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After flying transatlantic on the British Airways 747 upper deck, TPG Contributors JT Genter and Katie Genter continued from London (LHR) to Madrid (MAD) in Iberia’s A340-300 “Business Plus” cabin. Here’s their review of the experience. (All photos are by the author).
Airport and Lounge
We’d arrived in London from Dallas early that morning, but scheduled a long layover in London to explore the city. We also wanted to experience this Iberia A340 for the flight down to Madrid (MAD) rather than traveling in one of the sub-par business class cabins that are standard on most aircraft along this route — the timing worked out perfectly as it was only available for a 6:30pm departure.
After having some trouble getting from Heathrow to downtown London (it was Christmas morning), we scheduled plenty of extra time to get back to the airport. We were already checked in for this flight and security was a breeze, so we had quite a while to enjoy in the lounge.
LHR’s Terminal 5 has four Oneworld lounges: British Airways Galleries Club Lounge North, Galleries Club Lounge South, Galleries First Lounge (First Class and Oneworld Emerald only) and the Concorde Room (First Class only). Three of these lounges are on the south side of the terminal (to the right after you clear security). The Galleries Club Lounge South is somewhat bigger than the Galleries Club Lounge North — and happened to be closer to where we cleared security — so we headed there.
The Galleries Club Lounge South is located on the third level. On the way up, you’ll pass by the Galleries First Lounge, Elemis Travel Spa and the Concorde Room — all located on the second level.
Being on the third level, the lounge has sweeping views of the terminal, gates and tarmac. Unfortunately, it was already quite dark outside when we arrived so plane spotting was limited. However, if you’re transiting through LHR at a time other than one of the shortest days of the year, you should be able to see plenty of action on the tarmac.
The lounge itself was quite impressive in both size and breath of choices. There were large self-serve bars with premium liquors, chilled wines, sodas and beer, as well as multiple coffee and tea stations, juice bars, soup stations, trays of finger-food, workstations (with provided headphones) and a “cinema” (with a disappointingly-small screen).
We’d planned on getting to the gate more than an hour before the flight, however LHR typically doesn’t post departure gates until soon before departure, so we knew that we’d have to monitor the board.
When we arrived at the airport, we’d seen on the gate board that our flight would depart from the T5 A gates — which are close to the lounge — however when we checked the board an hour and 20 minutes before departure, there was a C gate listed instead and the status was “Boarding.” We quickly collected our things and rushed out the lounge door. Thanks to a quick tram ride and a rather empty airport, we were able to get across to the C gates and to our gate (C63) within 15 minutes.
While boarding hadn’t begun when we’d arrived at the gate, it started soon after — more than an hour before our scheduled departure time. There was no priority boarding given to business class or Oneworld members; boarding was simply an “all call.”
In case you needed something to read on the plane, there were trays of English-language daily newspapers available on the jetway. We were boarding in the evening, but there were still plenty of newspapers left — I wasn’t sure if this is because they’re unpopular or because the airline sources enough of them not to run out.
We received a “Buenos tardes!” (“Good afternoon!”) greeting at door. When I responded with my high-school Spanish, I was promptly directed further in Spanish. While I couldn’t translate the words, the flight attendant’s hand gestures were all the communication that I needed: Head left into the business-class cabin.
Due to the early and “all aboard” boarding process, many people were already on the plane. However, we were the first ones to enter the business-class cabin. The cabin remained empty for the next 15 minutes before the next business-class passenger arrived.
In total, the four-row, 2-2-2 arranged business-class cabin was about half-full for our flight.
After an initial burst of friendliness from the cabin crew — including offers to take a photo of me in my seat — they remained a bit distant throughout the long boarding process. No welcome drink was offered either.
The first striking thing about these seats was just how much space they have! Indeed, the 78-inch pitch exceeded the British Airways Club World seat pitch that we’d just experienced by a solid six inches. This would be an incredible 44 inches of more pitch than our Iberia A321 business class seats on the return from MAD to LHR.
However, unlike the British Airways Club World seats, these offered virtually no privacy. None was needed for the relatively short hop from LHR to MAD, but keep this in mind if you’re considering this plane type for a long-haul flight.
There was no amenity kit (or any amenities for that matter) on the seat when we arrived and none were provided after departure. We didn’t inquire about pillows or blankets, but other passengers in the cabin were provided these items upon request.
