Published in February 2016 issue

By Christopher Varady

Having being contracted to support a project for Guatemalan coffee growers, I found that the options available for travel from Vienna to Guatemala were rather limited. Iberia offered not only the best fare but the only nonstop flight from Europe. That flight originated from Madrid, so I’d have to get there first.

An added bonus was that the flight to Guatemala was served by one of Iberia’s 24-strong fleet of Airbus A340s—my favorite aircraft, but a type that is increasingly being retired in favor of fuel-efficient twin engine airliners.

The aircraft was the deciding factor; so I booked my ticket accordingly.

CHECK-IN

Iberia uses the older part of Schwechat Airport (VIE), reserved for non-Star Alliance airlines. Arriving at the check-in at 05:30, I found it already crowded, with long lines at the desks for many airlines. Iberia’s early morning flight to MAD was being checked-in at two desks, already about 30 people were standing in line, but only two were queueing for Business Class. After a quick checkin, the agent handed me my boarding passes and directed me to the lounge.

With renovations under way in the terminal, passengers have to walk down a flight of steps to an underground hall, where the security scanners are, and then back up to the main level for departures.

The lines at security were short and the staff were moving the passengers quite efficiently through the whole process, which didn’t take more than five minutes in total.

Upstairs, Iberia uses the Jet Lounge, which serves a number of carriers from Europe, the US, and Asia. Unlike its Star Alliance counterpart, the Jet Lounge was small and windowless. Although the food and beverage offerings were excellent, the room, with its lack of natural lighting and old furnishings, was below the standards expected by premium customers today.

BOARDING

The departure area was quite full with all the morning flights bound for German cities. Nearly every gate had big crowds waiting to embark. By the time I approached Gate C41, boarding was in progress. I decided to wait until the majority of passengers had embarked. Business Class—four rows in the front of the aircraft—was full for this flight. It seemed that most of the occupants were Austrians heading for vacations on the Canary or Balearic Islands.

THE FLIGHT

As is the case with most European carriers, Iberia does not feature large seats in short-haul Business Class. Instead, these are only distinguished by being upholstered in leather. I suppose that the flying public has now come to expect this, but it absolutely kills the panache linked to flying Premium. Unfortunately, passengers were not offered a pre-departure drink and no subtle touches were provided by the crew—there was no welcome, and Business Class passengers were not helped with their carry-on luggage. I have found that, in many airlines with similar set-ups, crews are instructed to accentuate their welcoming attitude to compensate for the austere cabin product. Not on this flight.

After a quick takeoff under rainy, overcast conditions, we headed toward the Alps for the three-hour flight to Madrid. The crew served the meal service efficiently but, again, there were no extra touches, such as describing the meal or offering a second round of bread buns. The main course consisted of a plain omelet with a zucchini and onion garnish, which had an oily taste. The croissant, piece of toast, and apple slices in a bag also looked unappetizing. Despite the poor product and lousy cabin service, the flight was very smooth and, when we landed at Madrid- Barajas Airport (MAD), I was treated to a view of the mix of the old and new Iberia liveries— besides the airline’s A319 retro jet.

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TRANSIT

The new Madrid terminal was light, wellorganized, and inviting to passengers. Non-Schengen transit passengers go down a series of escalators to an underground train, which runs every three to five minutes and takes only three minutes to reach Terminal 4S. Upon leaving the train, passengers immediately pass through passport control, which is also located underground. By the time I got back to ground level, all formalities had been completed and the terminal felt tranquil and easy to navigate. Shops and restaurants were organized to avoid crowding and the skylights created a relaxing and easy atmosphere in the terminal.

Iberia’s Velázquez VIP Lounge occupies a large space just beyond the duty-free shop. With the morning flights to the US and Latin America, the lounge was full but still relaxing and well appointed. I found a seat and settled in for my two-hour wait. The catering offered a number of excellent options: ready-made snacks, buffet-style food, and a range of drinks. There was a separate wine bar and several individual ones for spirits. The choices available included smoked salmon, rice and pasta dishes, and Spanish tortilla. Each had a distinctive element of Spanish cuisine, making them interesting and appetizing.


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BOARDING

The screens in the lounge showed that my flight was delayed for an hour due to a change of aircraft. When boarding was called, I was directed to Gate S23, a short walk from the lounge. Disappointingly, I found a disorganized crowd there, without dedicated lines for the boarding of Premium passengers. Along with a few savvy fellow passengers, I worked my way toward the counter to board. The inconsistent boarding process—especially on a long-haul flight— left much to be desired.

