People like to grumble about the bygone era of generous seats, lots of legroom, amazing catering, and people dressing up for the occasion as if they were going to the opera. These are understandable sentiments, but the truth is, the bygone era didn’t have lie-flat seats. And it wasn’t even possible back then to redeem a ticket for miles, considering that modern frequent-flyer programs only date back to the 80s.
I recently went to Spain and France and had an interesting couple of flights – in Iberia and American business class cabins. I flew on American from JFK to Barcelona, and on Iberia from Madrid to JFK. I had a great time on both flights (something you don’t hear very often), and the seats were very comfortable and quite similar. But there were some differences, too.
On the Ground: American Flagship and Iberia VIP Lounges
Since American doesn’t have a first class cabin on most of its flights to Europe, we had access to the Flagship lounge at JFK that is normally reserved for first class passengers. American redesigned the lounge a few months ago, and it made a huge difference. It’s now twice the size of the previous one, with several seating areas, a large buffet, separate wine and liquor stations, and a few fancy coffee machines.
Iberia has two VIP lounges at the Madrid airport: in Terminal 4 and the Satellite Terminal, also known as T4S. Since we arrived from Bilbao at Terminal 4, but our departure to New York was from T4S, we skipped the T4 lounge and went to T4S. It took us about 20 minutes by train to travel between the terminals and pass the immigration control.
Part of the lounge was closed for renovations, but it was still huge. It had two food areas – a smal cold cut station and a large hot food buffet. The choice of wines was smaller than in the American Flagship Lounge, but the food was just as good.
The lounge was on the hot side. I don’t know whether the renovation work caused the problem or if the AC wasn’t quite adequate for such a big space. But it wasn’t very comfortable, so we cut our stay there shorter than we would’ve liked.
However, the VIP lounge has one thing the Flagship doesn’t – a large separate eating area.
New York – Barcelona: American 777-200 Zodiac Seat
American was supposed to install Zodiac seats on most of its new 787 and use them to retrofit its 777-200 aircraft. However, at some point, the manufacturer ran into problems and was unable to ensure timely delivery. As a result, American cancelled the remainder of its orders, which is why there aren’t many American planes with Zodiac seats today.
The Zodiac 1-2-1 configuration alternates forward-facing with reverse-facing seats, and it has something of a bad rep. Since the forward and reverse-facing seats are attached in one unit, some travelers have complained that they felt shakes and vibration every time their seatmate would move. I didn’t have these issues. I don’t know if it was because my seatmate was quiet and gentle or because the issue wasn’t too bad to begin with.
My seat was, in fact, quite comfortable, and all the controls worked almost flawlessly. “Almost,” because there was a moment when the seat wouldn’t get back to the straight-up position with me in it. I had to climb out of it to get it to work again. There weren’t any other control hiccups after that.
While I found the seat comfortable, it’s far from perfect. For one thing, it has a very small footrest that becomes the end of the bed when it fully reclines. It is so small in fact that my feet wouldn’t stop fidgeting trying to find a comfortable position. It’s still better than “cubby” seats, but it was still less than ideal.
Another thing I didn’t like is that passengers in the forward-facing seats have to be buckled up during the take-off and landing (like in a car).
Iberia A340 Solstys-Style Staggered Seats
Staggered configuration is the best lie-flat configuration in the sky, in my opinion. Just like Zodiac, they allow aisle access from every seat (so you don’t have to climb over your seatmate). But, unlike Zodiac, you get a big ottoman/footrest. Your feet will rest soundly and comfortably when you recline your seat into the bed.
The seats are all forward-facing, with the window seats alternating between being closer to the window and being closer to the aisle. Center seats alternate between so-called “honeymoon” seats (the ones that are close together) and the ones that are farther apart.
I felt that I had more personal space in my Iberia seat than in the American one. In the very least, I didn’t have to choose which items I’d keep with me and what would go into the overhead compartment. And if you get a real window seat, it gets you more privacy, too.
Both American and Iberia pillows distributed on the flight were paper-thin and completely inadequate. And neither airline had extras. It’s a bit disturbing that airlines would invest millions of dollars in new, state-of-the-art premium class seats, yet be hesitant in providing passengers with decent pillows.
It might seem like a non-issue, but if you want to keep your head even slightly elevated, you won’t be able to recline your seat to 180 degrees. And then you get an angled-flat, not lie-flat bed; your body will slide down with your feet pressed against the back of the next seat. You might consider bringing your own small pillow if you want a few hours of comfortable sleep instead of fighting with these pillows trying to prop them up.
For a coach passenger, this review might sound like blasphemy. In the end, any lie-flat seat is light years ahead of a tight, cramped seat in the back of the “bus.” However, when you spend a small fortune or an ungodly amount of miles on a business class ticket, there is no reason why you shouldn’t aspire to get the most comfortable product money (or miles) can buy.