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Without exceeding in any one area, Iberia Premium Economy provides an upgraded experience, giving passengers more personal space on a transatlantic flight. Pros: a solid hard product and a surprisingly good dinner. Cons: Wi-Fi pricing was steep and breakfast was a little disappointing.
With seats tightening in economy and international business and first class getting ever better, there’s been a growing need for airlines to provide an experience somewhere in the middle. It seems that Iberia got the memo, announcing in October that it would be launching premium economy as of May 2017.
While we knew the carrier would be rolling out the new product on its long-haul aircraft, a press release I received from Iberia on Thursday afternoon revealing the first of its planes to feature it prompted me to take another look at the booking options. And when I did, I noticed something peculiar: Although premium economy was scheduled to launch May 1, Google Flights indicated that an aircraft featuring Iberia’s premium economy was flying sooner — in fact, it was scheduled to depart from New York (JFK) for Madrid (MAD) at 9:00pm the same night.
I tried to check Iberia’s website to confirm this but it was experiencing technical issues all day on Thursday. Next, I checked ExpertFlyer’s seat map to see if there was indeed a premium economy section on that particular aircraft. Sure enough, the premium economy class of service appeared with seats in the expected 2-3-2 arrangement. And amazingly, just one of the seats was taken.
Since I wasn’t able to get anywhere with Iberia’s website, I called instead. Without any fanfare, the agent confirmed that premium economy was operating on this flight. Upon inquiry, he saw that it was even available to book with Avios — although I would need to chat with an Iberia Plus agent to know how many Avios it would require. While being transferred, I also confirmed that April 20 was an off-peak award date and checked the award chart to see that the flight should cost just 25,500 Avios one-way. I then confirmed with the Iberia Plus agent that it was bookable with Avios — it was.
Next, I needed to make sure I had enough Iberia Avios. I had purchased 2,000 when they went on sale for just 1.05 cents each via Groupon and after a 304 point portal bonus and a welcome bonus of 200 more Avios, I was nearly 23,000 Avios shy of the award. Thankfully, you can transfer British Airways Avios to Iberia Avios, but while my British Airways Executive Club Avios balance was high enough, I was unable to use British Airways’ or Iberia’s website to transfer them — Iberia’s was still down and British Airways’ site said my account was ineligible for transferring.
I called British Airways and was told that I just needed to add my date of birth to my Executive Club account to be eligible. Despite completing my traveler profile, I was still deemed to be “ineligible” online, so the agent tried to transfer Avios herself. Sure enough, she was able to switch 23,000 Avios immediately from BA to Iberia.
I then called Iberia back and booked the flight for just 25,500 Avios and $87 in taxes and fees, which I charged to my Citi Prestige Card because of its generous travel protection insurance and my current retention bonus of 7x on most travel purchases.
Considering the last-minute one-way premium economy ticket was running $3,153, I had conceivably scored a value of 12.02 cents per Avios on my redemption. But, there wasn’t much time to celebrate. At the time of ticketing, I had less than four hours until departure — and I still needed to run back to my hotel to pack and make the journey from where I was staying in Manhattan to JFK.
Iberia operates out of JFK’s Terminal 7, which is dominated mostly by fellow Oneworld carriers British Airways, Open Skies and Qatar Airways, among other carriers.
As a Oneworld Emerald elite, I was able to use the Iberia business-class check-in counter. Despite there being a full business-class cabin on this flight, there wasn’t a single person in line an hour and 50 minutes prior to departure.
As I didn’t have time to select seats before arriving at the airport, the check-in agent assigned me a window seat “with no one next to you.” Knowing that there had just been one seat reserved earlier, I asked how crowded the cabin was going to be — there were now a grand total of three passengers in premium economy, including me. ExpertFlyer confirmed the same.
I’ve never had trouble booking a one-way flight to Europe, however this check-in agent needed to see my return itinerary in order to check me in. Thankfully, we had just ticketed my return 10 minutes earlier. Upon inquiry, the check-in agent said that confirmed onward travel was required by Spanish authorities — despite the Schengen area simply requiring you to leave within 90 days.
