Iberia, Business Class – A 340-600: London Heathrow to Madrid

INTRODUCTION

When British Airways and Iberia announced their intention to tie the knot a few years back, I simply didn’t get it. And I suspect I probably was not the only one. The smart and successful British Airways merging with the hopeless mess they call Iberia. So far I’ve only ever tried Iberia in Economy Class and to be honest, they have yet to impress me. High time therefore, to give them a spin in Business Class. I will even be so kind and gracious and give them a bit of a head start. Rather than try Iberia on a ‘normal’ European route, I’ve selected the 18h40 departure from Heathrow to Madrid. This flight is operated by an A 340-600 and thus promises a level of comfort that a narrow-body simply cannot match. So off we go. Iberia, do your worst!

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Airline: Iberia
Aircraft: Airbus A 340-600
From: London Heathrow T5C
To: Madrid T4S
Cabin Class: Business
Seat: 3A, window on the left side of the aircraft
Date: 28.03.2013

GETTING TO THE AIRPORT

I’m already in Heathrow actually. I arrived here on a KLM flight from Amsterdam. Heathrow is such a large place that it actually takes me over an hour to make the transfer from T4 to T5.

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I’ve just passed security, which took ages. But I have only myself to blame for that. I forgot to remove my Kindle from my case and subsequently ended up having to unpack every thing and repack it again. I have just over two hours before my flight leaves for Madrid. But what to do? I’m feeling a bit peckish. I could go to the lounge obviously, and get myself something to eat and drink there. But if I do that, I’ll miss my bird arriving and I may not get a chance to take another picture of her. It will be dark by the time we get to Madrid. So eventually I decide to go for a meal at Wagamama. I like their food and from the restaurant I have a good overview of what’s going on in and around T5. I’m all set.

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I’m just waiting for my passion fruit cheesecake to arrive when suddenly I see the reflection in the window of something big and yellow. And sure enough, shortly afterwards the mighty A 340-600 comes into view and graciously glides down onto runway 09L. For some reason I was expecting the aircraft to use one of the gates at the main building of T5. It only occurs to me as I watch her taxi back towards the terminal that the A 340-600 may perhaps be too long to use one of the stands there. And indeed, eventually the aircraft comes to a halt at T5C, the second one of the two satellites.

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BOARDING

Just before six I pay the bill at the Wagamama and make my way to the gate at C61. To do that I must first take a lift down into the basement of T5 and from there catch the automated shuttle. The shuttle calls briefly at the B satellite before continuing to the C satellite, the terminus station.

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As I arrive at the gate they’re pre-boarding families with children, of which there seem to be quite a few on today’s flight. Next up, is the boarding call for Business Class passengers and frequent flyers with status. I am impressed by how strict the BA ground crew enforce the boarding process.

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It’s quite a trek from the exit of the building to the door of the aircraft. At least I get some excellent views of aircraft approaching and landing on 09L. Eventually, I reach the door and I am greeted by no less than three male flight attendants. They seem friendly enough.

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THE CABIN

First surprise: the cabin looks rather nice. Admittedly the seat is not necessarily state of the art anymore. It’s what I would term something from the first generation of hard shell Business Class seats. But still, the seat has a nice finish with leather (Or is it just plastic?) on the armrests and around the frame of the seat. More importantly though, when extended into a bed, it is indeed fully flat, horizontal and has a good height above the floor. Would I be willing to undertake a long-haul flight in this seat? Yes actually, I think so and I would probably sleep like a baby.

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It is also worth pointing out that the aircraft as different luggage bins over the central row of seats. Instead of simply having a lid that opens upwards, the bins in the middle move down when opened, just like the ones used on the B 777 or the B 747.

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This is all wrong you know. I was expecting to not like anything at all about this flight!

DEPARTURE

Departure is pretty much on time. It’s just before 19h00 and I am starting to feel tired. After all, it’s been a long day for me. I arrived in Amsterdam from Montreal at 07h50. Although I managed to sleep very well, the flight was simply not long enough to get some decent rest. And then I spent the morning walking around Amsterdam before returning to the airport in the afternoon to catch the flight to Heathrow. So it’s hardly surprising that the unthinkable happens. For the very first time in my life, physical exhaustion gets in the way of my passion (That sounds so much better than obsession…) for flying. I nod off and actually miss our take-off roll – the best part of the flight. We go thundering down the runway and I’m happily dreaming away. One moment we’re moving backwards as we push back onto the taxiway, the next thing I become aware of is the flight attendant placing a menu on my armrest in preparation for the meal. I realise we’re already airborne. Well, at least I didn’t miss the food!

