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The Madrid Experience



This title is a little misleading as my experience spanned far more than Madrid alone; I felt like Madrid was where I left a little piece of my heart. While this is an aviation blog, first and foremost, I will try to cover as many non-aviation components of my trip as possible for the "other" people (a.k.a. my family) reading this.

Earlier in March, I had the privilege of taking a class over Spring Break in Madrid. For M.B.A. students, once a semester, Fordham offers a week-long course abroad somewhere. The semester before was in London, and I missed the cutoff. Like many things in life, this worked out for the best since I fell in love with Madrid. We visited 10-15 companies based in Greater Madrid and wrote a five-page reflection paper and a twenty-page research paper to earn three credits.

The visits were honestly fascinating. We even met with Saffron Consultants, which developed Vueling’s brand from scratch and Gulf Air’s recent rebranding. Seeing organizations in other industries was a breath of fresh air for someone who has spent so much time immersed in aviation. It was the experience of a lifetime and finally gave me a chance to venture to Europe.

This may sound like hyperbole, but essentially my whole life, I have had wanderlust over what Europe has to offer. Instead of drooling over pictures of spotting at St. Maarten, I am more enamored by what airports like Madeira and Skiathos offer. The diversity of carriers at airports spread across Europe is unmatched. While American airports compete over the same 5-10 carriers, European airports often have double the amount of airlines. Of course, I would not go to Europe and not capitalize on this travel opportunity.


Barcelona

Lufthansa 419 | IAD-FRA | Boeing 747-8i

I know what you are thinking. Yes, I know that more than one carrier operates nonstop from New York City to Barcelona. But none of them would get me on a Boeing 747. While budgeting my loans for the class, I was sure to incorporate travel costs each way to land me on both a Boeing 747 and an Airbus A380. Also, being my first time overseas, I did not want to spend the first days of the class adjusting to the jet lag, so I budgeted for about two days in Barcelona just before.



Thanks to Southwest via BWI and Uber, I arrived at Washington-Dulles with enough time to check in and relax, so I was sure to incorporate at least one lounge experience into my ticket. What better way to kick things off?

I have heard a lot during my lifetime about Lufthansa being one of the best airlines in the world. For this reason, I even reported on Lufthansa during my Concepts of International Air Transport class in undergrad, so it was nice to put a face to the name of an airline I had devoted an entire semester of research to. From Dulles, I would connect in Frankfurt to Barcelona, where I would land around noon local time the following day.

Boarding the Queen of the Skies for the first time was a surreal experience. It sounds lame, but I had not been that excited for a flight, probably ever. For some reason, I always admired the Boeing 747 but almost took it for granted, assuming I would never find a reason to get on one. Unfortunately, as airlines chose to accelerate the retirement of certain fleet types during the pandemic, many Boeing 747s now rest in the desert, replaced with more efficient and profitable aircraft.

Thankfully, Lufthansa still gets it. With a fleet of Boeing 747-400s and Boeing 747-8is, this is the best chance for anyone still looking to get on the Queen. With expansive hubs in both Frankfurt and Munich, there are plenty of ways to get wherever your travels take you relatively affordably. Not only are there no plans to retire the Boeing 747 immediately for Lufthansa, they even still fly the Airbus A340-600!

Settling into my favorite seat and seeing the windows line up perfectly was nice. Being my first actual long-haul flight, it was welcoming to see a blanket and pillow given to even those sitting in the economy section. Stacked with portable chargers and ample reading material, I had my travel bag ready for the next eight-plus hours.

After departing shortly behind schedule, we made our way north. I found it fascinating during climb-out that you could feel the aircraft subtly rock side-to-side with the engines on their pylons. I could see the flight track was taking us right over my home in Worcester, but I had trouble with the aircraft’s WiFi attempting to give my family a heads up. You would think that in 2023, we would have solved fast inflight WiFi; however, when you think about 400 people on the same router, it likely requires a complicated solution.

Luckily, my mother is fluent in FlightRadar24 and noticed this well in advance. We could not have flown any more directly overhead, which I still find extremely funny to this day, the thought of my mom and our family dog Hunter outside as I passed over.


Lufthansa 1126 | FRA-BCN | Airbus A321

The idea of connecting internationally was the only thing that made me nervous about the trip. I had performed a “trial run” by flying Calgary-Toronto-NYC the month before, which did not help. It did not go smoothly (ending in me sprinting to my gate as the door closed, just like in the movies but far less gracefully), and my cousin Eric, who also loves to travel, had a nightmare experience abroad connecting in Lisbon.

