London Heathrow Airport's Terminal 5.

London Heathrow Airport Terminal 5

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).

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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.

British Airways/Oneworld Priority check-in area at London Heathrow Terminal 5.

British Airways/oneworld Priority check-in area at London Heathrow Terminal 5

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.

Entrance to fast-track security at Madrid-Barajas Airport.

Entrance to fast-track security at Madrid-Barajas Airport

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.

Boarding an Iberia Airbus A320 to Brussels at Madrid-Barajas Airport.

Boarding an Iberia Airbus A320 to Brussels at Madrid-Barajas Airport

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

Seating

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.

Advantage: British

Inflight Service

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)

The Takeaway

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!

Welcome message on a British Airways Airbus A320.

Welcome message on a British Airways Airbus A320

A previous version of this story indicated the availability of Wi-Fi on British Airways’ short-haul fleet. This has been corrected.

SENIOR CORRESPONDENT - LOS ANGELES, CA. With LAX serving as a second home, John enjoys being confined to an aluminum (or now carbon composite) cylinder jetting through the air miles above the terra firma. He has logged millions of miles in such conditions and enjoyed it 99% of the time. Email: [email protected]. You can also read more about John's non-AVGeek musings on his personal blog, VNAFlyer.

http://VNAFlyer.blogspot.com
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25 Comments

This is fascinating – I’d heard awful things about IB before but this is pretty mind-blowing. Thanks for writing!

Btw, I’m not sure I’d call Air Berlin a “low-cost carrier”, given that their fares are well above the likes of Germanwings, EasyJet, etc. Then again, having lived in Europe, I’ve never heard the term “ultra-low-cost-carrier” used there. AB is very much like Southwest, which probably wouldn’t be considered “low-cost” in Europe. I guess EasyJet and Ryanair have redefined the term “LCC” unfortunately…

Hi Ming, thanks for your insights! “ULCC” is a fairly new term, but (un)fortunately it had to come about to describe the Ryanairs/Easyjets/Spirits/VietJetAirs/AirAsias of the world.

John | AirlineReporter

William

Not all the BA short haul A320/19’s fleet have the overhead screens – and if you get an ex BMI aircraft you’ve still got the old 3/2 conversion seats but which have extra leg room up front.

Now that BA have essentially done all the aircraft that they’re going to improve, didn’t IAG announce they’re essentially going to invest in the IBERIA side of things now?

Hey William… I must have gotten lucky with the screens then! I’ve been on ex-BMI equipment before, but not on this trip… those seats had more cushioning as well, IIRC. IB definitely needs a cabin refresher from what I saw. Maybe they should swap interiors with Vueling birds! At least IAG committed to fast online connectivity for their steads, so passengers can pass the time away and not notice the seat they’re sitting in.

John | AirlineReporter

William

As an aside I actually prefer the Vueling aircraft interiors (Iberia’s LCC arm)!

I think AB considers themselves a full-service carrier. Was pleasantly surprised when flying intra-europe, they consistently served snacks even on a short 1hr hop between VIE & TXL. Was only a sandwich, but still… & service was miles ahead of any US carrier. In coach. The only downside is their warehouse-like terminal in TXL.

I was also pleasantly surprised (2 AB flight segments in April as well… reviews coming soon!), but I still feel like they’re an LCC that offers more… definitely a carrier that falls short of being full-service, at least from the Oneworld perspective. I’m just bummed that I was 0-for-2 on buying the A319/A321 scale model set from the inflight shopping, they never had them.

And TXL… blah! Good thing Brandenburg will open soon… like sometime in the 21st century…

John | AirlineReporter

John,
As a Brit living in Spain I can tell you that things become even more confusing. I think what you experienced was “Iberia Express”, the attempt by Iberia to operate a low cost subsidiary. I have only seen them operating this on the MAD LHR route. There are full service flights with Iberia (the original and … well, just the original really) twice a day, one in the morning one in the evening, on board you’ll get snacks and a drink and even a refill if you’re sweet to the cabin crew!
On the whole though your best bet is to opt for the LHR 07:25 departure as it is usually operate by BA with a 767 giving a better ride. As for knowing who is operating what the BA website is VERY clear about Iberia Express operated flights, presumably because of a backlash from frequent flyers. Iberia’s website on the other hand… well it tells you an aircraft will likely be turning up, you can’t add your frequent flyer miles, you can’t check in on line and don’t even try to prebook any special arrangements but you get used to that when you have lived here for a while, it’s all part of the charm!
Thanks for the great article, keep up the good work.

Hey James… you know, you bring up a very good point, and I actually asked if my flight was an Express flight, thinking that maybe I had missed the memo, but the flight attendant said we were on Iberia prime; I was also able to check-in online and have my FF number in. I can’t imagine what an Express flight would be like… yikes!

