? What is their 757 and 737 business class like? How the hell does this airline sell tickets if the only way to book is their terrible website? I’m ready to fly these guys in a heartbeat from London to Bangkok, or something!

Comments

  1. Didn’t actually get a chance to fly them– if you choose to go to Turkmenistan, be sure to buy a fully refundable or cancellable ticket! A friend and I did a tour of Central Asia two years ago and we’re scheduled to leave the region from Ashgabat. Turns out Turkmenistan limits the amount of Americans that can visit and our visas were declined thrice. We were luckily on award tickets so could rebook our travels but wasn’t a fun experience.

  2. Oh and the Hyatt Regency Dushanbe was very nice, albeit a little bare bones. If you make it to Kyrgyzstan, the one in Bishkek is worth a pass 🙁

  3. Having lived in Ashgabat, I’d recommend that you be prepared for challenges at every step. Although I still have lovely friends there, I would recommend Uzbekistan as a more interesting and manageable option as a tourist/traveler. Tashkent, Samarkand, and Bukhara are all well worth experiencing.

  4. Buying their tickets is like buying a kinder joy/kinder eggs. You can guess, you can estimate, but you’ll never be sure what you’ll get until you open it yourself. If you love surprise and adventure, go for it!

  5. Ok, so I did some research and found more info on their fleet.

    First, they operate 7 all-economy 717s. They are the only operator in Asia.

    Second, one of their 777-200LRs was converted to government VIP config. (I think it is EZ-A777)

    Last, they operate 9 737NGs with 2 on order and one 737-300.

  6. @Lucky- Try the hashtag Turkmenistanair and there are a few pictures passé gets posted of business class. Looks interesting to say the least. The one pic of the onboard food looks like a great review waiting to happen.

  7. Maybe some of their top level executives previously worked at BALTIA, but then again they actually do fly and are operating so probably not.

    But hey, the uncertainty of what equipment you’d get would make for an interesting trip report!

  8. If you want to see some amazing traditional clothes, stroll by the check in area at the airport. Really beautiful outfits especially on the women.

  9. SS is correct, getting a visa for Turkmenistan is very difficult. I was able to get a visa and visited recently but know that their rate of declining tourist visas is high and appears very arbitrary. If you’re connecting via Ashgabat airport internationally I’m not sure if you would need a visa but regardless of what information you got ahead of time I wouldn’t be surprised if trying such an itinerary without one caused issues.

    Uzbekistan is indeed a much easier country to visit, as is Tajikistan. Tajikistan has absolutely gorgeous wilderness in areas such as the Pamir mountains (accessible from Khorog airport) although for that region I believe you would need not only a Tajik visa but a GBAO permit.

    If you’re looking for more of a city based trip with hotel stays then Samarkand & Bukhara are better bets in Uzbekistan. Dushanbe in Tajikistan is worth checking out as well, although again where Tajik really shines is in their remote mountainous outdoors.

  10. I literally LOL’ed at this post…the woman sitting in the boarding area might be reporting me to the gate agent as suspect…

    If you do fly them I think you should contact them (how ???) and ask if Business Class passengers get to make special request for onboard : )

  11. Until recently Turkmenistan Airlines could be issued on Hahn Air but it looks like they are suspended now from ticketing on Hahn Air stock.
    They even listed their flights in the GDS’es under H1 (Hahn Air Systems) flightnumbers.

  12. P.S. Also if you do go to Turmenistan/Uzbekistan/Tajikistan be prepared for your electronic devices to be searched thoroughly at the border. I would advise deleting any ‘adult’ content ahead of time as having such material can cause issues when trying to enter the country – this applies not just to homo but hetero content as well.

