Interview: Iberia's Transformational Journey

DALLAS — It’s always interesting insight into how an airline strives to bring about change in its offering, be it minor or major. As competitive as ever, airlines today rush to provide the best experience they can to retain customers and that comes with thinking ahead and bringing ideas to reality.

Airways has been working closely with Iberia (IB) and in today’s post, correspondent Siddharth Ganesh meets with the airline’s Director of Inflight Customer Experience, Melanie Anna Berry, in Madrid, to gain an insight into the transformation program that’s underway.

Melanie Anna Berry | Photo: Iberia

SG: In recent times, Iberia has launched the new cabins on four of its newer Airbus A350 aircraft, how many more would join your fleet with the new cabins?

MB: We will have four more brand-new Airbus A350s that will come with this new cabin. Our total A350 order was for twenty, sixteen of which have been delivered (four already equipped with the new cabin). The last A350 is expected to be handed over to us in the first quarter of 2024. So, we’ll have eight in total featuring the NEXT program.

You’ve put in the effort to bring this new feeling right to the public through Espacio Iberia (customer experience center), where customers can get a first-hand experience. How and when did the idea come about?

The idea for Espacio Iberia came from our brand team last year about how we were going to tell the world about the transformation we had gone through. I have been at Iberia for six years, and we’ve come a long way. We wanted a different and innovative way to tell the people what we had done, and we are thrilled to have made this customer experience center a reality.

We opened last year and had some 16,000 visitors; we were located on a high-end street, but we’ve changed locations recently and brought it right to downtown Madrid, and we’re already seeing a much larger foot flow. It has a different feel; we’ve stepped it up. It’s on three floors with interactive sessions, simulators, and indulging in new cabins and meal services—anyone is welcome to try it. There’s also a shop selling some Iberia memorabilia.

Are you the first airline to do so in Europe?

I think so, but I cannot be 100% sure. It’s something new and innovative. It’s just a shop window in the city center, open to all. We have cabin crews bringing in their parents, locals, and a bunch of tourists; it’s a mix.

Tracing it back, when did Iberia make the initial decision to invest in new cabins?

The transformation has been in the works for a while, We did a lot of research with our customers on what they wanted and how we could deliver it to them. Airbus, on the other hand, was bringing in aircraft like the newer A350 with wider cabins that would be able to up the cabin experience.

Speaking about economy, we have 4 inches more in the cabin, with 9 abreast. We didn’t feel the need to maximize capacity and, in turn, revenue, but we brought in possible seat options with different options, and we got a lot of people (clients and Iberia management), and it was unanimous.

So, before the pandemic in that case? And, were you able to make all changes desired?

These decisions were made before COVID. We did make some decisions during covid, but it was difficult to go to management in a crisis and say we want to do this, and we need funding. We didn’t get everything we wanted, but we got the most important upgrades: wider economy seats, improved premium seats and doors, and full privacy in business cabins.

For the business seats, we got a bunch of seat options at a hotel in Madrid and invited our top-tier members to experience them, and they preferred them, so we ended up with Recaro. We took out the central overhead bins as well.

With the overhead bins removed in the middle section—more roominess but a compromise in luggage. Are the crew complaining?

No, not at all, so we did test it out on our older A350 by blocking the bins, and it worked well.

There’s a rush for airlines across the globe to redo their cabins, especially post-pandemic, and you’re underway—what’s the next phase for Iberia?

We are working on a cabin refresh and planning a complete refurbishment of the seat cushions and covers. We also want to retrofit.

Would this be for the wide-body fleet only?

When I joined six years ago, they had just finished a retrofit on the narrow body, so now it’s on the wide-body fleet. The Airbus A330 in particular. We’re looking at seats out there for the A330 business cabin. Consistency is important, so we want seats with doors like the A350, and if we can’t find any, then we might just do a refurbishment.

It’s tricky to have a door; we do end up losing space. We’re in the finding phase, and the A330 is a priority as it’s the oldest in the fleet. So, we’re waiting for something new. We don’t want to just change for the sake of it; we want to change when we know we have the right product. We’re also researching IFE.

Iberia Airbus A330-200 | Photo: Pablo Gonzalez / Airways

Do you think the standard IFE setback will last many more years?

The seat-back variant will still be needed for years to come.

What about IFE screen mirroring?

Every airline is asking for it, but for now, it’s watching like it’s at home. You’re connected to the Wi-Fi and watch your movie just like you’re at home. 

What’s the trend in customer behavior at Iberia? What are you trying to get across to the passengers?

For us now, it’s about personalization. To keep the right balance between digitalization and the human side. With COVID, we were completely focused on privacy. As of today, it’s very clear to us that privacy, comfort, and Wi-Fi are very important things. People want to stay connected and not detach from the world while traveling, and we understand that Wi-Fi is imperative. We launched free messaging last year for our narrow-body fleet as well.

Sustainability is also what we’re talking about concerning seating and catering. I think the future is about this, but the problem is that customers, as humans, think we are doing the right thing, but we end up doing something else.

So we did an experiment where we asked a bunch of customers before a flight if they would prefer fruit or a full-fledged dessert, and everybody said fruit. But inflight, everybody picked the dessert. 

Thank you, Melanie.

Iberia Economy cabin onboard the A350 NEXT | Photo: Iberia

New at Iberia

On June 15, Iberia announced a further push in its passenger experience segment across all three cabins, ranging from digital experiences to flavourful catering.  DO&CO has redesigned its menus, keeping a good balance between Spanish cuisine and an international palate to cater to global customers.

Melanie Berry also revealed:

“We launched brand-new menus designed by our catering partner DO&CO and improved the IFE experience with a podcast with Sonora”.

“Our big change is for the long-haul economy, all new meals, and we’ve also introduced movie snacks – mini magnums and M&M cookies. Tapas services as well to keep the Spanish feel.”

“Business class goes to all-day dining, besides the first meal after takeoff and the second before landing, you can order whatever you like given what we have onboard.”

“A new service video is available to explain this to the passengers.”

On the sustainable side, Iberia is looking at reducing its food waste:

“Once meal service is done, crews will say if anyone is hungry, please come to the galley and pick it up. We don’t want any more waste.”

Featured Image: Iberia. All photos: Author, unless otherwise noted.

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