The priority security line wasn’t as quick, and the single-file line took nearly 25 minutes from start to finish. PreCheck was not available, so all passengers were required to remove laptops and shoes. Strangely though, the body scanner we used was only a metal detector — not a standard millimeter wave scanner.
At this was the inaugural premium economy service, the check-in agent wasn’t aware of the lounge access policy for premium economy — and, she really didn’t care. She pointed to my Oneworld Emerald status and said I would be able to access the lounge either way.
Upon arrival at the British Airways Galleries lounge, the check-in agent initially denied my entry until I presented my AA elite status card. For this, she pointed me to the business class side of the lounge. When I inquired as to why my Emerald status wouldn’t get me into the first-class lounge, she said that it was only for British Airways first-class passengers. I mentioned that I thought first-class flyers would visit the separate Concorde Room lounge instead and with an eye roll, she relented, saying I could go into the first-class side.
It really wasn’t worth the battle. While there was an impressive selection of wine and Champagne (Laurent-Perrier Brut and Suavium Pinot Noir Rosé), the food wasn’t overly impressive and mostly consisted of finger foods and hot soup. These options rather paled in comparison to the excellent food I’d had at the British Airways lounge in Boston (BOS) a few weeks ago.
As I was eager to get on the plane and take photos, I didn’t stick around to see what the boarding process was like. With my elite status missing from my boarding pass, I still had priority boarding, which indicates that premium economy passengers will receive priority boarding along with business class and Oneworld elites. Pre-boarding began at 8:24pm for our 9:05pm departure, with priority boarding starting three minutes later.
We loaded on the aircraft via “2L” — the second door on the left side of the plane. To the right as you entered the boarding door was the massive — and nearly full — economy cabin. Turning to the left, I walked right into the small 3.5 row premium economy section. The business-class cabin is located just ahead of premium economy.
My hurried photo taking caught the attention of the flight attendants, who insisted that I stop taking photos until they cleared it. While I waited, I started measuring the seat dimensions, but was quickly told to stop doing that, too.
After a painfully long 20-minute wait, the pilot came back to meet me. Fearing another American Airlines situation, I was prepared to fully explain the situation, that I would be writing a review of this particular flight. There was no need. The pilot seemed confused as to why he was being asked by the FAs to be involved in this, after all, he said, everyone is taking photos on board. His only instruction was to not take photos of the crew. He then proceeded to chat with the other two premium economy passengers, happily showing off the new seats to us.
We pushed back from the gate six minutes before departure time, but the captain quickly came on to inform us of a departure delay due to traffic on the ground in JFK. Sure enough, we didn’t take off until nearly an hour later.
Cabin and Seat
The A340-600 premium-economy cabin is arranged as three full rows of 2-3-2 and a mini-row of two on the left side of the plane. On the opposite side from the two-seat row is the premium-economy lav.
The seats measure from 19 to 19.5 inches between the armrests and 37 inches of pitch for non-bulkhead rows. The window-side seats in the last row of the cabin seem to have slightly-reduced recline, although the middle seats have enough space for a full recline.
Other than the back seats, these premium-economy seats have a surprising amount of recline. When in the full reclining position, the front of the seat tilts slightly up. Whether by design or not, this seems to help support your legs — especially when using the footrest in front of you.
The tray table for each seat folds out from its storage spot between the seats, while the window seats each have the table fold out from the middle console. There’s a similar console between each of the middle seats, but the table folds out from the left side for the middle-middle seat, as the spot where the tray table would be stored on the right side is blocked off.
The folding table opens up into a moderate-sized 16×10 inches and it’s easily adjustable forwards and backwards. From front to back extreme, the range is an impressive 5.5 inches.
As there are service-divider curtains at the front and the back of the cabin, there’s no easy way for the passengers on the left side of the plane to reach the bathroom. In the empty cabin on tonight’s flight, it was easy to cross the cabin though the middle seats, however on a full flight, passengers will have to pass through the back curtain and cross at the galley to get to the bathroom. Hopefully the FAs will be prepared for these interruptions.
