It’s been more than 90 years since Spanish airline Iberia first took flight. That first service was not a glamorous affair, having seats made of wicker and a plane that could barely break 100 knots, but it was Spain’s first foray into commercial aviation and a momentous occasion for the nation.
The beginnings of Iberia
Iberia’s first-ever flight took place on December 14th in 1927. It was a short hop from Madrid to Barcelona and marked Spain’s first foray into commercial aviation. The airline had been set up some months before, officially founded in June 1927 as Iberia Líneas Aéreas de España, S. A.
The founding father of the airline was Horacio Echeberrieta, a Spanish businessman, banker, politician, and diplomat. He worked in partnership with Deutch Luft Hansa (DLH) to provide access to Spain, something that was incredibly important at the time, given that the Treaty of Versailles had prohibited German aircraft from overflying France.
Between the pair, an investment of 1.1 million pesetas was injected to launch the airline – this is estimated to be worth around €2.6 million ($3.1 million) in today’s money. Government approval was given for daily flights between Madrid and Barcelona, and Iberia acquired three Rohrbach Roland monoplanes from DLH to begin service.
The first flight
That first flight was a rather unglamorous affair. The Rohrbach Roland R-VIII was a big, boxy plane, advance for its time but a slow and cumbersome beast by today’s standards. It had three engines and could fly to a range of 1,500 km (932 miles). According to Iberia’s blog, the 10 passenger seats on this first flight were made from wicker.
The inaugural flight was timed to coincide with the opening of Carabanchel aerodrome, now called the Madrid-Cuatro Vientos Airport. Onboard this first flight was the then king of Spain, Alfonso XIII, as well as founder and president of the airline, Horacio Echeberrieta.
The aircraft took off at 12:30, landing safely in Barcelona three and a half hours later. The same day, another R-VIII took off from Barcelona, operating the mirror service. However, the paired service ran into trouble with the weather, and had to stop in Almazan, Soria, due to reduced visibility. It had set off at 09:00, intending to arrive in Madrid before the dignitaries left, but missed them by several hours, finally arriving at 14:00.
Nevertheless, the inaugural flight was a success, and the three-hour trip became a regular fixture on the fledgling airline’s schedule. Operating daily, it was sponsored by the government to provide transport primarily for important mail between the cities.
The disappearance of Iberia
Two years after its launch, Iberia disappeared. The airline was subsumed into Compañía de Líneas Aéreas Subvencionadas S.A. (CLASSA), although it maintained its listing with the Companies Register of Madrid. But Iberia was not gone for long, and rejoined the world of aviation in 1937. The airline restarted as domestic only, but soon began flying to its first international destination – Lisbon.
Post-war, the airline was the first to fly to South America, reaching Buenos Aries in 1946 with its DC-4. The flight took 36 hours and was the first to feature flight attendants to look after passengers. The Pact of Madrid in 1953 allowed US visitors to travel to Spain with no visa requirements, a move that stimulated the launch of flights to the States. Iberia began flying to the US using a fleet of Lockheed Super Constellation from 1954.
By its 50th anniversary, the airline reached the milestone of carrying more than 10 million passengers in a year. It was the first to set up a frequent flyer program in Europe, and became privatized in the early 2000s. Although the airline subsequently merged with British Airways, it still has a fiercely loyal following, and is just six years off celebrating its centenary of operations.