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Low-cost carrier LEVEL has a lot going for it, but still has a lot of kinks to work out. Pros: a fresh, clean feel; great in-flight entertainment options and unbeatable fares. Cons: an atrocious boarding process, rude service and technology issues while in the air.
It’s not very often you get to try out a brand new airline. I mean brand new. Like, first flight ever new. So, earlier this year, when we found out IAG — the company that owns British Airways, Aer Lingus and Iberia, among others — was launching a new low-cost carrier called LEVEL, I booked a one-way trip on the inaugural flight from Barcelona (BCN) to Los Angeles (LAX).
In addition to the BCN-LAX route, the Barcelona-based carrier is also set to begin service to Oakland (OAK), Buenos Aires (EZE) and Punta Cana (PUJ). The airline uses Iberia A330-200 aircraft but sports its own livery — for the launch, the carrier also brought in Iberia flight crew. Eventually, the new airline plans to have five aircraft in its fleet by 2018 and add even more European cities to its route network. Given the hype, I was excited to test it out and especially curious to see how it compared to other low-cost transatlantic carriers.
I booked this flight as soon as I was able to. When the new airline was first announced back in March, its website was really slow and in fact took several hours before it would even load. So even though I knew I wanted to book one of those $105 fares on the inaugural flight, I had to wait for technology to cooperate. Finally, when the site was up and running, I was able to load the flight. Note that the carrier’s flights are searchable on Google Flights, but you’ll have to actually book the ticket through Iberia. I think this is where a lot of passengers on the inaugural flight got confused, because you have to book through Iberia and the flight was marketed as Iberia Flight 2623 (more on that later), but was actually being operated by LEVEL.
At the time I booked, the website was incredibly glitchy. Things weren’t loading and I really had a hard time getting anything done. After a couple of attempts, I was able to enter my information and decided to put the flight on hold for free for 24 hours so the site could work out its technical difficulties.
The following day, I went back to check and while it still wasn’t a fully functioning site — even on Iberia — it was working well enough for me to take my ticket off hold and purchase it. In all, I paid $105 for the one-way flight.
After I’d completed my booking, I got a notice saying I’d need to have the credit card I used to book with me when I checked in. I know this is common on flights to Africa, as TPG himself has experienced, but I’d never heard of it being necessarily for a flight to Europe. I didn’t think much of it and at check-in, the agent didn’t even ask to see my card.
If you don’t want to pay cash, you can also choose to book award tickets with Iberia Avios — just go to the Iberia Plus site and search award availability on your preferred route. I found one-way tickets on this exact route for 25,000 Avios + $126. Considering the flight itself cost me just $105 in cash, you’d be paying more than the cost of the ticket in the taxes and fees alone by doing it that way. Because LEVEL offers such low fares, it’ll be best to do your research before attempting to book an award flight.
I paid for the ticket using my Platinum Card from American Express so I’d earn 5x points on airfares booked directly through the airline. In all, the purchase earned me 524 points, which are worth about $10 based on TPG’s most recent valuations. I decided to credit the flight to American Airlines, since it’s marketed by Iberia and is a member of the Oneworld alliance. (As of this writing, the miles I earned haven’t yet posted to my account).
Because LEVEL is a low-cost carrier, you have to pay for a lot of the things you might be used to getting for free, for example, choosing a seat. I didn’t want to get stuck with a middle seat on this 12-hour flight, so I went ahead and chose a seat in advance — 19A, a window seat, which cost me $33. I paid for this with my Chase Sapphire Preferred Card so I’d earn 2x points on travel. I didn’t opt for any add-ons beyond that though.
When I first arrived at Barcelona (BCN), I wasn’t quite sure where to go — straight to the Iberia counter, or would there be a designated section just for LEVEL? As my taxi pulled into the drop-off area, I didn’t see any indication on the doors outside the terminal that the airline had it’s own counter, so I asked the driver to drop me off at Iberia just in case.
