I recently had the opportunity to fly both British Airways and Iberia in short-haul economy, and talk about a 180-degree difference, especially striking when both are owned by the same parent company. While short flights don’t generally get much consideration, when one carrier offers so much more than another on the exact same route (namely between London and Madrid) for the exact same price, it’s probably better to go with the airline that will offer more and avoid the one that (spoiler alert) won’t even give you water.
Each member airlines of the oneworld alliance, British Airways (BA) and Iberia (IB) are both owned by parent company International Airlines Group (IAG), which also controls Aer Lingus (soon to rejoin oneworld) and Vueling (non-member). With their hubs in London and Madrid, respectively, they form the backbone of oneworld’s bridge between Europe and North America, offering a comprehensive feeder network. With joint business venture (JBV) immunity in place, British and Iberia (along with American Airlines, Air Berlin, and Finnair) can coordinate and maximize schedules, set prices, and share revenue without the fear of prosecution for collusion. One may even be presented with codeshare flights that are actually operated by one of the airlines, but carry the flight number of one of the partners (e.g., a New York-to-Madrid flight that’s sold with an American flight number, but is actually operated by Iberia).
Hence for the flying public, traveling between Point A to Point B usually costs the same no matter which airport they connect in, which flight number a flight has, or which JBV airline is actually operating the flight. However, offering the same fares does not mean offering the same level of service quality, and here is where the differences really come out between British and Iberia.
The differences are especially remarkable between London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR) and Madrid-Barajas Airport (MAD), where there are upwards of 13 flights split between British and Iberia, with each flight carrying the other’s codeshare (and sometimes coded in a way where the customer service agents themselves can’t tell on their computer screens). They both even operate out of LHR’s Terminal 5, which was originally built for the exclusive use of British. One would think that with this level of cooperation, the service on board this 2.5 hour flight sector would be similar.
Well, that’s what I thought too… silly me. I happened to choose an Iberia flight to Madrid out of pure dumb randomness; the flights immediately before and after mine were operated by British. Any of those departures would have been fine with me, but having taken three short-haul flights on BA recently, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try out Iberia to change it up and for #SCIENCE! Frankly, I didn’t really have to take Iberia, since I would also take another Iberia leg from Madrid to Brussels the following day. See the things I do for AR readers???
So in April, I flew four short-haul segments on BA and two on Iberia. Here is my mostly fact-based, with a dash of crotchety disbelief, compare and contrast.
On the Phone, Online Check-In, and Checking In at the Airport
For various reasons, I had to call into both British and Iberia service centers a few times to deal with my flights. Fortunately for me, I got my goals accomplished, but there was a difference in communication and helpfulness, with British agents being quite friendly and knowledgeable, whereas Iberia agents seemed like they were just there, not really welcoming at all. Also, one of their agents put me on hold for about 10 minutes while she checked with her supervisor on something that seemed like it should be simple to handle.
Online check-in was straightforward (both airlines use the same software engine), but while I could select seats in the forward part of the planes on British (owed to my oneworld elite status), Iberia only offered me the rear of the plane free-of-charge.
At the check-in counters I only had to change seats and print boarding passes, but again slight personnel differences came out, with very friendly BA staffers versus short, almost-curt Iberia staffers. It’s worth noting that at both LHR and MAD, check-in is handled by the home airline on behalf of the other, so there are not counters separated out by airline, just by premium and regular economy areas. At outstations, contracted workers are used.
Advantage: British Airways
Fast Track Security at LHR and MAD
While the airport authorities themselves handle the lines leading into security (security itself won’t be reviewed here since airlines have zero control over that), the airlines do have a hand in influencing policies. Fortunately for me, I’ve become accustomed to accessing fast-track security for oneworld flights as a Sapphire, even though the benefit is only guaranteed for top-tier Emeralds, per the alliance benefits page.
British has always extended fast-track security for not only myself but traveling companions as well (as have Air Berlin, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, and of course American Airlines), and did so without exception this time as well, at both Heathrow’s Terminal 5 and its outstations (Berlin, Duesseldorf, and Stockholm, for me).
Thankfully British handled my check-in for my Iberia LHR-MAD flight and had no problem letting my companion through fast-track security as per usual. However in MAD, on our way to Brussels (BRU), we were stopped cold in our tracks. Since MAD uses automated gates that only open when a boarding pass coded with “Priority” is scanned, we approached the attendant on the side since my non-status companion would have such a coded pass. The attendant said in no uncertain terms that my companion would have to use the regular security queue. I inquired further about this, but she was adamant that this was the policy. Only after I asked to speak to a supervisor to confirm the oneworld policy did she relent and allowed my companion into the line, and only after she added my companion’s boarding pass info on a form on clipboard… that already had about 25 other entries on it.
Advantage: British Airways
Boarding and Takeoff
Unlike the multiple groups/zones that many U.S. carriers do for their boarding process, there are only two boarding groups for both British and Iberia; priority and general. Both had separate lanes that were policed pretty effectively. British seemed a bit more strict about measuring and weighing carry-on luggage. Iberia called for boarding before the cabin was ready, having us line up in the jet-bridge to “load the chamber” and board a few minutes later once the crew gave the ok. This seemed to be Iberia’s modus operandi to a quick departure; I personally rather would sit and relax for a few additional minutes, especially since priority (and pre-board) passengers were called first and thus were the ones waiting on the jet-bridge.