Three buses were waiting to take us to the remote parking stand where the A340 was waiting. I was pleased to see that our aircraft was still painted in Iberia’s old livery. According to rumors, this aircraft type is about to leave the fleet, to be replaced by the Airbus A330-200, and will not be painted in the new livery. Personally, I find the new ‘eurowhite’ and tail swoop of Iberia’s new livery to be rather plain and common; so I was delighted to have the chance to fly with the old one. The bus driver instructed passengers to board via the aft door only, but did not provide a reason for this. Then, while we were lining up at the aft stairs, the driver called out that the forward door was now also in use. So a group of us returned to the front. After taking a few photos, I boarded the aircraft and made my way to seat 3L.

Iberia’s Business Plus class occupies four rows of seats between the forward and second doors only. My immediate impression was one of generous legroom. The seats are spaced far apart and passengers get a sense of freedom. Seat pitch is such that it is impossible to reach your magazine pouch with your seatbelt fastened, or to come even close to touching the seat in front of you with your feet!

Before closing the doors, the Flight Attendants served a welcome drink—champagne, orange juice, or water—and a selection of newspapers and magazines. Knowing that I had a long flight ahead of me, I opted for water. Boarding was completed quickly, perhaps because the passengers were eager to get on their way. Doors closed and pushback complete, the A340 felt heavy as we taxied past several American Airlines (AA) and LAN Airlines (LA) planes and an Emirates (EK) A380 aircraft that had just reached the terminal. It only took us about five minutes to taxi to the main runway, situated between Terminals 4 and 4S, and, with no other aircraft in front of us, we began a rather long takeoff run. Slowly, we ascended, soaring with an almost imperceptible motion over the arid landscape.

After takeoff, the Flight Attendants quickly distributed amenity kits and immigration forms. The Purser came around to each of us, introduced herself as Pilar, and took our meal orders. I found it strange that, although a drink list had been passed around, there was no mention of drink orders. The menu listed appetizers consisting of a mix of warm bread with extra-virgin olive oil, salmorejo with eggs, cherry tomato salad, mozzarella balls, basil, and watercress; lemon-infused chicken confit with thyme and rocket, and paprika coated villanoble cheese with quince jelly and walnuts.

For the main course, the options were: Retinto beef, foie gras and a mushroom hamburger; stone bass with lemon sauce; and cheese and pear parcels with Vizcaina sauce and parsley. I chose the hamburger because the other options did not appeal to me. During the meal service, the Flight Attendants poured the salmorejo out of bottles held in store—which somewhat detracted from the soup’s appeal. However, when the main dish was served, I was pleased to see that the hamburger was not beef in a bun, as I had imagined, but was rather more akin to a meatloaf. Beef and foie gras actually work quite well together in terms of taste and texture. I asked for a Jaros Ribera del Duero wine, made from a mix of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes. It was one of the best wines I had ever tasted in my life.

Service was of the minimum standard for Business Class. Certainly, the crew was efficient and went through the proper stages of the service, but there were few smiles and the Flight Attendants made no effort to create an ambiance on board. On several occasions, in fact, they walked past me when my glasses were empty, and only refilled them when I asked. During the 11-hour flight, the seat-belt sign was turned on only twice— even then, only due to small ripples. All announcements were made only in Spanish, which I suppose was fine on a flight between two Spanish-speaking countries, but I felt that it may have left non-Spanish speakers baffled.

The IFE system was severely limited, with a choice of about three movies and difficult to navigate old-fashioned screens. The lavatories were not up to today’s standards and lacked the enhanced amenities expected in business class, such as flowers, additional toiletries, etc.

We entered Latin American airspace somewhere near the island of Hispaniola and proceeded straight towards Guatemala City. Approximately an hour prior to landing, the crew served a light snack. It consisted of Iberico ham and chorizo sausage, chicken breast, cheese with tomato and extra-virgin olive oil, seasonal fruits, and drinks.

As the flight descended, I noticed huge storm clouds and anticipated some turbulence on approach. However, it was not the case, and the landing was completely smooth all the way to the ground.

The view on arrival into Guatemala City is impressive, with all the neighborhoods clinging to the hillsides and a cityscape that sprawls as far as the eye can see.

We were the only aircraft at the time of our arrival. This made for a shorter line at immigration. My suitcase was about the fourth off the belt, and I made it through customs in a matter of minutes.

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OVERALL IMPRESSION

Having lived in Latin America for several years, I had always thought of Iberia as being a cut above and having some element of panache. However, my first experience of flying with the airline—while acceptable—was not memorable in any way.

Iberia’s Business Plus met the minimum standards for Business Class and its prices were fair for the product offered; however, this was well below what is offered by other Oneworld Alliance members. In today’s ultra-competitive industry, bigger seats and enhanced catering aren’t enough for Business Class. I’ve always found that the crews and some simple touches are what really set an airline apart; on such criteria, Iberia simply did not measure up.