On Tuesday 21 Januari 2020, I had the pleasure of flying Business Class on an Iberia Airbus A340-600 operating a scheduled flight between Brussels and Madrid. The Spanish airline had upgraded one of its three daily rotations between Madrid and Brussels from the usual Airbus A320 family of aircraft to the much bigger, four-engined Airbus A340-600. A unique opportunity to fly this – nowadays rare – widebody aircraft on a shorthaul destination in Europe.
Here is my trip report, so you can relive this special flight between Brussels and Madrid. So fasten your seat belt, put the table in front of you in the upward position and enjoy this trip report.
In early December 2019, Iberia filed an interesting update to its scheduled services between Madrid and Brussels. Instead of the usual Airbus A320 family of aircraft – the Spanish airline operates almost any A320 family type of aircraft on the route, including the A319, A320, A321 and even the A320 neo – the airline would operate the Airbus A340-600 on limited services between the capitals of Spain and Belgium.
|IB3206||MAD||08:55||BRU||11:55||A346||21JAN20 / 11FEB20|
|IB3214||MAD||16:05||BRU||18:30||A346||23JAN20 / 06FEB20|
|IB3203||BRU||12:35||MAD||15:00||A346||21JAN20 / 11FEB20|
|IB3205||BRU||19:50||MAD||22:10||A346||23JAN20 / 06FEB20|
Flying a widebody aircraft on an intra-European service is always tempting for avgeeks. Especially if there are only a few chances of doing so. And even more if it concerns an aircraft type that is nowadays operated by just a handful of airlines.
As soon as this schedule update was published, I consulted Iberia’s booking engine and put it next to my agenda to see if there was a possibility for me of flying the Airbus A340-600 between Brussels and Madrid. I drafted multiple itineraries, including an itinerary with a flight from Madrid to London with a British Airways Boeing 777. Eventually however, I concluded that the easiest (and cheapest) way to fly the Airbus A340-600 for the first time, would be to fly from Brussels to Madrid on Tuesday 21 January 2020 onboard Iberia flight IB3203 and to return to Brussels the same day with Brussels Airlines. Fares for the Iberia flight in Economy Class were cheap: an Economy Class seat would cost me 52 euros. A Business Class seat however would cost me 278 euros. Hence, I booked an Economy Class seat and paid an additional small fee for a pre-reserved seat. For the return flight I booked a seat on Brussels Airlines’ evening flight SN3728 from Madrid to Brussels. Fares in Brussels Airlines’ Check & Go formula were cheap as well: I paid 36 euros plus 12 euros for a pre-reserved standard seat in Economy Class.
After I booked my seat on Iberia’s A340-600 flight between Brussels and Madrid I decided to double-check my booking on the Iberia website. To my unpleasant surprise, I discovered that I would not be able to check in online. I had booked my Iberia flight via the Iberia iOS app and had paid with my Brussels Airlines Miles & More American Express credit card. Iberia apparently needed to check my credit card (even after my payment was fully approved during the booking process), and the only way they do this, is by checking your credit card during check-in at the airport. Well, that was totally new to me and I was not very pleased. From a passenger’s point of view, this makes no sense and it ruins the travel experience. Why should passengers have to check-in at the airport’s check-in counters when they booked and paid a ticket online and are travelling without checked baggage?