Once on board, the cabin crews of both carriers were consistently welcoming, friendly, and helpful. The British crews were more thorough in making sure every single passenger was ready for departure (seat belts, seat backs, small carry-ons pushed all the way under, etc.), whereas the Iberia crews did more spot checking and wasn’t as intensive, but still well within the comfort threshold for safety.
Advantage: British, slightly
British Airways has been actively refurbishing their cabins with new slimline seats that have been panned by frequent passengers for their 30″ of pitch on their A320s (for comparison, Southwest offers 32-33″), which goes down to 29″ on the A319s. This is more dastardly considering that, like many European carriers, British uses the same seats in its pseudo-business cabin (which simply blocks the middle of a three-seat economy row with a removable center console). 30″ pitch for business class… that’s a tough pill to swallow. But at least the upholstery looks sharp and modern, albeit a bit firm. Interestingly, my non-convertible, non-exit-row seats on one of my A320 flights had a decent amount of legroom (see below), at least 32″… perhaps the seat installers mis-measured?
Iberia is even more miserable, with 28″ pitch and cramming 30 rows of seats into an Airbus A320 vs. 28 rows on British. Not only that, it’s very clear that Iberia skimped on the hardware, as their seats didn’t even have seat pockets in the usual place, replaced instead by some ugly covers and screws to where the pocket would normally attach. For business travelers, the middle seats are merely empty and unassigned, but there is a touch more pitch at 31″ in the section of seats in the forward half of the cabin where the convertible class seats are, so look for those rows in case they are sold as economy.
Neither airline offered any seat-back entertainment or WiFi on their narrowbody aircraft, and only British offered drop-down screens.
This is where the two airlines really diverge in opposite directions. Mind you, both have the reputation (in my mind) of being full-service global carriers that are part of the prestigious alliance. I’d like to think that I was accurate in that assessment, but perhaps the world has changed.
On British, the usual perks of complimentary beverages (including beer and wine) were offered, and I was never refused a quick second cup of water. On longer (but still short-haul) flights, a cold snack is also offered. The crew came through a few times before landing to make sure they had collected all the trash (sorry, I mean rubbish) they could.
On Iberia, admittedly because of my own lack of research beforehand, I was caught off-guard when I learned that NOTHING was complimentary, not even water (though I did see one passenger pull the “I need it for medication” card). Iberia did invest in a nice, full-color menu card that showed the items on tap, as well as combo deals. I saw quite a number of passengers (more than I was expecting) partake from the buy-on-board cart, and after service I had a nice discussion with one of the flight attendants who was very gracious and unnecessarily apologetic for his airline’s policies. I merely wanted to pick his brain and find out what the policies were, such as if Iberia’s elites or more expensive fares were given complimentary items, and on which routes (FYI: short-haul flights provide no freebies for anyone in economy).
To that crew member’s credit, he returned with cups of water and some small snacks from business class, thanking me for being an elite and encouraging me to send feedback to Iberia about the lack of complimentary snacks and drinks. I got the distinct feeling that the crew was not happy with the situation, or at least not happy to be the target of passenger ire.
I understand that Iberia is trying to compete with the likes of the ultra-low-cost carriers like Ryanair and Easyjet, but take the following recent experiences of mine for comparison:
- Air Berlin, a low-cost carrier that managed to join oneworld, offers complimentary beverages, and tops it off with free chocolate hearts to every passenger deplaning;
- Germanwings, Lufthansa Group’s low-cost subsidiary, offered buy-on-board items in economy, but elites, expensive fares, and award travelers received complimentary meal (i.e., a sandwich, a beverage, water, and gummy bears!).
So yes, my lack of understanding of Iberia’s catering notwithstanding, I was severely disappointed with my choice to fly Iberia between LHR and MAD, when I could have just as easily flown British and not gone thirsty for 2.5 hours. On the bright side, it did prepare me for my MAD-BRU flight on Iberia, and I quite enjoyed my self-catered Iberian ham, dried sausages, bread, cheese, and water on that flight.
Advantage: British, by a mile (or 1.6 kilometres, your choice)
First, I will (again) admit that I did not find out beforehand about Iberia’s short-haul buy-on-board catering, and did the wrong thing ASS-U-ME-ing that I would get a free small cup of water from a full-service, oneworld member airline… total rookie move. But this experience also makes me wonder: if someone like me could make this kind of mistake, what hope does a normal, layperson of a traveler have in avoiding this pitfall, especially if British staff couldn’t tell on their system that a flight was operated by Iberia and not BA? How would Joe Traveling Public know to buy water before boarding, especially if he buys a ticket from British with a non-unusual flight number, departing out of Terminal 5, checking in with BA staff, and perhaps having previously been on this flight sector that was actually operated by BA and/or a medium- or longer-haul flight by Iberia?
On a 2.5-hour flight, it’s not the end of the world. It just makes it for an unpleasant surprise. Buyer beware… don’t be fooled!
A previous version of this story indicated the availability of Wi-Fi on British Airways’ short-haul fleet. This has been corrected.