While bulkhead seats are generally in high demand, I’m not sold on the ones in this cabin. Rather than switching sides in the galley, passengers and crew might still try to pass in front of the middle bulkhead seats in row 11 — making 11 D/E/H less appealing.
The aisle seats on either side of the bulkhead (11C and 11J) don’t line up evenly with the business-class cabin, so I can see how crew could bump these seats often when passing between cabins, especially when the curtain is drawn. Window seats 11A and 11L could be good solo seats.
For couples traveling together, the window pairings in row 12 (A/C, J/L) and 14 (A/C) would be my top choices. Row 15 (A/C) and 14 (J/L) would be great for reclining without having to worry about the passengers seated behind you, but they seemed to have limited recline compared to the other seats.
For solo travelers not wanting a window, I’d recommend seats 12 D/H or 14 D/H as you’ll have less of a chance of the middle seat being taken — and then hopefully less than a 50% chance of being bothered by that passenger trying to get out.
Each seat was stocked with a plastic-wrapped pillow and blanket. The pillow was no larger than you’d expect to receive in economy, but had a “real” cotton pillowcase featuring Iberia Turista Premium branding rather than the flimsy pillow covering you’d usually get. Unfortunately, it didn’t provide much support for my back when the seat was reclined though — doubling up on pillows did help. The blanket was thick enough to provide a comforting cover for sleeping.
If you need reading material, flight attendants passed through the cabin with a rolling cart of magazines and newspapers as the boarding process was wrapping up. As the jet bridge pushed back from the aircraft, the flight attendants passed through the mini-cabin to hand out a small amenity kit and noise-canceling headphones.
The red-themed amenity kit contained an eye mask, toothbrush, toothpaste, earplugs and a pair of socks. These items were mostly sufficient, but the addition of lip moisturizer would be nice considering the dry air onboard.
There weren’t any special features in the premium economy bathroom. Besides liquid hand soap, there was only a moisturizer.
Each seat has a 11.5-inch touchscreen IFE screen. For the non-bulkhead seats, these thin screens are built into the back of the seat in front of you but can tilt if the passenger in front of you reclines.
Under each of these screens is a tray (12.5 x 5 x 1.5 inches), which is perfect for storing your phone, boarding pass or other small items.
The bulkhead screens are stowed between the seats near your feet. In order to release the IFE screen, you’ll have to press the not-easily-found release button. However, as it’s one of three release buttons in these bulkhead seats, it can get confusing. Once you find the right one, it’ll be obvious and the screen will spring out. But, you’re still going to have to reach down and pull it up toward you.
The plastic-wrapped headphones, by the way, use two different-sized prongs. However, there’s no need to bring a converter and I was able to plug my own earbuds in and get good-quality sound in both ears. While the headphones are promoted as being noise-canceling, I’m not sure that they’re really up to the task — they seemed to be “noise-muffling” headphones more than anything. That said, they provided solid sound, making it easy to get lost in your entertainment choice.
Power plugs can generally be found between the seats. Each seat pair has two universal plugs and two USB plugs. I tested these out during the flight, but found that none of them were working. A flight attendant noticed my struggle and went to the front of the aircraft to “try something.” Sure enough, the power plugs across the cabin powered on shortly afterward, as indicated by all the newly lit green lights. Victory!
The IFE welcome screen happily promotes Wi-Fi on-board, which is always great to see — especially on a foreign carrier, where Wi-Fi is less likely to be found. The good news for passengers flying Iberia: the airline is just one of seven airlines to have Wi-Fi on 100% of its long-haul fleet.
Once I connected to the network, I became less excited. The homepage offer lists a $19.95 cost for just 25MB.
However, if you exit the process and reopen www.onair.com, you’ll see all four offers: 25MB for $19.99, 10MB for $9.95, 45MB for $34.95 and 4MB for $4.95.