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SERVICE

How many flight attendants are there up front anyway? There are two ladies working my aisle. One of them is young, friendly and efficient, while the other is middle-aged, very friendly and takes things at a much more leisurely, pleasant pace. Two middle-aged men are serving the other aisle. And then there’s another guy, I think he’s probably the purser, working the galley.

THE MEAL

So what’s for dinner?

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As I already mentioned, Iberia still have menus in Business Class. Even on short-haul flights. Of course that should hardly make a difference, but still I think it’s a nice touch. Today we have:

  • Salad of fresh leaves with zucchini, carrot and raisins with a balsamico vinaigrette.
  • A choice of cheese battered chicken breast or baked merluza with citrus and tarragon.
  • Goat cheese with blueberries.
  • Tiramisu with red fruits cake.
  • Assorted breadbasket with extra-virgin olive oil.

From a glance at the menu it looks as though the salad and the chicken/fish are two separate dishes. But in actual fact it is merely of question of having a warm item added to the plate with the salad. I opt for the chicken breast. The meal if perfectly adequate for a flight time of only two hours and the taste isn’t bad either. The crew do two bread rounds.

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The only thing that is really vile is the dessert, the Tiramisu. Words cannot describe this abomination of artificial cream, artificial fruit flavour and probably also artificial bits of fruit.

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And then the trays are removed. Coffee and tea are served on a small, flat dish. The crew proactively offer spirits to go along with that. As a rule I don’t drink on a plane so I stick to coffee and a glass of water.

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ARRIVAL

And then comes the moment for me to give the seat a trial run. I’m exhausted and really need to get some forty winks. But again, my rest is but a short one as our mighty aircraft soon dips its nose and we begin our descent into Madrid. It’s rather cool of Iberia to keep the tail camera on for the approach. It’s dark by the time we reach Madrid so the runway is easily made out in the dark. Some passengers express their surprise as they notice that, although we’re moving in the general direction of the runway, the nose of the aircraft is in fact pointing in a slightly different direction. I think it’s called a cross-wind component.

I only take one last picture as we disembark.

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Madrid’s T4 is certainly impressive but I am simply too tired to care. I’ll take some pictures of the airport on my way back to Frankfurt in a few days.

We dock at the satellite. From our arrival gate it’s a walk of about five minutes to immigration. From there you take two sets of escalators down into the basement and then from there an automated shuttle to the main terminal. The shuttle journey is surprisingly long. Once I reach the main building I head for the Renfe station – the Spanish railways company. The journey from the airport to Atocha station takes about thirty minutes to complete and costs EUR2.50.

I will spend the night at the Radisson Blue close to Atocha station. Tomorrow I will catch a train and spend Easter in Toledo.

CONCLUSION

What can I say? I was really not expecting anything much from Iberia other than horrible service, bad food and worn hardware. But in fact Iberia exceeded my expectations. The seat was comfortable enough, the crew were polite and friendly and the food was okay, save for the dessert. Having said that, the whole experience was certainly not outstanding and seemed somehow very old-fashioned to me. So perhaps it is just too easy to simply say that Iberia is a horrible airline with bad service. Perhaps it might be more appropriate to say that Iberia is an airline with a product and service that are simply not competitive anymore.

Thai Airways, First Class – A 340-600: Bangkok > Milan Malpensa

Let me explain. I’m on my way back from my vacation in Southeast Asia. The original plan would have seen me returning from Bangkok to Zürich in Thai Airways First Class and then immediately carrying on with KLM via Amsterdam to Helsinki for a meeting. But then it all goes horribly wrong…read on!

