Finalmente, Stepping Up Its Game: Iberia's A350 in Premium Economy From Madrid to New York
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[tpg_rating tpg-rating-score="81" ground-experience="7" cabin-seat="21" amens-ife="9" food-bev="22" service="22" pros="Upgraded food options and significantly more comfortable seats in premium than in economy, with more legroom and adequate footrest." cons="Not enough bathrooms (and far away from premium), cabin not very private, and stuck on bus preboarding." /]
When flying to the US from my home base in Madrid, Spain, I usually tend to stick with Oneworld carriers (mainly Iberia) to focus on earning elite status. Since I already reviewed Iberia's newish A350 in business and flew the route in economy, I thought it would be a great idea to check out the premium economy section on the aircraft, which Iberia markets as its Turista Premium class.
I'd actually attempted twice to review the section on the A350, but both times the aircraft was changed to the A340 (you can read that review here). The third time's the charm, as they say, and I was able to sail the skies in Turista Premium on the A350 this summer from Madrid (MAD) to New York-JFK, and you can read all about it below.
I used my Platinum Card® from American Express to book the round-trip ticket in premium economy to earn 5x the American Express Membership Rewards points by booking directly via Iberia (on up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year). Summer rates weren't cheap, and the price was about $1,450 round-trip. While round-trip, business-class tickets often go for over $3,000 round-trip and economy less than $1,000, premium economy pricing maintains a solid middle ground between the two.
Iberia allows you to use Avios to book premium-economy tickets. Prices between Madrid and New York, Boston (BOS) or Chicago (ORD) start at 25,500 points one-way. Considering you can get a business-class ticket between those same cities and Madrid on off-peak dates for just 34,000, using points for premium economy is often not the best redemption. Instead, you may want to pay cash for the ticket and save your points for a trip in business class, which is just 8,500 points more.
The nice point about using points is that you can transfer them from programs like American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards. Remember, Avios can be transferred between the programs at a rate of 1:1, so one British Airways Avios is worth one Iberia Avios, and vice versa.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Ground Experience" tpg-rating="7" tpg-rating-max="10" tail="EC-MYX" age=".9" departure="12" departure-2="20" duration="7" duration-2="10" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
My flight was scheduled to depart at 12:20pm. I knew I wanted to have time in the lounge to do some work, so I got there about three hours in advance.
One of the few perks awarded to me on Iberia thanks to my Ruby Oneworld status is priority check-in. As several flights for the US on Iberia depart around midmorning, it was nice to have to wait just a brief minute in the priority line. I was informed at check-in that I was allowed to check two bags, great for someone flying with a lot of luggage who doesn't want to splurge for the business-class ticket. The desk attendant was friendly, and the check-in process was speedy.
After that was done, I headed to security and customs and then to the Sala VIP Neptuno in Barajas Terminal 4S. No fast-track security or lounge access came with the premium economy ticket, but having Priority Pass through my Chase Sapphire Reserve awarded me lounge access.
I won't get into too much detail about the lounge, since it's not actually a benefit for the premium economy passenger, but I appreciated the breakfast offerings, especially the fresh fruit and the comfortable chairs, each coming with an outlet for charging up those devices preflight.
And the lounge was ideal for those who love watching planes, with its large windows overlooking Iberia aircraft.
I got to the gate about 10 minutes before boarding started. The one nice thing about Iberia's new boarding procedure was that Group 2 was reserved for Oneworld Ruby passengers (there is no longer a priority group boarding, and business passengers, as well as Oneworld Sapphire and Emerald elites, boarded as Group 1).
I've flown Iberia several times since the rule was instituted in late spring, and am consistently one of the few passengers to board with Group 2. Only two other passengers were in line with me this time, leading me to believe that the other premium-economy passengers were either not paying attention or assigned boarding Group 3.