Upgrade To Business Class
On Tuesday 14 January 2020, i.e. exactly one week before my planned trip to Madrid, I got an email from Iberia. Unfortunately, the email was written only in Spanish (no idea why, maybe Iberia thinks that all their passengers speak Spanish, or maybe I acknowledged during the booking process that I could speak Spanish?). Anyway, my Spanish is really poor, but since the subject stated “¿Le gustaría viajar en una clase superior en su próximo vuelo?”, I was confident that it was an email to check if I was interested to upgrade my seat. This was confirmed after I translated the entire email body text via Google Translate (thank you, Google!). Iberia did indeed offer me to upgrade my Economy Class seat to a Business Class seat for 64 euros. I replied to the email that I was indeed interested in the upgrade offer, but only if there was still a window seat available in Business Class. According to SeatGuru.com, Iberia’s A340-600’s have two layouts:
- Layout 1: 46 Business Plus / 300 Economy
- Layout 2: 36 Business Plus / 23 Premium Economy / 296 Economy
One day after I confirmed my interest in the upgrade offer, I got a reply via email from Iberia (this time in English). Apparently, they had tried to contact me by phone but they were unable to reach me. They asked me to provide a valid phone number to contact me. I noticed indeed that for some reason Iberia had added the wrong international dial access code +34 to my mobile number instead of +32. I replied once again to their initial email (the one in Spanish) and confirmed again my interest in the offer and provided my full mobile phone number including the correct international dial access code. Two days later, I finally got a reply from Iberia. I got a phone call from an anonymous number, which indeed turned out to be Iberia’s call center. I confirmed my initial booking and the Iberia call center agent said that there was enough availability to upgrade my seat to a window seat in Business Class. He proposed seat 4L, a Business Class window seat on the right side of the aircraft. I confirmed and agreed to the offer, after which I had to provide my credit card details via phone (another very unusual thing nowadays). The Iberia call center agent confirmed the upgrade and said I would also receive a confirmation email in the next few minutes.
After I hung up my phone, I started to check my email account’s inbox: no confirmation email. One hour later: still no confirmation email. The next day: no confirmation email. I started to become a bit worried: could I have been scammed? But how could the possible scammers have known the details of my flight booking with Iberia? Did they hack the Iberia booking system? I was even getting a bit more worried after I noticed that no amount was being charged to my credit card. This entire situation was not making me feel comfortable at all.
Eventually, I decided to check my booking via Iberia’s website. Fortunately, I noticed that my booking now confirmed seat 4L and one piece of checked baggage (which I did not book for my seat in Economy Class). So it appeared that this whole situation was not a scam after all, but a genuine service by Iberia. I felt quite relieved. To summarise this entire process: there’s a lot of room for improvement by Iberia to manage their entire upgrade process. I honestly cannot believe that I have to call a contact center, get into a conversation with one of the Iberia call center agents, provide all my credit card details via phone, just to get an upgrade to Business Class (which was not even confirmed via email). A passenger should be able to manage this entire process via the Iberia website and/or the Iberia mobile app.
To conclude, it was a long and nerve-racking process, but eventually I was all set for a nice flight with an Iberia Airbus A340-600 from Brussels to Madrid on Tuesday 21 January 2020.
About The Airbus A340-600
The Airbus A340-600 is the biggest variant of the Airbus A340, a four-engined aircraft developed by Airbus in the 1980’s together with the two-engined Airbus A330. The maiden flight of the Airbus A340 was on 25 October 1991. Airbus developed four variants of the Airbus A340, of which the A340-300 proved to be the most successful:
- Airbus A340-200
- Airbus A340-300
- Airbus A340-500
- Airbus A340-600
The A340-600 made its maiden flight on 23 April 2001. One of the most distinctive features of the Airbus A340-600 compared to the smaller Airbus A340-200 and -300 variants are its bigger engines: four Rolls-Royce Trent 556 engines compared to the four CFM International CFM56-5C engines of the Airbus A340 and -300. The Airbus A340-600 is also 12m longer than the Airbus A340-300 (75,36m versus 63,69m). The Airbus A340-600 has a bigger wingspan than the -300 (63,45m versus 60,30 m) and a bigger height as well (17,93m versus 16,99m). It has a much bigger maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) than the -300 (480 tonnes versus 276,5 tonnes). As a result of this, Airbus had to fit the -600 variant with a four-wheel undercarriage bogie on the fuselage centre-line (instead of a two-wheel undercarriage bogie as on the -200 and -300 variants of the Airbus A340).
The smaller Airbus A340-300 was the most successful variant of the four Airbus A340 variants. Airbus sold 218 aircraft to many of the major airlines including Air France, Lufthansa, Iberia and Swiss. The Airbus A340-600 however was not a big hit amongst the major airlines. It was mainly developed to replace early variants of the Boeing 747 but its main competitor on the market turned out to be the twin-engined Boeing 777-300ER, which proved to be much less expensive to operate. Nevertheless, Airbus sold a total of 97 Airbus A340-600’s. The main operators in Europe were Iberia, Lufthansa and Virgin Atlantic Airways. Today, the only two remaining major operators in Europe are Iberia and Lufthansa.