Date: 13. September 2012
Airline: Thai Airways
Aircraft: A 340-600
From: Bangkok
To: Milan Malpensa
Cabin: First Class
Seat: 2K

CHECK-IN

I spend my last day in Asia exploring the sights of Bangkok, and I think I manage to do most of them.  I check out of the Novotel Suvarnabhumi at eight o’clock in the evening, once I’ve finished packing and had a shower. I then make my way through the deserted underground passageway linking the hotel to the railway station and the terminal beyond.

I arrive at the Thai Airways First Class check-in area on row A just after 20h00.

First I am ushered to a sofa and brought a drink and a refreshing towel.

The friendly Thai Airways check-in agent apologises profusely as she informs me that the flight to Zürich has gone tech and instead of departing at 00h30, it is now scheduled for a departure at 07h30 in the morning, arriving in Zürich after 14h00 of the same day. So instead, she suggests I fly on the Thai Airways flight to Milan and then take a Swiss flight to Zürich from there, which would arrive at 11:00. I explain that I have a flight to Amsterdam with KLM at 09h50 on a separate ticket and need to be in Helsinki by the evening. So that won’t work.

In a bid to find a solution she first suggests I take the Thai Airways flight to Arlanda and then from there a Finnair flight to Helsinki. However the idea is quickly discarded because that would mean downgrading me to Business Class. On the Arlanda route Thai Airways operates a B747-400 with the old First Class seat, which is sold as Business Class. I don’t fancy that. So eventually we settle on a routing that will take me with Thai Airways from Bangkok to Milan in First Class after all, and then from there with Finnair to Helsinki in Business Class. Thai Airways generously also offer to endorse the KLM ticket, despite the fact that it’s not really their problem. For me this means that I will still be able to use the return portion from Helsinki to Basel via Amsterdam. I ask the check-in agent if this will work, they can’t just take another airline’s ticket and use part of it as they like. But she assures me that it will be fine. They will cancel the outbound from Zürich via Amsterdam to Helsinki and I keep the return for the following day.

I’m quite happy with the arrangement and as an aviation fan I normally welcome such irregularities. Although in this case it’s quite a pity because I was hoping to clock another flight with the B737-900 from Amsterdam to Helsinki. Some other time maybe. The check-in agent brings me a bottle of water and asks me for some more patience while she makes all the necessary arrangements.

40 minutes later, with my boarding pass for the Milan flight and a Flight Interruption Manifest for Helsinki in hand, I’m good to go.

THE LOUNGE

From check-in there is a direct access to a dedicated security lane and behind that is immigration for First Class passengers. The check-in agent escorts me through to the other side. It’s a swift process and even the immigration officer is all smiles and charm, even cracking a joke at seeing my ‘exotic’ passport. Blimey!

Behind immigration there is an escalator heading downstairs, straight into the Royal Silk Business Class lounge. At the bottom of the stairs another Thai agent is already expecting me with the funkiest buggy I’ve ever seen. The check-in agent bids me goodbye. I get on board my chariot and am whisked away to the entrance of the Royal First Class lounge.

Inside the lounge I am given yet another tremendously cold refreshing towel and a glass of some fruit juice. I also order a glass of sparkling water with a slice of lime.

My head has been bothering me all day, I think it must have been the uncomfortable seats on the river taxi, so I decide to head over to the Thai Spa and see if a massage might be able to do something about it. I am escorted to the Spa and handed over to my masseuse. First she gives me another refreshing towel (I’ve stopped counting…) and a glass of cold ginger tea. We discuss what I need taken care of and then head to the quiet area and the massage seats. The woman is a genius and over that ensuing forty minutes she works magic on my neck and shoulders. It feels like I’m being butchered but by the time she finishes me off I return to the First Class lounge feeling quite elated. And soon after it’s time to head to gate A3 for boarding.

BOARDING

Boarding starts just a few minutes after I arrive at the gate. First Class and premium passengers are invited to board first through the L1 door. I am the second passenger to arrive in the First Class cabin.

The vanity kit, a selection of newspapers, the earphones and an orchid are already at me seat. In short succession I am also given yet another refreshing towel, this time a warm one, a glass of water and my pjs.

THE CABIN

The cabin and seat look nice and well maintained. In fact the seat looks nearly new. There are two cushions on every seat, as well as a blanket.

During the flight I visit the toilet and it is very clean and well stocked with products from Bulgari’s Essence de Thé Blanc and Essence de Thé Vert. All the refreshing towels are scented with the latter.

