Memoir from Madrid - Iberia Business Class including the A340 in Europe
Summer might now seem a distant memory, but back in early September some keen flight pricing and an InterContinental Ambassador free weekend night certificate sitting in the drawer was all the impetus I needed to concoct a long weekend in one of my favourite European cities, Madrid. LHR-MAD
BA and Iberia codeshare on all of their services to Madrid as one would expect from two airlines in the same group, let alone the same alliance. Flight times meant that two IB services were the most convenient for this trip, with the added advantage of experiencing the longhaul-configured A340 that Iberia use on a daily rotation to London (principally for cargo reasons I believe). At the time of booking, the return flight would’ve been on the longest commercial aircraft in the world, the A340-600 sporting IB’s latest onboard product, however, a few weeks before departure the aircraft changed to a rather more elderly A340-300.
After a slight but unnecessary panic in the taxi that I’d left my toiletries bag at home, we arrived at Heathrow Terminal 5 a couple of hours before departure and breezed through North Fast Track security with mobile boarding passes and hand baggage only - really the only way to travel these days if at all possible. Galleries Club South was moderately busy, but a spot in my favourite space near to the Cinema was available and I enjoyed a simple second breakfast of a banana and coffee before arriving at Gate A19 with boarding already well in progress. The great advantage of arriving mid-way through boarding is that the Priority Boarding lane is almost always empty and one can simply float through, although of course you then run the risk of there being limited overhead bin space remaining. Thankfully this was not the case on this occasion with my bag only having to be a row or two further back than me, and I settled into Seat 1D on this 14 year old A321, EC-IJN sporting the new Iberia livery.
There were 7 rows of Business Class on this morning’s flight, with a pretty full load. IB’s interior cabin design is functional to say the least, with none of the detail that BA’s latest shorthaul interiors offer. That being said, BA and IB are undoubtedly part of the same group, paying little attention to keeping cabins in a condition maintenance or cleanliness-wise anywhere nearing that of most of their rivals. Legroom in Row 1 was more than ample, certainly more than in the same row on BA’s A321s. Subsequent rows looked a lot more spacious too. Jackets were offered to be hung by the crew as boarding completed, newspapers were passed out, but no hot towels were anywhere to be seen.
After what seemed like an eternity, service only commenced once cruise level had been reached. A breakfast tray was offered consisting of a somewhat anaemic-looking omelette (that appeared to be the only option), fruit bowl and yogurt drink. Breads and pastries were offered from the basket, with drinks from the trolley. The presentation of the meal was, like the cabin interior, functional, with the fruit bowl, butter and cutlery all wrapped in plastic. Everything was edible excepting the rock hard bread (which at least had its own plate) - not a particularly memorable or creative breakfast, but far from terrible.
Service continued during the flight with the crew offering further breads and drinks, and clearing trays promptly. My tea towards the end of the flight was presented in an awkward little dish with a strange biscuit/cereal bar thing that tasted of cardboard - a nice thought, but poorly executed.
We landed in a baking Madrid and docked at the main Terminal 4 building, before taking the efficient metro into the city to Gregorio Maranon, the closest station to the InterContinental.InterContinental Madrid
InterContinental is my favourite business hotel chain, and their Madrid property is overall no exception to the consistent and comfortable experience I have come to expect from them, despite a few little grumbles on this stay. We had booked a Club Room, and were upgraded in advance of arrival to a fourth floor Premium Suite. At the front desk, the welcoming agent asked whether we wanted to check in in the Club InterContinental lounge, but I always find that a bit of a faff and prefer to get to the room straight away.
Our suite featured a spacious living room and separate bedroom, and a balcony overlooking the slightly austere interior courtyard. Most of the rooms (and almost all of those with balconies) at this property overlook the courtyard, with the alternative option being smaller windowed rooms overlooking the tree-lined Paseo de la Castellana at the front.
The living room featured a sofa and two armchairs, desk with desk chair, sideboard with TV and minibar (which bizarrely was locked), and console with Nespresso machine and tea making facilities. The Ambassador welcome gift of a fan was placed on the coffee table, alongside the welcome fruit plate, with complimentary bottles of water placed on the desk (and replenished daily, except on one occasion when it was forgotten and had to be requested with room service). The room, as indeed the wider hotel, could do with some updating internally, but everything was clean and in good condition. One slight niggle was that drinking glasses weren’t replaced every day.
Just off the living room was a hall to the interconnecting room, which housed a console table and was a useful place to store the ironing board during the stay without having to put it up and down.
The bedroom featured a comfortable king size bed that could be split into two single beds if required, a chest of drawers with TV, integrated wardrobes (including safe and luggage rack), and an armchair squeezed into a tight corner by the balcony door.
Off the bedroom, the spacious bathroom housed a bath with separate walk-in shower, dual sinks and separate WC room. The bathrobes and slippers were hanging here too, with upgraded L’Occitane amenities.
The Club InterContinental lounge, on the first floor and overlooking the Paseo de la Castellana and hotel entrance, is nicely appointed with a large lounge area and smaller dining area off to the right, albeit all in one large space overall. Whilst the lounge doesn’t feature a particularly standout food or drink offering (there is no champagne, for instance), what is offered was perfectly ample although service at breakfast was a little patchy, with a stereotypically Spanish waiter taking a relaxed attitude to clearing tables, forgetting drinks refills and not being very welcoming when ordering from the menu as opposed to going to the buffet. A nice alternative to the Club lounge was to take breakfast in the main restaurant area (complimentary for Club guests), which featured a slightly wider selection but similarly erratic service.