Iberia IB3203 BRU-MAD
In the early morning of Tuesday 21 January 2020, I was ready for nice flying experience and made my way to Brussels Airport, where I arrived at 10:20. As already mentioned above, I still needed to check-in at the counters as Iberia still needed to check my credit card. Hence, I made my way to the Iberia Business Class check-in counter 9.4. I noticed that tens of passengers were already queueing at the Economy Class check-in counter. As soon as it was my turn, I provided my Belgian ID card. The check-in agent kindly requested me to show my credit card. For a strange reason, I needed to show both my Brussels Airlines Miles & More American Express credit card (which I used to pay the booking in Economy Class) and my VISA credit card (which I used to pay the upgrade to Business Class). After a few moments I received both credit cards again, together with my printed boarding pass. The boarding pass confirmed my Business Class seat 4L. Maybe the printed boarding pass was not such a bad move after all, as it would be a nice memorabilia of this flight with an Iberia Airbus A340-600. Eventually, the entire check-in process took me less than 10 minutes.
After a successful check-in, I continued my way to the security inspection at Brussels Airport. Thanks to my Business Class upgrade, I was allowed to use the Fast Track security lane (queues at the regular inspection counters were also very short, but hey, let’s use the Fast Track lane if we are allowed to).
At 10:55, I had passed the security check at Brussels Airport and continued my way through the Connector building, which connects the airport’s main terminal with Pier A (or ‘Concourse A’) – mainly used for Schengen flights – and Pier B (or ‘Concourse B’) – mainly used for non-Schengen flights such as flights to North America and Asia. One of the main eyecatchers of the Connector building is a large model of Tintin’s Moon rocket.
I continued my way to the Panos sandwich bar, bought something to drink and to eat and sat down near the windows offering a panoramic view of the Brussels Airport tarmac. The local weather conditions however were far from ideal to enjoy nice views: there had been a record high atmospheric pressure just the day before (1048,3 hPA) and atmospheric pressure was still very high. The air was also very humid, so the result was: fog. Lots of fog. Lots, lots of fog. And then, even more fog.
This was the METAR for Brussels Airport on Tuesday 21 January 2020 at 09:50 CET:
EBBR 210850Z VRB01KT 0300 R25L/0800N R25R/0550N R01/P2000N FZFG BKN001 M02/M03 Q1042 BECMG 1000 BR BKN005
The QNH was 1042 hPa, lower than 1048 hPa but still very high. Overall visibility was poor with just 300m visibility. On top of that, there was freezing fog and clouds were broken at 100ft.
As I continued to enjoy my meal, I suddenly realised that the inbound flight from Madrid, Iberia flight IB3206 MAD-BRU, would have to land any minute. I checked Flightradar24 and noticed that Iberia flight IB3206, operated with Airbus A340-642 EC-LNZ, had just landed on RWY 25L and was already taxiing to its gate. As I looked back up and looked through the windows, I saw the Airbus A340-600 making its final turn to the arrival gate just in front of me. Although the visibility was still poor, I noticed the massive size of this aircraft. Few moments later, the aircraft came to a final stop and the four engines were shut down.
The Airbus A340-600 was parked at Pier A’s gate A49. As a friend of mine was on the inbound flight, I quickly finished my meal and made my way to gate A49. Few minutes later I arrived at the gate and saw my friend deplane the four-engined Airbus A340-600. Once he was off the plane, we met and I could hardly wait to hear how the flight had been. The overall impression was very good. A smooth flight and a nice service in Business Class (yes, he also upgraded to Business Class). One of the things he had noticed, is that the inflight entertainment system (‘IFE’) was set as if the flight was bound for Mexico. Hence, during approach the passengers were reminded to fill in the immigration forms and were informed that the local weather in Brussels was sunny and warm with a temperature of 34 degrees Celsius. Unfortunately, that was not really the case…
I said goodbye to my friend and made some photos of the Airbus A340-600, even though the visibility from the gate was not good due to the dense fog. Nevertheless I managed to get some good photos of the aircraft.