Best of luck to you and your travels… sounds like quite the minefield to navigate!

John | AirlineReporter

Hi John,

Can I ask how tall you are, just to get some kind of scale to the in-seat photos?

Personally I’ve never cared much for BA (even though they are my national flag carrier). A combination of high prices, old planes, poor service and poor food put me off them a long time ago. Your Iberia experience sounds even worse.

Surely there’s room in the market for an operator to charge a small amount more and end up with seats that a 6’2″ can actually sit in with a degree of comfort?

Personally I would rather fly easyjet because you know what you’re getting with no pretense of having a premium product, like BA seem to think they have!

Hey Reg, I’m 5’8″, with a 30″ inseam. At 6’2″ your knees will probably be touching those seat backs on BA and IB. I can imagine foreign visitors who are unwitting “victims” in making their choice to fly either carrier based on name recognition and/or former reputation.

John | AirlineReporter

Jan MOESTER

Great report John! As a regular traveler on the route, I know about every detail you mention, so do my colleagues. As a result, we avoid IB like the plague. At the same time, we simply can NOT understand that a legacy carrier like IB has come down to this and that they can still be part of the same group and the same alliance! Incredible!
I have clocked more than 8000 flights in my life (I’ve kept a record) and I have to pay full fare, so I do pay attention to all the details!
Keep up the good work and keep enjoying yourself!!!!

Hello Jan, thanks for the kind words! I wish I had your knowledge before booking, would have saved myself some grief! At one point you could rely on a certain level of expectation when taking a Oneworld alliance flight… sadly, not the case anymore. It’s certainly a new world!

John | AirlineReporter

mcass777

How can you not tell the difference when booking IB versus BA? I just looked up the the routing between LHR and MAD ( check it here: http://flightaware.com/live/findflight/EGLL/LEMD/ ) and each flight is clearly a BA or IB flight. I know code share flights are screwy but the code share flights carry weird numbers like BA7055 where the actual flight number is IB 1055. Even the booking engines point out “this is a code share flight”

Hi MCASS77, thanks for the comments. I wish I had screenshots to show you. As far as I knew, I had booked a BA flight operated by BA, with a seemingly normal flight number (BA510, FWIW). When I used Google flights to look at flight schedules, the flight I went with showed BA by BA. When I booked, confirmed, checked occasionally on my online account, finally went to check in online, it still showed BA by BA, but couldn’t change my seats online for the LHR-MAD leg. Called in to change seats, agent also saw BA by BA, and was confused by why he couldn’t select seats either. After 10 minutes on hold, he came back that he found out it was BA by IB, and had a tertiary reservation number that he used to finally pick seats.

Ignoring my seating issue, in my scenario someone would have gone all the way to the gate and only would have found out they were on IB metal by looking out the window. I like FlightAware but I personally use it to look up aircraft/flight info for story research, spotting, or #avgeek purposes, not while booking tickets (maybe I should from now on?), and I highly doubt the general flying public even knows the site exists.

I’m leaving open the possibility that something glitchy happened, but this seems to not be an isolated incident. The point is, if a BA agent couldn’t tell within the first 5 seconds of looking at the reservations and flight info, what hope does a general flyer have?

John | AirlineReporter

mcass777

Your article is great at demonstrating the differences between alliances and groups. I have felt this way since working on the marketing of Star for UAL. Confusing code share are usually easy to decode. But not always due to search engine layout, government rules with carriers, etc… It was pretty easy to decode on Google Flights too. When I pulled up the schedule between LHR and MAD on Google Flights – Every last one of them was listed under BA, with the Speedbird logo right there. You could not find one Iberia logo! However, looking just under the each flight time, there was “British -Iberia” text. If you hover over the “British -Iberia” text you get the following message “Operated by British Airways. Also marketed by Iberia. BA510 operated by Iberia”. Hovering over some of the other flights show a slightly different message. The BA flights state simply “Operated by British Airways. Also marketed by Iberia.”
Also, by clicking on a specific flight you get complete details of carrier, average seat pitch and aircraft. On Orbitz, the description is a little clearer, you do not hover to find out whose metal is flying, it is right in the search results. I find that Google Flights is great at showing competitive pricing but lacks in flight detail, as you can attest, but it is there. I usually price a ticket thru a search engine then buy direct from an airline because you get a few more options afforded to you if problems arise (weather, mx, etc) I guess the old adage buyer beware still holds in the age of transparency!!