DEPARTURE

We depart slightly behind schedule due to the heavy traffic out of Bangkok tonight. Horus, we meet again!

Once we get airborne, we are treated to an excellent view of the urban sprawl that is Bangkok.

SERVICE

Service on this flight is efficient and friendly. The First Class cabin is served by the male purser, a very charming and funny middle-aged lady and a younger but equally friendly gentleman. All the female crew are wearing these beautiful traditional Thai costumes made of silk.

The purser introduces himself and wishes me a pleasant flight. He tells I’m in good hands with his colleagues and if there is anything I need, all of them will be more than glad to help.

THE MEAL

There are no nibbles or canapés with the drinks before departure.

Once we take off the crew obviously want to make sure passengers manage to get as much rest as possible and so they get started with the service straight away. First the table is set for the meal. Every passenger has his own breadbasket. There is garlic bread too, I love garlic bread! Later on once I’ve demolished the bread basket a new one arrives.

First we have the caviar service. This is really tasty. Once I finished I am offered a second helping but I figure that would be too much of an indulgence.

The caviar is followed by a tasty minestrone with two side dishes of smoked salmon and a puff pastry filled with paté.

For the main course I have the salmon with linguine, basil sauce and Mediterranean vegetables.

And for dessert some fresh fruit.

After the meal I go and change while the flight attendant makes up my bed.

A NEW DAY

It’s seven hours later. I managed to have a really good sleep on the very comfy seat/bed.

I’ve overdosed on the garlic bread. I completely forgot I’ll be meeting with a business partner later on today. I head for the loo to brush me teeth. I even try scrubbing my tongue with copious amounts of high quality Colgate toothpaste. But it’s of no avail, now I can only hope the immigration officer will not have me arrested for threatening the life of an official of the Italian police with my lethal garlic breath. That was potent stuff on that bread.

Shortly after I take my seat again it’s time for breakfast. We start with another refreshing hot towel. After that the table is set again for breakfast. I check to make sure, yes there is no more garlic bread this time round.

We start with fruit salad, and very delicious it is.

Next come the Cornflakes with some milk and a bit of sugar.

And then comes the hot meal: Spanish omelette with grilled tomato, hash brown, sausage and bacon. I follow the purser’s suggestion and have some chilli sauce with that. And very tasty it is too.

During the breakfast service my coffee cup is replenished regularly.

The meal ends with one last hot towel.

ARRIVAL

In the meantime it has been gradually becoming light outside. I look out to see the sun slowly rising over the Alps. You can tell it’s the end of summer because there is barely any snow left, even on the peaks.

We come in over the flatlands of the river Po. I must say, it’s been a nice holiday but I am still glad to be back to more familiar climes and sights.

The purser and the other two attendants working the First Class cabin pass from seat to seat to bid each passenger farewell individually and to thank them for flying Thai.

We bank left to point in a southern direction on the downwind for arrival. We pass the airport and then start doing a series of gentle right hand banks until eventually we are lined up with the runway. Just before touchdown I see an Air One A320 accelerating and an Easyjet bird waiting to line up behind it on the parallel runway to ours.  And then we’re down.

We taxi in behind a Delta B767-400 but I forget to check where it’s coming from.

The L2 door opens and all the passengers in Business Class are instructed to wait while the First Class passengers disembark. As we do, each passenger is given another orchid as a farewell gift.

Outside there is a representative from the handling agent expecting me. She welcomes me to Milan and then escorts me through the airport, through security and immigration until we are eventually in the A concourse. She takes me up to the contractor lounge Finnair uses and briefs the receptionist about the irregularity. The receptionist will contact Finnair about two hours before departure to check me in, I can then collect my boarding pass directly at the gate as I board.

With that done she apologises once more on behalf of Thai Airways for the inconvenience and bids me a safe onward journey and a good day.

CONCLUSION

Where do I begin? First of all there is that Thai Airways lady at the front line, the person who deals with my case. She really tried her best, she had a very ‘can-do’ approach to finding a viable solution to my problem. But it’s not just her, the whole operation – at least from what I can tell as a passenger – is very polished, right down to the way I am taken care of upon arrival in Milan.

TO BE CONTINUED…