When I went inside, I headed for an Iberia help desk and asked where I should check in. As the flight is marketed as Iberia Flight 2623, I figured I would just be checking in with the carrier directly, however she instructed me that LEVEL did in fact have its own counter. It would have been nice to have a head’s up about where to check in, as I’m sure many people went to the Iberia counter like I did. There was nothing out of the ordinary at check-in — there was no indication that this was an inaugural flight either. I was able to spot the blue and green of the logo pretty easily though and hopped in the economy passenger line.
There were two other lines as well: one for premium economy passengers and the other, a bag drop for passengers who’d checked in at home. There were about seven parties in front of me when I joined, and it took 15 minutes for me to see an agent.
As I was standing in line, the amount of confusion among my fellow passengers was noticeable. Since this was marketed as an Iberia flight, surely many folks thought they were going to be flying with the Spanish carrier. I heard a pair of people talking behind me who were wondering what LEVEL was, so the man looked it up on his phone, only to find out that this was the inaugural flight. He said to his companion, “So, what does this mean?” She replied, “We should get bonus points for trying it.” That would be nice.
Some of the agents were noticeably more friendly than others. I would have expected customer service to be above and beyond — especially for an inaugural flight — but found that to be a trend throughout my LEVEL experience.
After I was successfully checked in, I headed to security, which had a short line, and got through in a matter of minutes. As most international departures require you to do, I had to walk through a duty free shop. I ended up buying a magnet for a friend and when I went to the cashier to purchase it, she asked to see my boarding pass. Once she saw I was flying LEVEL, she informed me that I’d get 5% off my purchase in celebration of the airline’s inaugural flight. A nice gesture for sure, but it would have been great if there were some communication of the promotion during check-in — I’m sure more people would have taken advantage of it if they had known ahead of time.
As a Priority Pass member — which I am because I’m an Amex Platinum cardholder — I looked at my options on the Priority Pass app in advance. There are three lounges in Terminal 1: one is for passengers on flights between Barcelona and Madrid, one is for passengers traveling to another Schengen country and the last is for passengers traveling to intercontinental, non-Schengen countries.
The description of the last lounge, the VIP Lounge Joan Miró, confused me. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to enter, as I wasn’t traveling within the continent, but I was traveling to a non-Schengen country. When I took the elevator down to the lounge, I was told I was allowed to enter.
I didn’t have too much time to spend in the lounge, just 25 minutes or so, enough to grab a quick drink, do some work and take a couple of pictures. I have to say, this lounge was better than many domestic lounges I’ve been to in the Priority Pass network.
There was a self-serve part of the bar with wine, and if you wanted to spend a bit more, a full bar serviced by a bartender was also available.
As for food options, there was a great selection of fresh food to choose from. I didn’t have enough time to try anything, but just from viewing the table, I was impressed with the options — fresh breads and sliced meats, among others.
Up until this point, my LEVEL experience had been pretty average. I wasn’t entirely impressed with the check-in process and the somewhat rude counter staff I’d encountered. But the 5% discount at the duty free shop was a very pleasant surprise. Where things really took a turn for the worse was during the boarding process.
For the flight that was scheduled to depart at 3:40pm, check-in agents said to be at the gate at 2:40pm for boarding to begin. Around 3:25pm, passengers started congregating by the gate, so a LEVEL employee asked people to form a line and to wrap around in a logical way. She then went through the line one-by-one and directed each passenger to one of three lanes — Group 1 (rear of the cabin), 2 (middle of the cabin) or 3 (front of the cabin).
Fair enough, I thought, but it may have been more efficient to just call a group altogether like most other carriers do than to line it up to begin with. What ensued was something I’d never seen in an airport. As each of the three lanes grew — an extra one one also formed, which was made up of premium economy passengers — the lines extended to the opposite end of the terminal.