  13. Ben I don’t know if this is of any help in your search. But summer 2015, I was departing CDG back to Montreal on my way back to LAX and I caught a photo of one of their 77Ls. https://m.facebook.com/TheAircraftKing/photos/a.928033887269486.1073741838.924945024245039/928033993936142/?type=3&source=54&ref=page_internal

    So this might be very old since it almost 2 years but I guess they flew to CDG as well. This one appears to be EZ-A779. So I thought I’d share this with you, no idea if it helps or not

  14. I flew with T5 Turkmenabat – Ashgabat, Ashgabat – Turkmenbashi and Turkmenbashi – Ashgabat in September 2016. All tickets were booked via local travel agency in advance (price about 70 USD per segment).
    Whole our Turkmenistan trip was amazing experience. Even it is strictly prohibited to take pictures around Airports and Airplanes, I could not resist and took pictures from all our flights (3x Boeing 737-800).
    It is complete trip report from whole Turkmenistan journey in my native language but I think pictures can say more than words:
    Part 1 (Turkmenabat – Ashgabat – Darvaza): http://www.yirina.net/fotky_cesty/2016_Turkmenistan/2016_Turkmenistan.htm
    Part 2 (Ashgabat – Turkmenbashi – Ashganabt): http://www.yirina.net/fotky_cesty/2016_Turkmenistan2/2016_Turkmenistan2.htm

  15. Don’t hold your breath for a review from Live and Let’s Fly……he’s still posting 2014 reviews

  16. I flew PEK-ASB-PEK last year on the 777-200LR. Flat bed seats in a 2x2x2 config. Seat was actually pretty comfortable. Business class was only a few hundred euro more than economy and under a €1,000 for a return. In-flight service was comically bad. Food inedible.

    If you want to spend time in Turkmenistan there are no individual tourist visas. Transit visas are limited. I went with Koryo Tours (guys out of Beijing who do N Korea but have a couple of trips to Turkmenistan a year and also do Tajikistan). I don’t work for Koryo.

    Speaking to others in our group they fly the 757 to London and Bangkok and seats are the recliner trip. If you have any questions about Turkmenistan let me know.

  17. Fascinating stuff, thanks guys!

    @ Tom — Interesting. So even if booking LHR-ASB-BKK you’d need to secure a transit visa, and those are limited? Interesting stuff…

  18. I’m in Central Asia right now, in Bukhara and doing all the ‘stans except for Turkmenistan. Did lots of research before the trip – Turkmen visas are basically as rare and as difficult to obtain as unicorns, kind of like Saudi Arabia. Transit visas are extremely hard to get and seem to have unofficial quotas especially during high season. Booking an extremely overpriced tour via one of the agencies would get you a letter of invitation to apply for a tourist visa but those are just as hard to get. When I gave up on the idea of getting a transit visa, I emailed a few different tour companies. Only one got back to me and basically said they would not even bother doing anything for me because I’m a young (30s) single male traveling alone – there is no way I would get a visa. Good luck!

    http://caravanistan.com/visa/turkmenistan/

    Also note that there is no air service between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, land crossings take forever and are a pain if you don’t know the language. As far as award flights go, QR to Astana, LH to Almaty and TK to Bishkek (and then onto Mongolia) are your only options in this region. Although S7 (one world) does fly to most cities here, it would be a huge detour to route via Novosibirsk.

  19. Bad form to make the comparison to the Malaysian flight. A badly run airline not utilizing their fleet effectively is hardly as mysterious, or tragic, as MH370. You should know better.

  20. If you visit you will need at least ten days in Uzbekistan. Key places to visit include Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva, Nukus and Urgench, besides of course Tashkent. There is a nice train between Tashkent and Samarkand but after that you are on your own. (an interesting route to go to Turkmenistan is to enter via Kanya Urgench. Note that all customers are very very strict and you are essentially required to declare all your electronics and jewelry no matter how small.

    Turkmenistan is bizarre as the centre of town is literally all marble. Google Ashgabat and you will see the images. Of course move out around 3 miles and the whole country is dirt poor. There is an air of menace around the city in as much as there seems to be few on the streets. Stopping to take photographs seems to be discouraged. But it is bizarre enough to be worth a visit. Engage a local guide to tour the city.

    You can skip Kyrgistan and Kazakhstan. I had no problems getting a visa to all four. I was advised against going to Tajikistan and did not go there. All the best

  21. I’ve flown their 737’s in both econ and business a number of times, but it was a while ago. They were fine, but I would be concerned about how they’ve held up. As several have noted, visas are a problem. I bought my tickets from the airline office in Ashgabat.

