Hey everyone! I just got back yesterday from an all-expenses paid trip to Madrid, courtesy of the Stern School of Business at NYU. We left New York on Friday, January 5 and returned one week later on Friday, January 12. The trip is a perk of the Scholars group at Stern and allows us business students a better opportunity to come into contact with the international business environment (did I mention it was a FREE trip?). Anyway, the entire group was divided into two sections for the roundtrip across the Atlantic, one taking the nonstop between JFK and Madrid and the other with a layover in Barcelona before continuing to Barajas. I was in the larger group flying nonstop on Iberia between New York and Spain.
JFK – MAD
We left NYU at around 2:30 in the afternoon. Snow was coming down but wasn’t sticking to surfaces in Manhattan, but there was also a lot of snow left over from the storm over New Year’s weekend. Despite the worsening weather conditions, we proceeded to Kennedy Airport. The normally hour-long drive between downtown Manhattan and JFK took more than double the time as the combined effects of the snow and Friday rushhour traffic allowed for a first-hand look at the Long Island Expressway’s claim to fame.
We pulled up to the American Airlines terminal around 4:15 and moved quickly to get all the luggage off the bus. We then formed some semblance of a line in front of Iberia’s check-in counter. My reservation, courtesy of alphabetical order, was made for some landlocked seat in the middle of nowhere, so I promptly asked the check-in agent to find me a window seat that also allowed me to sit with my roommate. It turned out that the only way I would be able to sit with my roommate was in seats 44B and 44C. Seeing no other choice, we took those seats and hoped that whoever was in 44A would see it in his heart to let an aviation fanatic have the window seat.
After checking in, we went through the security check and headed to our boarding gate. JFK, like I’ve heard, was pretty skimpy in terms of pre-boarding entertainment. The concourse where our gate was located had one duty-free shop, a small bar, and a miniature Au Bon Pain featuring that chain’s notoriously high prices combined with the obligatory airport price hike. As more and more anxious college students filled the gate area, the mood become more and more tense as to when, if ever, we were to depart. Outside the window was an American 767 parked at the gate next to ours. That was the only aircraft visible from the concourse as our Iberia 747-200 was being readied behind the terminal where there were no windows.
So for about two hours, we sat around chatting, playing cards, and making phone calls until an announcement was made that boarding was going to be postponed forty minutes. Forty minutes later, another announcement declared that boarding would start in twenty more minutes. Finally, around 6:30, we were allowed to board. The original departure time for this flight was 6:15, but we all knew that keeping to a regular schedule during the snow would be an impossibility. As with many another mismanaged boarding calls, the words “rows 50 through 59” clearly meant “if you don’t push your way onto the plane now, you ain’t going to Spain” as everyone within earshot of the annoucement leapt to their feet and joined the frenzied mob shoving its way onto the jetway. The plane, as I had mentioned before, was a 747-200. The interior of the aircraft was in decent shape, Iberia does a good job in interior maitenance. When I reached my seat, I dutifully sat down in 44B, constantly popping my head up to see who was headed toward that coveted window seat next to me. When almost the entire plane was full, no one had shown up to claim 44A. My roommate advised me to claim the seat now, but I refused to take it and thereby jinx my chances of eventually getting it. It turned out that no one took the seat, giving me not only the window seat but also an empty middle seat between me and my roommate.
Then it began. The captain had announced that would be taking off shortly but that the wings would have to be de-iced. That sounded fair enough, but in reality, we pushed back from the gate sometime around 8:00, already two hours behind schedule. Then for the next three hours, we seemed to be moving back and forth on the tarmac, occassionally doing longer strides to make it seem as if we were actually going somewhere. Sometime around 9:00, the captain announced that the tug had broken down and that we needed another one. The same type of back-and-forth movement ensued for about two more hours until we finally moved onto the taxiway. We were now five hours late and still on the ground at JFK. At this point, we were in line for de-icing, which was our last obstacle before takeoff. When it was our turn to be de-iced, two trucks pulled up to my side of the aircraft and proceeded to spray the wings and the fuselage. At first glance, I thought the liquid they were using was just hot water as plumes of steam rose from the puddles forming on the tarmac. Does anyone know what substance they use to de-ice planes? Anyway, after being thoroughly de-iced we into the line for takeoff and the captain informed us that were only only a mere ten planes in front of us. At this point, it was around 11:30, five-and-a-half hours after when we were supposed to leave. As the sound of engines roaring became more and more distinct, I knew that our turn was getting closer. Finally, the engines revved up and we started our takeoff roll down the runway and ascended into the night sky. At 11:55, five minutes before midnight and nearly six hours behind schedule, we took off over Jamaica Bay and turned east, flying over the ocean to the south of Long Island.