Luckily, Frankfurt lived up to its reputation of being one of the best places in the world to connect, and in less than 45 minutes, I officially entered the E.U., making it to my gate before most passengers. What I found particularly interesting is there are enough daily frequencies that they dedicate a gate for BCN flights, painting the gate area and everything in a Barcelona theme. If I had missed my connection, the next flight would have been operated on an Airbus A330-300, which I would not have hated.

I am unsure why I expected an Airbus A321 in Europe to look and feel different from the six I had flown in America, but I did. Painted in Lufthansa’s sleek new livery, we departed a rainy Frankfurt on time. Usually, the lower overcast clouds would be enough to make me pissy, but as you can imagine, I was too busy taking it all in - I was finally in Europe.

I wish I researched prevailing traffic patterns as I selected the wrong side of the plane to sit on. Barcelona is one of Europe's most scenic cities, especially from the air, but of course, I picked the side of the plane that faces nothing but water on approach.


Lufthansa's sleek new branding on an Airbus A321neo.


The next day and a half, I walked around Barcelona, taking in what felt like a city set in a different world. Of course, that is not before first spending a morning planespotting with my camera I had [carefully] packed. Even for myself, I was a little shy getting out there to spot by myself for the first time in another country. Honestly, I feel like my travel experiences of the previous months helped me step out of my comfort zone that morning. As luck would have it, the weather was 10 out of 10 beautiful. At the time, the airport was undergoing rehabilitation on its typical arrival runway, condensing all traffic to the more photogenic one.

I find when I travel; I am a simple person. I do not need to spend a whole day in one location to feel I earned my money's worth. For example, I visited Spotify Camp Nou, which F.C. Barcelona calls home. As excited as I was to be there, I spent maybe thirty minutes meandering around the campus before moving on to my next spot. This is how I spent my time in Barcelona, seeing all I could before moving on to the next area. I considered my time there gravy since the most significant purpose was to provide an adjustment period in preparation for the three-credit intensive course I would undertake over the next several days. What a beautiful city - I will be back to spend more time in the future.


Guell Park in central Barcelona.


Palma De Mallorca

Ryanair 3070 | BCN-PMI | Boeing 737-800
Ryanair 6369 | PMI-BCN | Airbus A320

I had not originally planned on making any day trips, but as time inched closer, I felt more and more compelled. Incredibly, I found USD 15 fares between Barcelona and Palma de Mallorca, a smaller island nearby most known for its beaches, entailing an approximately 25-minute flight both ways. I had hoped to have sufficient time between flights to get to a beach for an hour or two, but I was disappointed that the shores were too far away to leave the airport comfortably.

The Ryanair experience was about what you would expect. I was disappointed to board the plane and find the emergency cards I collect as trophies were plastered to the seatbacks. Unless I could find a way to steal the seat, I was unfortunately not going to leave with a prize. However, especially with the short flight time, I felt the unpleasant experience so synonymous with Ryanair was not all that bad.

Not to be perturbed, I sat down for breakfast at a nice restaurant and read briefly before my flight back. It was terrific how developed even the smaller airports in Europe are. Beach destinations, such as Palma de Mallorca, typically do not pick up until the busy summer travel season, but the traffic level was steady the whole time I was there. I saw airlines such as Luxair, Condor, and my first Bombardier CRJ-1000.

The return flight was *technically* Ryanair but operated by subsidiary Lauda. Acquired by Ryanair in 2020, Lauda operates a fleet of Airbus entirely under their branding except for their callsign. For now, at least, nothing about Lauda's experience would indicate a relationship with Ryanair. The crew seemed to be actively trying to disassociate from their parent company. Thankfully, they did have a safety card that I promptly swiped.


Madrid

Vueling 1008 | BCN-MAD | Airbus A320

At 126 miles, Barcelona and Palma de Mallorca remain my shortest city pair - even faster than my New York City to Worcester hops. I landed in Barcelona a little after 12:30 in the afternoon, leaving about four hours to check out my hotel room and head back to the airport. For my Barcelona to Madrid segment, I went with the low-cost carrier Vueling (Air Europa and Iberia also compete on this route).

You are probably wondering where all this money comes from. In addition to my PMI trip, which totaled a whopping USD 40, my Vueling ticket cost all of USD 39. This is what I was talking about; European aviation is a different game entirely. There is a reason Europeans travel more than Americans!

