British Airways is one of the leading carriers connecting Milan, the economic heart of Italy, to the UK’s capital, London. More specifically, the Official Airline Guide (OAG) indicates that British Airways is the carrier deploying the most significant number of seats on the Milan-London route, for a total of 410,917 in 2022. A few weeks back, I had the chance to try out the product, a review of which will be offered in this article.
Booking with BA, flying with Iberia Express
Over the summer months, some passengers may have booked a flight with British Airways but then find themselves onboard an Iberia Express aircraft. The reason lies in the wet lease strategy adopted by the British national carrier. But why?
Following Brexit, UK-based airlines have needed to adapt to new legal requirements, among which one finds the need for flying crew to hold a valid UK visa. However, in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, many UK-based airlines faced a considerable challenge in recruiting enough British cabin crew in time to accommodate the pent-up demand that characterized the summer months.
Consequently, a sleight of hand has been found in wet leasing from European-based airlines. Indeed, wet leasing, or AMCI (Aircraft, Maintenance, Crew, and Insurance), allows UK-based carriers to staff European nationals on their flights, overcoming the legal constraint and thus operating more flights.
British Airways has been adopting a strategy of wet leasing from European partner airlines to bypass some legal requirements induced by Brexit. Photo: Getty Images
One of British Airways’ routes affected by this wet leasing strategy is the Milan Malpensa (MXP) to London Gatwick (LGW) route, where some of the services are operated by Iberia Express instead of British Airways. Let’s look at how the Iberia Express hard product is and whether there are any differences from British Airways, which I flew back to Milan.
Iberia Express, Malpensa – Gatwick
Iberia Express, a subsidiary of the Spanish flag carrier Iberia, was launched in March 2012 and was the first low-cost carrier of the IAG Group. It operates a fleet of 19 Airbus A320s.
Among all the alternatives from Milan to London, British Airways offered the lowest price for a flight from Malpensa to Gatwick. The flight was scheduled to depart at 21:00 from Malpensa Terminal 1 and land at Gatwick South Terminal at 22:10. Milan Malpensa terminal 1 is the newest of two terminals; more precisely, Malpensa Terminal 2, once easyJet’s stronghold in Milan, was shut down during the pandemic and it has not yet reopened.
Spending just a few days in London, I did not have any luggage to check in; consequently, I went straight to security checks, which were efficiently done in a matter of minutes. After the UK left the European Union, a passport is required when traveling from Italy; therefore, flights to the UK now depart from the gate area dedicated to extra-EU and extra-Schengen flights.
The B-gates waiting area in Milan Malpensa Terminal 1 is a very comfortable space to wait for your flight; large windows offer a great view of the apron. Photo: Giacomo Amati I Simple Flying
The B-gate area in Malpensa is a comfortable space to wait for your flight; it looks fresh and clean, offering a range of shops, newsstands, and cafès. There is plenty of space to sit, and aviation enthusiasts can enjoy a very nice view of the apron thanks to large windows. An interesting fact is that Emirates regularly uses gates B53 and B56; consequently, if you’re lucky enough, your aircraft might be parked next to the Gulf carrier’s massive Airbus A380, as was the case for my flight.
In Milan Malpensa, Emirates regularly uses gates B53 and B56. Photo: Giacomo Amati I Simple Flying
The boarding procedure was slowed down by the fact that Iberia Express, unlike British Airways, still requires passengers to wear a face covering onboard; however, many passengers did not know that and did not have a face covering with them. Therefore, they had to buy one from a nearby newsstand. The lack of notice on the part of British Airways annoyed some of the passengers, who left the boarding gate quite disappointed.
EC-LLE, a 23-year-old Airbus A320, operated the flight. Although you could tell the age from the walls and overhead panel designs, the cabin looked fresh and clean. The aircraft featured the lightweight, slim profile Recaro SL3510, a seat type commonly used by the IAG group. Each seat featured a nice antimacassar with a stylized landmark of different Spanish cities to which Iberia Express flies. The color changed from black for the premium cabin at the front of the aircraft to red for the economy section.
Besides the slimness of these seats, they are also lightweight, which positively impacts fuel consumption and, therefore, CO2 emissions and the cost of fuel. The Recaro SL3510 slim seats also offer a decent seat pitch for short/medium-haul flights.
The Recaro SL3510 slim seat is widely used by airlines of the IAG Group, such as British Airways and Iberia, and offers a good seat pitch. Photo: Giacomo Amati I Simple Flying
A very positive aspect of this aircraft is that it offers WiFi access and a USB charger, which is located under the seat. Additionally, Iberia Express has removed the paper version of the onboard menu and duty-free shop catalog and substituted it with a QR code, which is conveniently visible on the rear part of the antimacassar.