  22. Saw the 777 in IST just a few days ago indeed. So it’s definitely flying there!

    Have always wanted to fly them too. Their German website is a bit better. I think the 777 is basically only guaranteed to PEK.

  23. Lots more photos and videos about Turkmenistan Airlines if you search in Russian.

    Google “Туркменистанские авиалинии”

  24. Flew them internally round trip Ashgabat to Merv, mostly on time and full. The Hyatt in Bishkek is quite nice, Sofitel in Ashgabat very nice. ( was told from a very credible source all rooms bugged). Interesting place. Kind of North Koreanish.

  25. Basically you need your home government advocating/supporting the trip, in order to get a visa. So good luck with getting US State Department or German Auswärtiges Amt to the point they are asking on your behalf the Turkmen authorities to issue your visa …

  26. @Lucky, if you’re just transiting at the airport you don’t need a transit visa. ASB were building a new terminal last year (should be open by now) and most passengers are in transit. Actually a lot of Indians and Chinese seem to use Turkmenistan Airlines as a cheap way to get from their respective countries to Europe.

    However, if you want to spend any time in Ashgabat you need a visa and from what I understand there are no individual visas as every tourist needs to be “escorted” by a local guide in a group tour. You can form a group of 2 but still need to pay for a guide to be with you at all times. There used a transit visa you can get which allows you to spend a short time in the country without a guide but my understanding is that this is pretty much impossible to get (http://caravanistan.com/visa/turkmenistan/)

    I have a couple of photos of the Turkmenistan Airlines business class cabin (not to your standard!) which I will try and post in the Ask Lucky forum as a new thread so you can take a look.

  27. I know you think about the ethics of traveling to authoritarian countries a good amount (I’ve read your thoughtful posts on the subject!), but there’s got to be a line somewhere, right? Meaning, a line where the net negatives of supporting a repressive regime by visiting there outweigh the potential benefits of visiting? I’m not saying anything decisive, just that a few of the countries mentioned here merit some in-depth research on human rights abuse before deciding to go. Lord knows every country has its problems…some just have more—and less forgivable—ones.

  28. I’ve flown on Turkmenistan Airlines. There are framed pictures of the President on board. Besides that, the flight was uneventful.

    There’s a massive brand new airport in Ashgabat. Even second-tier cities like Turkmenbashi have over-dimensioned, sparkling new airports. There is typically no lounge access at most airports unless you book the CIP service ahead of time – which is virtually impossible to do without local contacts and plenty of lead time.

    Turkmenistan is fascinating. I had a surprising amount of freedom there and was able to take pictures absolutely everywhere including at airports. Using public transportation was fine, too. In fact, I can’t remember any specific restrictions besides the fact that pictures of the presidential palace are technically prohibited (but no one said anything when I filmed from a public bus.)

    You are extremely unlikely to get a visa unless you work with a specialized agency and actually intend to stay in the country. There’s a “loophole” to enter for a few days max without a visa, but it involves travel over land only, and then you cannot stay at hotels – it’s meant mostly for truckers, etc.

    Turkmenistan has a ton of natural resources, and it’s one of the most closed countries in the world. They don’t need tourism, and they absolutely don’t care about advertising the airline.

  29. @Patrick, you can access the lounge at Ashgabat airport. The new airport wasn’t open when I flew out of it but there was a contract lounge in the old airport used by Turkmenistan Airlines and Lufthansa. Nothing to write home about but I’ve been to worse lounges in China! I’m assuming the new airport has a similar set up.

  30. I’ve flown all around Turkmenistan on their 717s and from Istanbul return on both a 777 and 757. Honestly, it’s not the best flying experience, but it’s also way better than you’d expect. The thing to bear in mind is that I never felt unsafe flying on Turkmenistan airlines – shockingly – and I wouldn’t think twice about flying them again if I had to get to Ashgabat in a pinch, or if I was going to Turkmenbashi for some nefarious reason.

    Also for what it’s worth, I’ve actually never had any trouble whatsoever getting a Turkmen visa (and I’m American), although I would qualify that by saying that it’s all about the company that’s issuing your letter of invitation and whether or not they’re well connected at the ministry of foreign affairs.