According to my boarding pass, boarding would begin at 11:55. And indeed, at 11:54 (so even one minute earlier than planned) a gate announcement was made and the first passengers (those belonging to ‘Grupo 1’) were allowed to board the aircraft. As I had a Business Class seat, I also had a boarding pass with ‘Grupo 1’ printed on it. So, I made my way to the gate agent. She checked my boarding pass and ID card and wished me a nice flight. I continued my way to the jetway connecting the gate with the aircraft. Unfortunately, we could not walk directly to the aircraft as a retractable barrier blocked our path in the middle of the jetway (the aircraft probably was not ready for boarding yet). Few moments later, the barrier was retracted and we could board the Airbus A340-600.
When I arrived at the Airbus A340-600, I was kindly welcomed by the Iberia cabin crew and they showed me the way to my seat. The PA was playing the usual boarding music. Few moments later I arrived at my Business Class seat. It looked very comfortable, clean and tidy. I was ready to enjoy this trip and put my hand baggage in the overhead bin. No hassle to find some free space, no mess with moving other passengers’ bags, just a calm and relaxed atmosphere and plenty of space to put my bag.
Before I jumped into my seat, I decided to make a quick walk around the cabin to make some photos, as most of the other passengers still needed to board the aircraft (nothing ruins an aircraft cabin interior photo more than, well, passengers walking around). After my first photo session I made my way back to my seat 4L and sat down. I immediately felt relaxed and at home. I definitely would not mind spending 12 hours or more in that seat. Too bad we would only fly the Airbus A340-600 to Madrid instead of, let’ say, Quito or Buenos Aires.
As already mentioned, the cabin configuration of this aircraft was as follows: 36 Business Class seats, 23 Premium Economy seats and 296 Economy seats.
The Business Class seats in the Iberia A340-600 are arranged in a 1-2-1 abreast configuration and are staggered. Window seats have a lettering that alternates per row: A and C on the left side and J and L on the right side. Seats A and L are closer to the window and offer better privacy (all other main functionalities of the seat including entertainment and seat controls, storage units as well as the retractable tray table are arranged between the seat and the aisle), seats C and J are just next to the aisle. On this specific aircraft cabin layout, the even numbered seats are the ones next to the window, so if you wanted to sit just next to the window, best seats were 2A-4A-6A-8A on the left side and 2L-4L-6L or 8L on the right side. Note that this is not (!) the case for Business Class seats in the other Airbus A340-600 configuration of Iberia. There you would have to choose an odd numbered row if you want to have a Business Class window seat next to the window.
The main characteristics of Iberia’s long haul Business Class seat are a 200cm/78,7” flat bed, large private space, 15,4” personal touch screen, 4,2” individual tactile screen remote control, adjustable headrest, adjustable back and shoulder pillow with massage function, direct access to the aisle, noise-cancelling headphones and individual reading lights.
My first overall impression of my Business Class seat was very good (admittedly, I do not travel in Business Class that often, so it is difficult to compare with other airlines’ Business Class products). The seat itself felt very comfortable, there was sufficient space available to store my personal belongings, there was plenty of legroom and the touch screen was big. I did however notice that my touch screen had some responsiveness issues: the response appeared to be slow sometimes or the screen did not respond at all on some occasions. Not a big problem but it can be annoying when you’re trying to check the entire menu to see what the IFE has to offer. But eventually, the best IFE on any aircraft is still fitted on the other side of the aircraft window.
At 12:26 our boarding was completed. The flight crew made an announcement and requested the cabin crew to prepare the aircraft for taxi. A cabin crew member started to hand out the noise-cancelling headphones to all the Business Class passengers while another cabin crew member handed out the menu for today’s short flight. Few moments later there was another announcement and we were welcomed onboard by the cabin crew.
As our Airbus A340-600 pushed back from stand 149 at Pier A at 12:34, the flight crew started up the four Rolls-Royce Trent 556 engines. I looked out of my window and noticed how the fan blades of engines three and four started to spin. After four successful engine starts and running the before taxi checklists, our aircraft was cleared to taxi to RWY 25R. The pilot flying gently advanced the thrust levers and our A340-600 started to move. As we taxied to our runway, we could hardly see anything through the windows, as the visibility on the ground was still very poor due to the fog.