The most dissappointing part of our six-hour long siege on the tarmac was not the endless waiting but the lack of service. It seemed that toward the end of the ordeal, the passengers were near-revolutionary, ready to revolt and take control of the plane. Their feelings were understandable, the only service that we had prior to taking off was the giving out of English- and Spanish-language newspapers. If you wanted water, you had to get it yourself. At one point, a few of the passengers snuck into the galley and stole some dinner rolls! Jean Valjean would have been proud at this act of civil disobediance, but I was disgusted at the fact that we had to resort to such extremes just to get food and drinks. Another incident involved a passenger arguing with a flight attendant in Spanish, saying how his family was starving and asking why the crew wasn’t serving food during the six hour wait. The flight attendant tried to calm the man down and explained that food would be served as soon as the plane had taken off. Is there some reasoning behind this or is it simply Iberia's policy to let its passengers wallow in mounting discontent? The least that the Iberia crew could have done was to hand out earphones when they put on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons to help us pass the time. Just watching montages of autumn leaves doesn’t really do anything particular for me.
As you can probably surmise, the flight wasn’t going too well so far. After takeoff, the crew quickly began readying dinner, which we all eagerly awaited. We reached our cruising altitude of 33,000 feet around the easternmost tip of Long Island, which was when the first food carts began to appear in the aisles. That’s when the turbulence started. At first, it was pretty bad, the plane rocked as if it were a bottle being tossed by gigantic ocean waves. Althought the level of intensity abated, the turbulence continued with only minor reprieves until we were over the Iberian peninsula, making it the bumpiest flight I’ve ever experienced.
The food service reached our row after what seemed like an eternity. Having experienced transpacific flights all my life, I assumed that the same level of quality would automatically be translated to transatlantic flights as well. My assumption dissappeared when I lifted the foil top off of the main course. It was some sort of pasta and meat concoction with peas on the side. The pasta was dried out to the point where some parts were crunchy and hard to swallow. This excuse for dinner was accompanied by a small shrimp salad and the only thing that bucked the trend of this horrible flight, the desert. After food was served, I tried my best to put the day behind me and get some sleep.
It was daylight when I woke up and we were about two hours from arrival at Barajas. “Breakfast”, which was only a muffin, a croissant, and yogurt, was served and arrival cards were soon distributed to be filled out. Not a moment too soon, we spotted land below us. We landed at Barajas around 12:30 PM Spanish time, five hours after when we were supposed to arrive. I happily deplaned after a flight that took twice as long as it should have. Well, I had finally arrived and after what we had been through, we couldn't wait to get to the hotel.
MAD – JFK
I have to say that the return flight to New York was the absolute antithesis of the flight to Spain. It was smooth, punctual, and efficient despite the fact that it was an hour longer due to headwinds. We arrived at Barajas around 11:00 AM to check in. Again, I found myself in a middle seat, 28K, but decided to take my chances and see if people were willing to trade on the plane. After checking in, I got online for passport control, which stretched all the way to the entrance to the terminal. As I’m a passport stamp fanactic as well, I became nervous when I saw that the immigration agent wasn’t stamping passports. When my turn came, I explicitly said “Tampón, por favor”, making the hand gestures to make sure that I could be understood. The agent smiled and happily stamped my passport.
I then strolled the shopping areas to pass the time before boarding. The section A area of Barajas, where non-Schengen international flights operate, is pretty nice. Huge windows allow for a view of the tarmac as well as incoming aircraft. Barajas is dominated by Iberia, which had a bunch of A340s heading to Latin America leaving from the same concourse as our 747-200 to JFK. There was also a Continental 777 heading to Newark, as well as a USAirways 767, a Delta 777, an Aeromexico 767, and a Star Alliance A320 that I couldn’t figure out to which airline it belonged.
We boarded ontime and our departure was unaffected by the light rain. We climbed out of Barajas in what seemed like a painfully slow ascent, but we eventually broke through the cloud cover. Lunch was served shortly thereafter and was as dissappointing as the dinner on the way to Spain. Two cubes of meat, which I assumed was meatloaf, were served with three small potatoes. Again, the dessert was excellent. After lunch, I dozed off and was amazed at how much ground we had covered when I woke up. Around halfway through the flight, Airshow had put our position as a few hundred miles out of St. John’s, Newfoundland. A light meal was served consisting of two slices of roast beef and cheese when we were cruising above Maine. A few more maneuvers gave me a beautiful glimpse of Providence, Rhode Island from the sky. We hoped over Long Island Sound and flew straight down Long Island into JFK. Landing was exactly on time.
Overall, Iberia is a decent airline. It will get you where you’re going pretty much but don’t expect much more than that. Meal service is one area where I hope they’ll improve. After hearing so much about how European airlines were better than their US counterparts, I found that Iberia’s transatlantic service was just about equal to that of domestic US long-haul routes. The inflight service was not too bad, but wasn’t outstanding either. All in all, my first transatlantic experience was a decent one. I just hope that Air France and British Airways do a better job at living up to the hype about European carriers than Iberia does.
PS- One interesting fact I learned, "Iberia" is pronounced "EE-BEH-RIA" and not "EYE-BEER-RIA" as we Americans like to think.