    @Lucky two additional things to consider: 1) please research the Turkmen answer to Dubai on the Caspian Sea – it’s called Awaza, and it’s completely fucking bonkers (in a depressing authoritarian folly sort of way, but it’s still fascinating), 2) the Sofitel in Ashgabat is actually very nice (and I know for a fact it’s completely bugged, but whatever who really gives a shit anyway?)

  31. Fly to Dushanbe instead! You’ll be amazed if you take an old Russian chopper up into the Pamir mountains — the dizzying peaks of 24,000 feet or so

  32. It’s been some years since I visited Turkmenistan but I found it utterly fascinating and well worth the effort.

    I was able to obtain a visa fairly easily from the embassy in Washington by registering for a development conference in Ashgabat (which I actually attended but for which no special credentials were required) and using that “invitation” as the basis for the visa.

    I also wanted to visit Mary/Merv with a friend who was on a Peace Corps assignment there and had no difficulty adding Mary to my visa. We traveled internally in shared taxis (what in Turkey would be called dolmush) and were never stopped or questioned more than cursorily, including when we had Afghanis and Iranians as fellow passengers.

    I did not fly Turkmenistan Airlines (I flew LH J-class FRA-GYD-ASB-GYD-FRA) but would note that in a country with zero independent media there were a lot of rumors about incidents at the airport that were never reported, planes sliding off runways in the winter, drunken pilots, etc.

    The Turkmen people appear standoffish but are more just wary of contact with foreigners which would cause them problems with the security services. I had one experience which I can’t describe here which made it obvious such contacts are monitored. On the other hand I was also able to stay in a private home for a few nights and experienced wonderful hospitality (if gender segregated — I never saw the women in the family other than one brief glimpse of the owner’s wife).

    Uzbekistan definitely has more marquee-type sites and more infrastructure, and Baku has a uniquely psychedelic Dubai-on-the-Caspian vibe, but Turkmenistan is hands-down the most distinctive place I’ve ever visited. Particularly the rural areas which are hauntingly desolate (and shockingly poor, given the country’s oil and gas wealth).

  33. Can’t speak for the airline directly, but the reason why you’re finding all of this backwardness/clock and dagger arrangements is Turkmenistan is on par with Bhutan of being one of the most closed societies in the world. You might be able to get a flight, but, unless you’re in the oil & gas industry, have paid for handler “tour”, or carry a diplomatic passport, expect to be on the same A/C doing the return to LHR, FRA, CDG, PEK, BKK, etc.

  34. Turkmenistan Airlines fly their 757’s to Amritsar (Punjab)
    This Flight was inaugrated to cater the needs for flights from London To Punjab (Quite a busy route, Air India started this once, and for the initial days, flights were fully booked, but they dropped the flight later(I dont know the reason). Most of the Punjabi’s fly the LHR-ASB-ATQ
    which is the other option to the LHR-DEL-ATQ route by Air India, Also, Uzbekistan Airways fly their 767 to ATQ, for the LHR-TAS-ATQ, and their are many other connecting flights operated by Virgin Atlantic, Jet Airways(LHR-DEL-ATQ) and Qatar Airways LHR-DOH-ATQ, which are some other options, Scoot also operates ATQ-SIN, Malindo operates ATQ-KUL etc.

  35. I’ve always been surprised that Turkmenistan Airlines fly direct from Birmingham to Ashgabat. Is there really a market for that? Is it for UK to South Asia connections, or is there really a market for that route?

  36. I’m going to Turkmenistan (and Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan) in mid July.
    Just got my visa from the Embassy of Turkmenistan in DC. Super nice folks there! And it was fairly painless…and US $35.

  37. As others said, very difficult and arbitrary visa process, and you need to be escorted by a local guide. (They won’t release you till he signs for you).

    That said, a fascinating place.

  38. The website has changed address from last year used be a .info and this new one is registered to a company in Dorset with a Togolese guy as the sole director, seems weird not sure if the site is a scam or he is a front for the actual owners.

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