Eventually we arrived at RWY 25R. Our aircraft entered the active runway and the flight crew members did the before takeoff checklist. At 12:46, our engines spooled up and once stabilised, they were set to takeoff thrust. Our Airbus A340-600 accelerated and after a short takeoff roll, we rotated from RWY 25R. Immediately after takeoff we entered into the fog, but just a few seconds later, we already broke through the dense fog and we could finally see the sun and crisp blue skies. I noticed our aircraft shadow on the right side of the aircraft and even observed a unique optical phenomenon called ‘glory’, a rainbow-like halo around the shadow of our aircraft.
We gained altitude and set course for France. I continued to enjoy the views outside of the aircraft (after two days of foggy weather on the ground, one can really admire some blue skies) and noticed how the engines were set to climb thrust. As I sat in the front section of the aircraft, I could clearly see the spinning fan blades of the Rolls-Royce Trent 556 engines.
In the meantime we were already flying above FL100, so I decided to unfasten my seatbelt and headed towards the mid and aft section of the aircraft, to explore the premium economy and economy section of the aircraft. The premium economy section has 23 seats in a 2-3-2 abreast configuration (row 15 only has two seats due to the galley and restrooms). The seats offer a pitch of 37”, 18 cm of seat back recline, adjustable headrests and footrests and a 12” individual screen. The load factor in premium economy was high.
I continued my short exploration of the aircraft and visited the economy class section. This section offers 296 seats in a 2-4-2 abreast configuration. Seat pitch varies between 30” and 32” and all seats have 13-15 cm of seat back recline, adjustable headrests and a 9” individual screen. There were still plenty of empty seats in the front compartment of the economy class, so I sat down in some of the empty seats on the right side of the aircraft, mainly to enjoy the outside views from other vantage points. Few moments later I decided to head back to my Business Class seat, since I presumed that the meal service would start soon.
At 13:03, I was sitting back in my Business Class seat and we reached our initial cruising altitude of FL330. At that time, we got a new announcement from the flight deck. The flight crew members informed the passengers on the altitude and speed of the aircraft as well as the expected flight time and expected time of arrival in Madrid. Few moments later, we climbed to FL350. I started to explore the IFE and scrolled through the menus to see what series and movies Iberia had to offer. New movies on offer included titles such as Aquaman, Ad Astra, A Star is Born and (my personal favourite) Bohemian Rhapsody. So I plugged in my noise-cancelling headphones and started to enjoy Rami Malek’s epic portrayal of Queen’s lead singer Freddie Mercury.
Just after 13:10, our aircraft started to climb again and we reached our final cruising altitude of FL370. In the meantime I looked outside and I noticed the clouds below us (well, actually the fog) had disappeared and that we had just passed the city of Paris. Too bad I did not notice this earlier. I still managed to get some photos with my iPhone but it was too late to get a decent photo with my DSLR of the ‘City of Lights’. Oh well, I’m sure I’ll get new opportunities on some of my next flying adventures (if the weather cooperates, that is).
One of the cabin crew members did a tour of the business class section and offered each Business Class passenger a free WiFi voucher. Iberia’s widebody fleet are equipped with WiFi antennas, enabling the airline to offer WiFi service to its passengers. The rates for WiFi on the Iberia A340-600 fleet are:
|4 MB||4.95 $|
|10 MB||9.95 $|
|25 MB||19.95 $|
|45 MB||34.95 $|
To my humble opinion these rates are very high (not that I’m a big fan of inflight WiFi anyway). I would never pay 34.95$ for a 45 MB WiFi credit. For instance, the Icelandair WiFi rates are much lower: € 4.00 on European flights and € 9.70 on flights between Iceland and North America. During a flight with Icelandair from Reykjavik to Brussels in 2018, I purchased a WiFi connection voucher and was very pleased with the speed and reliability of the inflight WiFi. Bear in mind however, most of these infligh WiFi connections will not allow you to watch streaming videos or send high-resolution photos to friends, but you will be able to use apps, send texts, load websites, and so on.
Unfortunately, my free Iberia WiFi voucher was for the cheapest plan, i.e 4MB. This did not allow me to do much on my iPhone. Nevertheless, I connected to the aircraft’s WiFi network and sent my wife a short message to let her know I was inflight and everything was OK. And that was about it.