Take, for instance, the Barcelona to Madrid segment. Airlines must also compete with land-based operators because travelers can choose between high-speed rail and several bus carriers. Most of the European economy provides for this dynamic, leaving E.U. citizens with competitive airfares. Air Europa even operates the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner on this route, the shortest of such in the world.



Vueling, with a primary operating base out of Barcelona-El Prat, has taken off (no pun intended) over the past five to ten years. Their success seems tied to being acquired by International Airlines Group, a joint venture between British Airways and Iberia, in 2013. By the time the deal was finalized, IAG had held about 91% ownership in Vueling, fueling a significant expansion in Barcelona and opening several other bases using a common fleet type of Airbus A320s. You will see this considerable carrier-LCC dynamic again very shortly.

Despite their status as a low-cost carrier, I found my Vueling experience quite pleasant, their quirky marketing and in-flight experience reminding me of JetBlue. Only an hour and change in the air, this flight would provide me my first aerial views of the Iberian peninsula (the flights earlier in the day were 98% water). Our flight headed south over Valencia before turning inland, where, after staring out the window the whole time, we landed in Madrid just before sunset and right on time.



The following week or so was concentrated on my studies. How selfish, right? But I had the time of my life. It was the first time since I was a kid I was distraught at the prospect of having to leave; there was just something different about the culture that I loved. Some things of note:

  • You should know one thing about me - I am a massive fan of European soccer. While I was there, Real Madrid played Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League. I did not have a team in LaLiga before, but I do now. Hala Madrid!

  • Spanish cuisine is different from American cuisine for several reasons. Most workplaces incorporate an hour-and-a-half lunch break into their workdays, and it is not uncommon for friends to meet for dinner four to five times a week.

  • The Metro there is so much cleaner than New York City. That said, I can’t think of anywhere in the world where this would not be the case, so take it for what it’s worth.

  • Be careful of "Pickpocketers." It is generally prevalent in Spain, but they target tourists (especially in groups where they can blend in).

The class syllabus concluded with a day spent in the nearby medieval city of Toledo, home to one of Europe’s largest cathedrals. If you ever find yourself in Madrid, it is worth setting aside a day to see for yourself. Being a popular tourist destination, plenty of transportation is available between the two cities, and it only requires about an hour of drive-time. The town sits on a hillside, so if you are a sucker like me for incredible views, Toledo is the place for you. The city has enough to do, especially if you like food and shopping.



Paris

Transavia 4631 | MAD-ORY | Boeing 737-800
Air France 1100 | CDG-MAD | Airbus A220-300

My last day trip was inspired by my cousin, who is not a plane nerd yet had the distinct privilege of flying on Air France’s brand new Airbus A220-300 only a few months prior. Wanting to experience one for myself, I figured, why not kick the tires? Air France operates the Airbus A220-300 between Madrid and Paris, which was already a city at the top of my list. This agenda was going to be a slam dunk, albeit slightly pricier.



Purposefully, I would fly into Paris-Orly before commuting through central Paris on my way to Charles de Gaulle. The first segment was operated by Transavia France, a low-cost carrier now 95% owned by Air France. Similarly, the parent company Transavia of the Netherlands is a low-cost carrier wholly owned by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. To make things more confusing for the non-aviation crowd, Air France and KLM are in cahoots together, making this a match in heaven. For this reason, Transavia, historically an all-Boeing fleet, will shortly be phased out in favor of brand-new Airbus aircraft. In America, the composition of a low-cost carrier within a legacy would bolster carriers against the ultra-low-cost renaissance taking the nation by storm.

At approximately USD 55, I would leave Madrid around 9 in the morning local time before traveling to CDG for a 5 PM return. While the trip was unquestionably centered around the Air France portion, I was pumped to fly Transavia. Certain brands have a way of drawing you in, and Transavia is one of them. Their bright lime green is decorated throughout the interior, seats, etc.

The skies were overcast in Paris, not giving me much to look at during approach and landing. It was pretty okay, though, as I could not have prepared for what would come next. Sometimes, you are just in the right place at the right time. I knew my route between airports would take me past some key locations in Paris from a distance, which I was content with. After conversing with my Uber driver, I explained what I was doing, expecting him to think I was just another crazy American.

However, that was not the case at all. Once the driver got a grasp on what I was trying to do, he kindly offered a scenic route option passing by such landmarks as the Arc de Triomphe, Le Parc de Princes (home to Paris-St. Germain), and, of course, the Eiffel Tower. Gladly accepting, the next hour and a half was better than anticipated. When I left for Madrid, I did not think by any chance I would find myself standing at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, but there I was. I sent a selfie to my family without context and continued to CDG for my flight back.