Since data was limited, I connected using my cell phone and shortly afterward, my alerts steadily came through and I was able to browse rather quickly. But when I tried to load an Ookla speedtest, I received an “Network communication issues” error message. Considering the limit on data, let’s just say the Wi-Fi was fast enough to stay connected with friends and family, but not to get any data-intensive work done.
Food and Beverage
As boarding was completing, a flight attendant kicked off the beverage service by offering orange juice and water from a tray. Shortly after leveling off, flight attendants passed through the cabin to ask for our meal options. No menu was provided on this flight and the spoken choices were “pasta with tomato sauce” or “ribs with potatoes.” While pasta is often the safe choice, ordering red meat is an easy test of the preparation. I was also curious to see how the “ribs” would be served.
My meal arrived approximately 45 minutes after takeoff. The rib meat was boneless and served on the same plate as the mashed potatoes, asparagus shoots and a single cherry tomato. The rib meat was perfectly cooked, tender and moist — an incredible main dish. It also came with a black bean, corn, tomato and onion salad that provided a fresh complement to the meal. The bread was the most disappointing part — served cold and tough. To end it, there was a chocolate mousse dessert that was flavorful without being too sweet.
Drink orders were taken at the same time as the food. I tried to order coffee but was told that it wouldn’t be available until later. I could, however, have a choice of sodas, juices, beer or wine. When I asked about wine options, I received a simple “red or white.” While the drink ordering process was disappointing, the red wine wasn’t merely served out of a box and the Senorio de los Llanos Tempranillo ended up complementing the ribs dish perfectly.
Flight attendants passed through three times after dinner was wrapping up to offer coffee. While one cream was served on the dinner tray, there was only non-dairy creamer available for the refills. After collecting trays and as passengers were preparing to rest, one final service for the night was offered, with FAs handing out 330ml bottles of spring water.
About 1.5 hours before landing, breakfast was served. The flight attendants woke me up for the service, as I had requested. My morning meal consisted of a cold ham and cheese bagel sandwich with strawberry yogurt, a granola bar and a Kit Kat for dessert. It came with a cup of orange juice and the flight attendants came through again about 15 minutes later with coffee.
To say that the service was personalized wouldn’t be an overstatement, however there were just three of us in the premium-economy cabin on this flight, so it was easy for the crew to provide excellent service for each of us. We were greeted with a genuine smile and FAs were friendly without being overbearing. However, given the situation at boarding, I’m discounting much of the service side of this review — as my “cover” had been blown following the photo-taking upset at the start of this flight.
A Note On My Fellow Inaugural Passengers
There were just three of us in the 23-seat premium-economy cabin for this early inaugural flight, and all of us had gotten our seats within a few hours of departure — interestingly, we’d all used different methods to do so. I’d booked my flight using just 25,500 Avios. Another passenger mentioned she’d booked an economy ticket but asked at check-in — as she always does — about the possibility of an upgrade. She’d then been able to score the upgrade to premium economy for just $80. Asked if she thought it was worth the cost, she answered “absolutely.” The third passenger was a man in his 30s, who mentioned without elaborating that he’d booked premium economy “with a mix of cash and Avios.”
We arrived at a Madrid (MAD) airport remote stand nearly an hour after our scheduled arrival time. The time-intensive bus process made the delay even longer and quite a few passengers seemed concerned that they’d miss their connections. It also didn’t help that we waited for the last passengers to be helped off the plane before the bus headed to the terminal.
I was quite pleased with this premium economy experience. The seats are perfect for the role — providing solid recline, good width and enough pitch to stretch out. Dinner seemed to be an upgrade from the usual economy food, although I wasn’t as pleased with breakfast as I was with dinner. The Wi-Fi was good enough for staying connected with friends and family, but too expensive and not fast enough to get any data-intensive work done. The in-flight entertainment system provided plenty of options to fill the seven-hour flight if needed.
Are you planning to try the Iberia premium economy product for yourself? Let us know in the comments, below.
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