But it didn't really matter, as we were taken to the plane on buses. Although we started boarding on time, we were held standing on the bus for almost 20 minutes once we reached the plane, cramped and hot. Just when passengers were starting to get antsy, the bus doors opened and there was a mad rush to the plane. I rated the otherwise fine on-the-ground experience lower because of this. I wish they would have just boarded a few minutes later than keeping people stuck on crowded, hot bus.
I soon realized that boarding early in Group 2 wasn't actually that helpful. Since the door was directly in front of my seat (11C, the bulkhead on the aircraft's port side), passengers were boarding literally over my feet, practically rolling their suitcases over my toes. So if I ever fly the aircraft again, I'll make sure to get a seat on the J/L side. Or board after the masses get on.
The flight, although the boarding procedure started on time, departed about 30 minutes late, thanks to the bus situation. It seemed the plane was waiting for a few connecting passengers, too. The delay didn't affect our arrival time, which ended up being 15 minutes ahead of schedule.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Cabin and Seat" tpg-rating="21" tpg-rating-max="25" configuration="2" configuration-2="4" configuration-3="2" width="19" pitch="37" lavs="4" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Once the boarding doors closed, having the bulkhead seat of 11C in the section of two was perfect. I didn't find the proximity to the galley bothersome, though perhaps I would have felt differently during an overnight flight where I wanted to get some sleep.
Iberia claims that its new Turista Premium seats on the A350 have 20% more legroom and 15% more recline. I had endless legroom, and I didn't feel guilty reclining my seat, knowing that the woman seated behind me still had plenty of space.
After checking out the nonbulkhead premium economy seats and then viewing the more cramped economy seats, I noticed a significant difference.
Those not in the bulkhead of the premium cabin still had a lot more legroom compared to those in economy.
Even though the configuration in premium was 2-4-2, the rows were staggered, meaning the cabin seemed more spacious compared to the 3-3-3 economy cabin.
The seats also featured adjustable headrests and footrests, which made the journey a whole lot more comfortable (though regular economy also had adjustable headrests).
The seats in premium seemed more substantial, too, with more padding and support than economy. With a width of 19 inches (versus 17 in regular economy) and a pitch of 37 (versus 30 in regular economy), there was a tangible difference in comfort.
Though the 16-inch tray table came out of the armrest, it conveniently could be slid further or closer to me, and it was perfectly fine to eat on, as well as to work on my laptop.
Although I found the seat to be fairly comfortable for the duration of the seven-hour flight, there were two things I didn't like about the cabin itself. The first was that the cabin wasn't enclosed or private at all. It fed directly into the economy cabin and was only four rows long (with two in the middle of the four-section rows). After paying almost double the price, I figured the cabin would seem a little more private, but it wasn't.
The other thing was that there was no bathroom specific to the cabin, meaning you had to walk back to Row 36 to use one of the four lavatories provided for economy class (business had two). Two were out of order, meaning the economy section should normally have six but was only working with four, which was tight for a full flight.
But there was a small silver lining to the lack of lavatory in the section: No one was lining up in the space around my feet to wait. I did notice several people coming up to the galley to looking for the bathroom from both premium economy and economy. I could tell the flight attendants were getting tired of repeatedly telling passengers that the bathroom was much further back in the cabin.
Speaking of the lavatories, I was mildly disgusted at the state of the one I entered shortly after takeoff. How could it already be so gross already? Sigh. The sink was filled with grayish, used water, there was water (or some other unidentified liquid) and paper on the floor, and I wasn't thrilled to get anywhere near the toilet.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Amenities and IFE" tpg-rating="9" tpg-rating-max="15" screen="11" movies="40" live-tv="No" tailcam="No" headphones="Yes" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Screens that flip out of the bottom of the bulkhead seats often don't work as well as seatback screens, and sure enough, my TV had to be restarted at the beginning of the flight because it wouldn't turn on.
Once restarted, though, it was responsive to touch (no need for the remote) and had a fairly good selection of movies and TV shows. Iberia always seems to have a more limited selection than some of the other carriers that fly the MAD-JFK route, but this time the selections seemed to be more encompassing, including new releases, international films and shows like "The Big Bang Theory" and even HBO classics like "Sex and the City" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm."