When I arrived at Charles de Gaulle, the overcast skies cleared, supplying for one of the most excellent evenings of the trip.

What is so significant about Air France’s Airbus A220? Good question; I’m not exactly sure either. I think I am drawn in by the aircraft type despite being an Airbus “product,” my interest tracing back to its early days with Bombardier. At one point in time, the aircraft’s future was unclear. Thanks to Airbus, despite some severe maintenance gremlins in its early existence, this aircraft has found a niche place in the market.

During the flight back to Madrid, I felt like I had accomplished all I had come for - as a tourist, student, and plane nerd. After this trip, I will put away money for future European trips rather than focusing on standard tourist destinations. Especially with newer low-cost carriers, for instance, Iceland’s PLAY, America now connects to some attractive European leisure markets. As a result, the price gap separating a beach getaway in the Caribbean from one in Europe continues to shrink. Exciting times!


F-HZUK, the actual plane that took me from Paris to Madrid the following day.


London

Iberia 3170 | MAD-LHR | Airbus A320neo
British Airways 217 | LHR-IAD | Airbus A380

I had one last surprise for my flight back to America. The “Super” A380, far from a rare aircraft in the Greater NYC area, is also being retired in favor of more efficient and profitable aircraft. To give you an idea, engines are already the costliest airline maintenance expense. The Boeing 747 and Airbus A380 have four, double the usual number of two. Thanks to composite materials, we are now able o do more with less, with twin-engine aircraft such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350 series able to reach farther than any twin-engine widebody aircraft built to date. This is my roundabout way of saying now was also the time to get on one.

The first flight was on Spain’s flag carrier Iberia, operating with a codeshare onto my later flight on British Airways. I was initially nervous about transferring my bag through a codeshare since I know that can often be where bags get lost at places with weak partnerships. I can say this now that the Northeast Alliance was recently annulled, but I do know at New York-JFK, the collaboration between JetBlue and American was known for several lost bags. Thankfully, this worry was unfounded when I arrived in Washington - not only that, my bag was one of the first off the belt!

With an Estimated Departure Time of 6 AM on the dot, my flight to London is the first one out of Madrid each day for Iberia. It was pretty nice to look out the window to see an Airbus A320neo waiting for me to grace its presence for my journey back across the pond as another incredible sunrise greeted our departure. However, the weather would quickly change as we made our way north. The inclement weather in London and Paris was the only hiccups of the trip, but honestly, I do not mind. This is just a reason to return another day.

The connection through Heathrow went just as smoothly as the one in Frankfurt, and within an hour, I switched terminals and made it to my next departure gate with hours to spare. I had an excellent breakfast at the airport, where I spent some time reading and trying to find an English Premier League shop (to no avail). It had crossed my mind how, with a seating capacity of 469 passengers, how exceptionally complex the boarding process must be. The terminal was lined with Airbus A380s side-by-side to convolute the process further. Two gates alone equate to almost 1,000 people!

The boarding was uneventful. However, the process did last approximately an hour. Once again, I nailed my seat selection, choosing a perfectly aligned window behind the flaps. As the flight to Europe was 95% dark, the return was set to be entirely daylight. Working long hours prepared me for this long day ahead of me, but I found the adrenaline of flying on an Airbus A380 carried me a long way.

Similarly to Lufthansa, I was provided with a blanket/pillow combo with lunch and dinner options. I did not take any photos, so take me at my word - they were pretty good. Not to mention, being treated to Spanish coffee and British tea was the best way to make a morning out of it. The WiFi did not work at all, which was a bummer, but thankfully I made a habit of preparing for such circumstances. Once again, we landed in Washington right on time.


Conclusion

I like my conclusions to be short.

After approximately 28 hours straight of being awake, I finally returned to my apartment around midnight local time, thus concluding my European vacation.

I have always felt that I was someone to make the best out of unfortunate circumstances. After the pandemic, it became clear that I had taken travel for granted my entire life. I am unsure whether it was complacency or the unknown, but I had not cared to travel at all for myself. This class was meant to be; I believe in things like that like the universe knew I needed the extra kick in the butt. I had never left the United States this time last year - I now have seven countries under my belt.

Traveling is liberating. If this resonates with you, begin considering possible trips. One of my favorite authors, John Green, says in one of my favorite books, Paper Towns, “It is so hard to leave - until you leave. And then it is easiest in the world.”

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