One thing not lacking on these seats were options! There were 16 different buttons for altering your seat, from extending the leg-rest to adjusting lumbar support to activating the back massager. Taken together, there seemed to be an endless combination of settings, theoretically helpful for finding the most comfortable position. For those seeking simplicity, there were two general buttons to operate the seat into a seating or almost-flat position.
My seat (2J) had quite a few problems on this flight. Katie’s had fewer issues but still had some annoyances. It seems that the seats on this plane (registration: EC-GUP; first flight: 1998) are past their prime.
First, my headrest was stuck in the down position and took considerable strength to finally free it. Meanwhile, Katie’s headrest would raise easily, but wouldn’t stay in place unless she held it up with her head.
When I pressed the lay-flat button on my seat, I didn’t get the desired result — instead, the seat would shift unevenly for just a second before stopping. I tried to maneuver the many individual controls to get the seat to its most-flat position. This was made more difficult, as the gears would reverse directions when they hit certain stress points. Finally, I was able to get it somewhat reclined, but certainly didn’t reach the 170° recline that Katie and other passengers in the cabin were able to achieve with the simple push-and-hold of a button.
The flight attendants noticed my struggle with the seat controls but didn’t offer any help.
As boarding was finishing up, the flight attendants handed out headsets, which were two-pronged — the only problem was the outlets had three holes and unfortunately, the third prong didn’t accept a standard US headphone plug. Continuing with my seat woes, my plug required significant jostling to produce sound in both ears, and sadly just a temporary solution before sound would retreat to just my right ear.
There was a universal power plug in the armrest. My plug provided no power, but Katie’s did work — a welcome relief for her cell phone.
Personal in-flight entertainment screens folded out of the armrest. The screens were touch-screen, but often required protracted pressing before responding. There were handheld controls as well, but I didn’t find them necessary.
The in-flight entertainment (IFE) system offered just 12 movies (some of them were only in Spanish), 14 TV shows and documentaries (only a few of them were in English), 15 CD-length audio programs and seven simplistic games. For English speakers, this was a very-limited selection. While this wasn’t an issue for our short flight, it’d be rather disappointing to be limited to these options on a longer, transatlantic flight.
The pre-flight safety briefing was shown on the IFE screens during taxi — even though the screens are technically supposed to be folded away at this time. The safely briefing was animated and rather cartoonish, but served its purpose.
Food and Beverage
A full hot meal was served in business class on this two hour and twenty minute flight. Considering that we were departing LHR at 6:30pm and arriving in MAD at nearly 10pm (after the hour time change), the on-board meal was especially timely. The main course was a choice between chicken and pasta.
I chose the chicken. The salad greens were crisp and included a good variety of ingredients. Although there was no salad dressing, I used the olive oil to moisten the salad. The chicken was served — as it was seemingly cooked — with the skin on, was well-cooked and quite moist. The barley and mushroom side was a pleasant complement.
Katie chose the pasta and noted that it had a very starchy smell that was noticeable immediately at serving. The pasta itself was hardened — seemingly from overcooking — yet it still wasn’t warmed enough before serving as the cheese stuffing was still rather cool. While the sides were okay, the pasta was a rather disappointing main dish.
After dinner, drinks were offered. To help push us through the final hours of our journey, I ordered coffee and Katie ordered tea. Both drinks were served with sugar and a small piece of Lindt chocolate. Katie was hopeful for milk with her tea but had to settle for creamer.
As we taxied to the gate, we noticed a fire truck on the tarmac to our right side. As we approached, it turned on its water jets in a water salute. Since no announcement had been made, we were quite curious about the reasoning behind this.
Once we’d arrived at the gate, we stopped by the cockpit to ask about it and found out from the First Officer that this was the Captain’s final flight before retiring. Congrats Captain, and thank you for all of the safe arrivals!
We arrived at the gate ten minutes before our 9:55pm scheduled arrival.
While this flight was significantly more spacious than our return flight turned out to be (in business class on an Iberia A321 plane), this leg was rather disappointing. Since the plane had an international configuration, we were hoping for a competitive international business-class hard-product experience. The seats were aged and mine was quite broken. The in-flight entertainment would be woefully inadequate for a long-haul flight. The flight attendants provided minimal effort during the flight, but were pleasant when they did interact with the passengers — granted that they might be more attentive during a long-haul flight.
We can certainly recommend this aircraft over its alternatives for a quick hop between LHR and MAD, but unless you really need a 78-inch pitch and a wide-open cabin to feel comfortable, you can likely find a much better experience on another aircraft.
Have you experienced a better business class product within Europe?
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