Iberia Express Airbus A320s offer both a WiFi connection and a USB charger. Photo: Giacomo Amati I Simple Flying
Iberia and Iberia Express usually don’t provide complimentary drinks and snacks but offer a buy-on-board product instead. However, as the flight was marketed by British Airways, the service onboard reflected that of the British flag carrier. Consequently, the cabin crew handed out a complimentary Harrogate water bottle and a pack of flavored pretzels.
Although operated by Iberia Express, the flight was marketed by British Airways; therefore, British Airways’ short/medium-haul onboard service was provided. Photo: Giacomo Amati I Simple Flying
Overall, this was a very positive flight experience; the cabin crew was amiable and attentive to customers’ needs, helping out during boarding with placing carry-ons in the overheads and providing caring service. The flight arrived perfectly on time in London, although it had left Milan with a delay of approximately ten minutes. The only negative note was the unavailability of the buy-on-board service, which was apparently due to a problem with the catering provider.
According to Cirium, in June 2022, Iberia was Europe’s most punctual airline. Photo: Giacomo Amati I Simple Flying
British Airways, Gatwick – Malpensa
A couple of days later, I took the return flight to Milan, this time operated by British Airways. Once I arrived at London Gatwick, I was eager to find out whether British Airways’ hard product and service differed any from those of Iberia Express, or if the wet lease provided an efficient strategy for the UK’s national carrier to bypass the new legal requirements.
Gatwick Airport gate area was wider than the one in Milan, and again large windows offered a nice view of the apron. British Airways’ boarding procedure, the same adopted in Milan for the Iberia Express-operated flight, is particularly efficient; it divides passengers into groups, and boarding is carried out accordingly. This way, the line at the gate is not as crowded as one can expect.
The gate area at Gatwick was bright and spacious, and the boarding procedure was orderly. Photo: Giacomo Amati I Simple Flying
The British Airways Airbus A320 featured the same interior as Iberia Express; however, no USB charger was available. On the other hand, ba.air, British Airways’ onboard WiFi, was provided. On ba.air, passengers can choose food and drinks from the buy-on-board service, read British Airways’ signature magazine, high life, and follow the flight status and other flight-related information such as speed and altitude for free.
Additionally, the Browse and Stream package, with a starting price of £4.99, allows passengers to browse the web, access e-mails, connect to social networks, and watch online videos; the Messaging package, on the other hand, has a starting price of £2.99 and allows access to messaging apps and text-only e-mails.
WiFi was available on the British Airways flight; the ba.air offers useful information about the flight, such as speed and altitude. Photo: Giacomo Amati I Simple Flying
The crew handed out the same packet of pretzels and water bottles as on the Iberia Express flights; additionally, the buy-on-board service was available. Not much difference could be noticed on the British Airways flight compared to the one operated by Iberia Express; the British Airways crew was very friendly and competent as well, and they provided outstanding customer service. On both flights, the captains introduced themselves and gave some information about the route, time of arrival, and weather forecast at the destination, which I find a nice touch, even on short-haul flights.
Although the flight experience with British Airways was very positive, one should bear in mind this when traveling with UK’s flag carrier: British Airways, like many other European carriers, including Iberia, is progressively changing the cabin layout of its Airbus A320-family fleet by installing the Airbus Space-Flex galley at the rear of the aircraft; the Space-Flex galley aims to increase the cabin space for additional seats, thus enabling the airline to sell more tickets per flight and thereby increase revenues.
Differing from the traditional layout, the Space-flex galley is divided into two parts – one with the trolleys and one featuring two toilets. Therefore, the two toilets usually found at the end of an Airbus A320-family aircraft are removed, leaving space for additional seats. Nonetheless, just the interior of the cabin changes, not the exterior, which means the number of windows do not increase. Consequently, the last row of seats might not have a window, which I personally find annoying and claustrophobic.
The last row does not have a window on many British Airways Airbus A320s featuring the Airbus Space-Flax galley. Photo: Giacomo Amati I Simple Flying
My experience with both Iberia Express and British Airways were overall positive.
Among all the alternatives available from Milan, British Airways was the cheapest option. It is true, however, that the flight arrived at Gatwick, not Heathrow, and left from Milan Malpensa instead of the more convenient Linate city airport. Nonetheless, both airports are well connected to the city centers.
Both the British Airways and Iberia Express crew were very professional, attentive, and competent. Even on an hour-and-a-half flight, you could tell they were there for whatever needs you might have. The British Airways cabin service manager particularly caught my attention for the professionalism that characterized its approach to passengers.
The complementary onboard service, even if minimal, is a nice touch on an intra-European flight; sometimes, some water and a small snack are everything you need on such a short hop. The Recaro slim seats are comfortable enough, while the WiFi access is a plus that sets British Airways and Iberia Express apart from the competition.
Additionally, the USB charger provided by Iberia Express was the icing on the cake, and something I experienced for the first time on an intra-European flight.