European low-cost carriers know this lesson well: they brand and position themselves as, variously, cheap-and-cheerful, cheap-and-nasty or simply cheap-and-competent. By and large, they deliver on their promises, whichever category you choose.
I reckon Iberia Express is different, its product and market position are baffling, and the overall experience damages not only its own brand but wider Iberia, because the expectations that it sets are so different to the experience. (Full disclosure: Iberia flew this journalist from Lyon to Madrid as part of a connection to its new longhaul product).
I used the Iberia app to check in and sort out details of my flights, and proceeded like any other European business class flight departing Lyon until arriving onto the Iberia Express A320, branded with “Express” but otherwise looking like any other Iberia aircraft.
Onboard, the overall impression was one of a grubby and dingy cabin in severe need of cleaning, all the way up to serious staining on the overhead PSU-adjacent lighting.
The Eurobusiness-style seating was very cramped, and even the extra space given by the ultra-basic Recaro BL3510 slimlines couldn’t compensate for the lack of seat pitch. (My return flight on a different aircraft was similarly tight, so I don’t think it’s just one plane.)
There were power and USB sockets, but the entire at-seat power system on the plane was down. While there was no Internet, there was some streaming entertainment on offer, although none tempted me during the flight — and certainly not enough to drain my battery.
The crew were apathetic bordering on surly. I don’t expect Singapore Airlines service on an hour-and-a-bit flight to a European hub, but I do expect efficiency and professionalism — including perhaps not letting passengers in the front bulkhead row just leave their carryon bags on the seat next to them for takeoff and landing.
The food onboard was miserable, and I was stunned that the renowned Do & Co could produce such a terrible meal. The starter was two pieces of limp ham (ordinarily something I’d enjoy) on a piece of sad lettuce in a paper bowl.
The main was lukewarm crunchy-yet-slimy cheese ravioli sat on the tiniest dab of almost-raw tomato sauce, with a banged-up piece of chocolate cake that was the only really edible thing on the tray.
The meal was accompanied by a very poorly provisioned bar cart that appeared once and featured the absolute cheapest wines I’ve ever seen on a plane.
I was glad to get off the aircraft in Madrid, and the flight would ordinarily just have come in for a “very poor” grade and I’d have assumed this was what Iberia offered. But I happened to be flying from Lyon at the same time as a travelling companion who was flying mainline Iberia to Madrid from London. Naturally, we were exchanging photos of our experience, and as I received each one I started to feel almost cheated.
Mainline Iberia offers a fully featured seat with headrest, offering plenty of legroom, bathed in purple mood lighting. There’s connectivity onboard. My mouth watered at pictures of a delicious-looking and inventive meal, followed by a bespoke service offering a choice of Spanish brandies and liqueurs served by friendly and enthusiastic flight attendants in Iberia’s natty new Teresa Helbig uniforms.
This was very much not the experience on Iberia Express, all the way down to the outdated uniforms that looked like a rock-bottom charter carrier’s castoffs.
Here’s the thing: does anyone really decide to fly Iberia Express, any more than anybody decided to fly Joon, the late and little-lamented Air France “is it a rooftop bar, is it a flying test lab” subsidiary? It’s just that some routes when you book Iberia are operated by Iberia Express instead of mainline Iberia.
Iberia Express is not notably cheaper than mainline Iberia: flights to Geneva, less than a hundred kilometres from Lyon, are on mainline Iberia and prices are within five to ten Euros whether connecting to a longhaul nonstop or not.
On metasearch engines, Iberia Express is sometimes even shown with the Iberia brand, especially where connecting flights are concerned.
Overall, the Iberia Express experience feels somehow dishonest, like the airline is selling the mainline Iberia brand yet providing an experience that’s no better (arguably, in the way it overpromises, worse) than its own inhouse low-cost carrier Vueling. I’d have been more satisfied overall if this Iberia Express flight had been on Vueling: at least that airline sets limited low-cost expectations and is honest about what it does and doesn’t offer.
Iberia flew John Walton to Madrid as part of a trip to Buenos Aires to experience its new longhaul business class. As ever, all opinions are entirely his own.
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Featured image of Iberia Express seats credited to John Walton