This is funny because I lived that situation but in long haul flight doing Madrid-Chicago-London-Madrid, first flight doing with Iberia in a pretty new A330 and return flight with a BA Jumbo 747-400 (IB final flight with an Airbus A321)

The catering in IB was muuuch better compared with BA especially in food quality and beverages size (pretty small in BA, giving only a really tiny water bottle at dinner) but I must say the Jumbo seats are the most confortable I ever test in a long haul flight, also the movies and music selection in BA were greater, but the Jumbo had problems with full power and we arrived to London 2 hours later!

IB in short flights aren’t as good as expected, worse ever thinking in IB Express with older planes (a lot of comes from long storage)

Also we lost our connection to Madrid so they arrange to put us in next flight, but Heatrow is a mess about obtaining the new card and you have to move from Terminal 5A to 5B and pick two trains to arrive to your final door to enter the plane, we were close to lose that flight as well, but luckily Iberia waited for us even the gate was already closed… so good point for him

Good article. I came across it due to frustration this week trying to book BA operated return flights to Madrid. Despite trying very hard to avoid Iberia, just got an email from BA stating that my return is in fact operated by Iberia but to use normal BA check-in facilities.

When I booked (on Concur, our corporate travel system), many flights listed as ‘BA’ also had the BAxxx operated by Iberia’ next to them. I avoided these and picked same priced flights seemingly operated by BA. Yet even now I will find myself on an Iberia flight.

I am 6 ft 1in and Iberia legroom is consistently worse than BA. I get off the plane often cramping and having been extremely uncomfortable. So this is more than a food issue for me.

Whether this means that BA are making late operational decisions to switch flights from BA to Iberia operated, or whether some flights are just mismarketed, I don’t know. Either way it’s unacceptable for many reasons.

Jan Gessel

I just had the unpleasant experience of flying on BA London to Rome. It was a 2 hr flight. We had to buy everything including water. Since Jan.. 2017, BA has become one of the low cost carriers like Iberia and Vueling if you are in economy.

ofer barsade

Stay away from IBERIA – especially if you’re a senior citizen.
My mother, who turns 85 this year, suffers from arthritis, impaired hearing and other ills of age, had the bad luck to fly with this company to visit my brother last month. She went “business” and that’s precisely what she got. She paid for assisted mobility, meaning a wheelchair, but when we got to the checkin, there was none. I walked up to the shift manager, got a blank stare and was dismissed. Luckily, one of the counter attendants – not an Iberia employee but rather a local handling agent rep – took it upon himself to get up and hunt down a chair for us.
They took her to the Business lounge and left her there. When boarding time came around, not a chair or rep in sight. Again, luckily, the attendant at the lounge volunteered to help my mother along as they walked to the gate – the attendant holding her bag. Of course, the attendant couldn’t accompany her into the jetway from the gate to the plane, which was quite a long one. My mother told the Iberia people at the gate she wouldn’t be able to walk all the way in holding her walking stick and bag. She had already walked the entire distance (not short even for a non-octogenarian).
Once again, one of the attendants volunteered – the same as before and (I stress) not an Iberia employee – to help her walk into the plane.
But at that point, the shift manager I mentioned before went ballistic. She stopped the poor kid, grabbed my mother’s bag, tossed it halfway back up the jetway and screamed that she would prevent mother (who must be all of 5’3, thin, retiring and prone to shaking like a leaf when attacked) from boarding since she endangers the flight.
By now, my mother was in tears and the flight attendant – drawn by the noise – looked out and took refuge in the cockpit. My mother decided to take a stand and continue on her way. At that point the flight attendant came back out and informed the shift manager that the pilot demands that my mother be allowed onto the plane.
Once aboard, both the pilot and the flight attendant swore they would report the matter to management. But things didn’t end there.
Upon arriving in Madrid, my mother and 5 other wheel-chair bound passengers were simply left to fend for themselves, sitting around, waiting for help. One of them actually missed her connection. My mother’s connection, thank god, was with American Airlines. However, one of her suitcases came late – it had been delayed for “security” reasons …
We have since received apologies from American Airlines, through whom the flight had been booked, and British Airways, which handles Iberia in Israel.
A month or more has gone by and not a word from Iberia.

In Spain, assited movility is responsability of the airport, not the airline.

if you had to fly madrid to la on iberia would you? too many bad reviews maybe british air we should take

Jan Gessel

British Airways on a short haul, under 2 1/2 is awful. Seats are cramped and they charge you for water and soda etc. Over the water is different. If you book Iberia or BA operated by AA that is good.

Jan

On BA the cabin crew speaks no Spanish ! Some of them not a word !

Surprised by this article. We flew BA London to Bologna in April 2019. First of all – exorbitant fees for baggage. Nothing on board was complimentary – not even water.Will experience short haul with Iberia for the first time in a couple of weeks. I sincerely hope they are not below BA’s service.

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