The Club lounge isn’t the best out there, the waiting and housekeeping staff could do with some refinement, and the interior courtyard needs a re-think, but on the whole the IC Madrid is a good base from which to explore Spain’s capital, with a good location, friendly front desk and concierge staff and comfortable rooms and amenities.Three Days in Madrid
I’ll let the pictures do the talking in this section, but suffice to say Madrid is a beautiful city, especially on clear-sky summer days. Temperatures throughout our trip were in the mid to high 30s, too hot to appreciate the city to its fullest extent and meaning we didn’t do a day trip to a nearby town as originally planned. Our first day was spent exploring the expansive Parque del Retiro and the old town, including Plaza Mayor.
Royal Madrid was the focus of day two, including touring the grand Palacio Real. I’m always slightly disappointed at historic buildings when, as with the Palacio Real, only a limited number of public rooms are showcased (as opposed to servants’ quarters, kitchens etc.), but a visit to this particular palace is not to be missed - the Gala Dining Room is one particularly outstanding feature.
With temperature soaring to 38 degrees, much of our third day was spent in the surprisingly interesting Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, one of the most famous modern art galleries in the world, providing plenty of inspiration for decorating the walls of my apartment back home.MAD-LHR
Madrid’s Terminal 4 is an architecturally interesting building, designed by the architects behind Terminal 5 at Heathrow, although with a client who rightly decided warm tones were more appealing than cool and rather austere whites and greys. The expansive check-in hall has a clearly defined Iberia Business check-in area with two long rows of dedicated desks. Unfortunately just two agents were on duty this afternoon, and with one dealing with a seemingly never ending issue, it took us at least 10 minutes to get boarding passes.
There was no queue at the secluded and semi-private Fast Track security area, and a short ride on the transit train to the satellite terminal T4S later had us arriving at Iberia’s flagship Velazquez lounge within half an hour of arrival at the airport.
The Iberia Velazquez lounge is, perhaps surprisingly for an airline not renowned for its excellence, quiet, spacious and has oodles of natural light thanks to the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the taxiways and runways in the distance. A variety of seating options are spread throughout the lounge, including separate TV, work and quiet sleeping areas off from the main thoroughfare of the space.
There are buffet restaurant areas at both ends of the lounge featuring an identical and pretty extensive selection of reasonable quality fare. There’s even a private dining area for IB’s longhaul evening departures, a concept perhaps borrowed from BA. The restaurant areas also feature tea and coffee stations, and there are two bars further into the seating areas. Without being the most luxurious business class lounge in the oneworld network, Iberia’s home facility puts BA’s equivalent offering at Heathrow firmly to shame.
Boarding this afternoon was from Gate U61, which I’d had to check in the lounge as the screens were showing H despite a boarding pass which stated RSU and H gates being unable to accommodate widebody aircraft. Priority boarding was enforced and Business passengers boarded through Door 1L, with other passengers boarding through 2L. IB’s older A340-300 aircraft are configured with 4 rows of lie-flat (but not fully flat bed) Business Plus seats arranged in a 2-2-2 configuration - quite a difference from the staggered 1-2-1 configuration of the newer A330 and A340-600 fleet, which utilise the same seats as EK use on their A380s in J.
The cabin of EC-GUQ was showing its 18 years of use around the edges, but remained a comfortable way to spend a couple of hours in the air. I certainly wouldn't want to be on one of these aircraft for a longhaul flight, however. The seat featured a small stowage pocket below the handset for the IFE, a power socket, a small drinks table in addition to the main table, a personal reading light adjacent to the headrest, a water bottle holder and hook fixed to the bulkhead, and a couple of cut-out storage compartments next to that. The seat had the sense of being well thought out for its time, but at least 5 years past its prime, and a long way from being competitive for longhaul flights.
Headphones were handed out as we were still on the ground (in the roasting heat of a non-air conditioned cabin). What purpose these served is unclear, as the IFE wasn’t switched on and my pull-out screen showed only a fuzzy moving map throughout the journey. Newspapers were distributed via a trolley, and small paper menus completed the pre-departure service.
The dinner service commenced from dual carts serving from both aisles at the same time from the front. I opted for the salmon black pasta, which was presented on a tray with a small salad starter, cheese and dessert. Despite not looking particularly attractive, the pasta was reasonably flavoursome, although the cheese was like eating rubber and the toffee dessert disappointingly bland. As with the outbound breakfast, several of the items arrived with plastic or foil wrapping still on - distinctly un-premium. Breads were offered from the basket, with the friendly crew opening and closing tray tables for passengers. A tea and coffee run completed the service.
We arrived into T5 and parked at T5C adjacent to a rather grimy BA A380. Only one airbridge was used for disembarkation (which went to 2L), which the crew perhaps took their cue from to only hold back one of the two aisles from Y whilst J disembarked. The queue for the UK border was the worst I had experienced for a long time, with the queue right back to the lifts from the transit train platforms. UK Border Force really are abysmal.
Iberia’s widebody operation provides a nice alternative on the Madrid route to the usual narrowbody fleet that plies the European skies, but with BA introducing a 777-200ER onto the route in 2017, I see little reason to choose IB over BA. Passengers from both airlines can use IB’s excellent flagship lounge at MAD, with BA offering generally better catering and more consistent service than their Spanish counterpart.
Thanks for reading along on this trip - do let me know what you think. Coming Soon: BA Club and AA First - HNL via DUB, LHR, EWR, PHX, LAX and IAD