My seat also came with a pretty standard pillow and blanket, as well as a small amenity kit (the same given to me on the A340) with the tacky, neoprene red case stocked with a toothbrush, generic toothpaste, hair tie, socks, an eye mask and earplugs, all of which were standard-issue.
I was also given noise-canceling headphones that worked well and were much more substantial than the flimsy earbuds handed out in economy. They had a double prong and were plugged in on the side of the seat.
At the beginning of the flight, I was offered newspapers. I grabbed a copy of El Pais, but there wasn't anything in English available.
Wi-Fi was available on the plane, but I always have issues connecting to Iberia Wi-Fi on my phone and couldn't get it to work properly.
There was one charging port to share between my seatmate and me, with one USB port and one international socket.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Food and Beverage" tpg-rating="22" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-meal="2" meals-purchase="0" comp-alcohol="Yes" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Before taking off, the flight attendants offered premium economy passengers juice or water. I accepted a water (but wished it were sparkling water -- I could see the business-class passengers sipping it out of actual glasses).
No food menu was provided, but I was asked if I wanted meat or pasta. Upon further inspection, my alleged meat dish proved to be a glazed pork. I was surprised to note that the pork was tender, cooked just right and juicy, with delicious flavor.
The pork was accompanied by sweet potatoes and a vegetable dish that had zucchini and raisins in meat or pasta. However, Iberia may want to consider explaining the dish more accurately for passengers who eat beef but not pork.
The meal was served an hour after takeoff in a real porcelain dish with real silverware, so I knew that the meal had to be different from regular economy. The main course also came a fresh, small salad, bread, butter and a small brownie, which was dry and lackluster.
But the brownie was the only part of the meal that wasn't delicious, and I was pleasantly surprised with what seemed to be an updated focus from Iberia on serving a better meal in premium economy. Alcohol was available free of charge (wine, beer and spirits), with tea and coffee served after.
The second meal, served about an hour before landing, was a focaccia sandwich with chicken, tomato and melted cheese, a large Greek yogurt, digestive cookies and a Kit Kat, with juice, water or soda followed by tea and coffee.
I noticed those back in economy had more of a snack-box meal, with a cold sandwich and smaller yogurt. The hot sandwich in premium was definitely an upgrade from the flattened, cold ham sandwich given in the back of the bus.
The last time I flew premium economy on the A340, I found the food offerings to be disappointing, and it seems that Iberia has definitely made an effort to provide a more gourmet and tasty meal for premium passengers.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Service" tpg-rating="22" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" blurb="Iberia isn't known for their service, but the FAs on this flight were friendlier and more attentive than usual." /]
I fly Iberia pretty much constantly and often moan about their apathetic service on board, on the ground and over the phone. But for the first time, I was impressed by the service. The woman who checked me in back in Madrid was noticeably more engaged than usual during the process.
While I definitely didn't feel it was above or beyond, the flight attendants were attentive and helpful. When my IFE screen stalled, the FA restarted it immediately and then came back to check on me twice to make sure it worked. She was friendly during meal service, though I did note she didn't speak English to other passengers who were speaking to her in English. I was also greeted upon boarding and smiled at while disembarking.
I've become accustomed to Iberia's poor service, but finally, during this flight, Iberia stepped up their game.
I was pleasantly surprised by the seat comfort, friendly service and tasty meals on this flight in premium economy. But for the price, which is sometimes more than double the cost of an economy ticket, I'd rather fly premium going east to Europe for a more comfortable seat on the overnight flight to get more sleep. If using Iberia Avios, I'd rather save up 8,500 more and splurge for an off-peak business-class ticket, or snag a cheap economy fare.
But Iberia's Turista Premium on the A350 clearly offers a better experience than flying in economy, so if you'd like that extra added comfort, it could be worth paying the additional price, especially when flying east on the red-eye. I only hope that this experience with service wasn't a one-off, and that it becomes more of a constant on Iberia.
All photos by the author.