At 13:15, about five minutes after we reached our final cruising altitude, the Business Class passengers were being served their meals. The menu for the flight between Brussels and Madrid was:
Peppers, golden raisins and pine nuts salad
- Main courses
Grilled chicken with apricot and black olive, served with a creamy sherry sauce and green beans
Salmon stuffed pasta with a cava cream sauce and sun dried tomatoes
Sheep’s milk cheese
Assorted bread basket
Selection of wines, drinks and liqueurs
Coffee and tea
I opted for the salmon stuffed pasta as my main course. Few minutes later I was being served my meal by one of the friendly cabin crew members. The entire menu was served on a single meal plate. For drinks I chose the Jaume Serra cava and some water. The pasta was very tasteful but I was very surprised by its distinctive black colour (something I had never seen before). I googled it afterwards and apparently black pasta is coloured with squid or cuttlefish ink, which turns it black.
While enjoying my hot meal, I continued to watch Bohemian Rhapsody. When I started to watch the movie just after departure, I had already noticed a disturbing high pitched noise in my headphones. Especially during the more silent parts of the movie it was a bit annoying. By accident, I noticed that the high pitched noise decreased significantly as soon as I put my arm on the table where I had put my cava. Unfortunately, putting my arm like that for the remained of the flight was no option, so I had no other choice but to get used to this high pitched noise.
Half an hour later, at around 13:50, I had finished my entire meal and the cabin crew collected my empty meal plate. Our Airbus A340-600 was still cruising at FL370. As we approached Bordeaux, we could get a first glimpse of the Bay of Biscay.
I stood up again and decided to go for another walk around the cabin. I headed to the economy section in the aft section of the aircraft. There were still some empty seats so I sat down in one of them (seat 46L, a window seat on the right side of the aircraft). Obviously, the seat pitch was not as good as in business class and the IFE screen not as big, but the seat seemed to be quite comfortable. I’m not sure however if I would feel the same way after an eleven hour flight from Madrid to Quito.
I stood up again, and made my way back to the front section of the aircraft. I made a few photos of the aircraft’s galley sections and some photos of the Premium Economy section.
At 14:02, I arrived back in my seat 4L and our aircraft reached its ‘top of descent’. We had just passed the city of Pamplona but were unable to see anything from our windows, as some high level overcast clouds were obscuring our view of the ground.
Fifteen minutes later, our Airbus A340-600 was descending over central Spain as we started to approach Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas airport near Madrid. The flight crew made an announcement and asked the cabin crew to secure the cabin for landing. Empty glasses and bottles were being collected as well as other garbage. The noise-cancelling headphones were also being collected again, so I had to stop watching Bohemian Rhapsody (not a big issue since I had already watched the entire movie in the past). A final inspection was made to make sure all passengers were ready for landing.
At 14:26, whilst flying at an altitude of 6,500 feet, our Airbus A340-600 made a right turn and got aligned with RWY 32R. The gear was extended and flaps were set for landing. During our final approach, I could spot Madrid-Torrejón Airport on the right side of our aircraft. Few moments later, our widebody aircraft landed on RWY 32R. As the flight crew reduced our speed, we rolled almost all the way to the end of the runway and vacated via TWY K5. As our Airbus A340-600 taxied to its designated parking position at terminal 4S, I could spot some interesting aircraft, including an Emirates Airbus A380 taking off from RWY 36R and an Iberia Airbus A350 parked on a remote stand.
At 14:44 our Airbus A340-600 arrived at stand 505 (gate M29). The aircraft came to a complete stop, the parking brake was set and the engines were shut down. As the fasten seatbelt sign was switched off, I packed my hand baggage and made my way to the exit of the aircraft. I asked one of the cabin crew members if it was allowed to make a short visit to the flight deck. This was allowed by the Captain. Unfortunately, it was not allowed to make any photos. I noticed a third flight crew member in the cockpit, probably an Iberia flight instructor.
After my brief flight deck visit. I left the Airbus A340-600 and made my way to the gate. Another great avgeek experience had come to an end. At the gate I met some other avgeek friends who were also on the flight and we shared some of our experiences before we all made our way to our connecting flights, either back to Brussels or to other destinations.
I would like to thank Iberia for operating the widebody Airbus A340-600 on a scheduled flight between Brussels and Madrid, and the flight crew and cabin crew members of my flight IB3203 for the smooth and uneventful flight as well as the good service in Business Class.
21 January 2020