By 3:00pm, people were growing impatient. There were at least 12 LEVEL staff at the computers paging the same passengers every few minutes. I couldn’t tell if we were waiting for press that were on board the plane, if the flight had been overbooked or if something else was going on. Surely at this point, we weren’t going to be departing at 3:40pm. By now, it was beyond a cattle call situation. At 3:05pm, we got the first announcement that boarding was set to commence. Finally. Those needing assistance boarded first. Next up, premium economy passengers. That’s when the situation grew even worse.
Mind you, the boarding area was a tight space. I was at the front of the line for Group 2 and could see everything happening right in front of me. As premium economy passengers started to scan their boarding passes, some were instructed to step aside, right in front of me, with no explanation except that they should keep their passport in hand. Soon enough, it seemed like every other person was being sent to a second counter, which quickly grew too crowded for the little amount of space there was. I noticed travelers with both US passports and European passports were being pulled aside.
Finally, as the number of passenger grew past 10 or 12 in the tiny space, someone asked an employee what was going on. She informed the passenger that it had to do with how they’d checked in. Apparently if passengers had checked in from home, some data from their passports didn’t transfer to LEVEL’s system and needed to be put into the system manually. If passengers had checked in at the airport like I did, they could board.
It was a totally chaotic, asinine procedure and staff handled it tremendously poorly. Usually, I have some sympathy if things like that go wrong, but I had to question why the carrier chose to board like that, with lines extending the width of the terminal and not moving for about 30 minutes. If there had been some kind of update from the staff, that would have helped the situation immensely. I hope the airline can figure out that disaster of a boarding process in the future. And, a word of advice, when people start to question what’s going on, don’t snap back. No one looked happy to be there — neither the crew nor any of the passengers. When we boarded, we were given a set of cheap, plastic sunglasses.
Cabin and Seat
By the time I finally boarded the plane, it was 3:59pm — 19 minutes after we were supposed to depart. There was a tense feeling on board between the passengers and crew. Everyone was pretty frustrated, but my mood improved when I boarded the plane and saw the brand new cabin.
Flight 2623 was the first-ever passenger flight for this A330-200 — tail number EC-MOU is fresh off the manufacturing line at just two months old. It even smelled like new plane.
The economy cabin was arranged in a 2-4-2 configuration.
As I mentioned earlier, I’d decided to pay $33 to choose window seat 19A. The rest of the cabin was nearly full.
The seats looked fresh in a light red color, similar to what you’d find on Iberia’s new A330s.
Each of the seats had 30 inches of pitch and were rather narrow. In total, there were 293 seats in the economy cabin.
I had a quick opportunity to check out the premium economy cabin while deplaning. It’s composed of 21 seats in a 2-3-2 layout. Each of these seats has 37 inches of pitch.
I like when seats have adjustable headrests, and this one was perfect. I also liked the simplicity of the headrest cover with the LEVEL logo.
The headrest slid vertically quite a bit, so even the tallest of passengers could have their head supported when sitting straight up. Plus, the flaps molded to support your head while you’re sleeping.
I will say that the seats were a bit stiff — probably too stiff for many other travelers’ preference. I like a stiff seat, so I was perfectly comfortable.
The armrests on each seat were more narrow than I’m used to. My elbow kept sliding off the one closest to the seat, which I found to be a bit irritating, but not a huge issue. There seemed to be plenty of overhead bin space, which is probably thanks to LEVEL’s strict baggage policy and dimension measurements.
While the in-flight entertainment screen was nice and new (more on that later), there wasn’t much else to the seat-back. There were two pamphlets in a slot underneath the screen.
The tray table was a huge issue for me — it was tiny. It clicked into the seat-back and once unhinged, needed to be folded out to its full size. I even couldn’t fit my small laptop on the tray table when the person sitting in front of me reclined her seat.
The tray tables extended, but just a little and not enough to make a huge difference in how much I could fit on it. When it came time for me to order food, it was impossible for me to use my laptop, which I kept on my lap, and have the tray table down for my food and beverages.
Below the tray table was a small space to store your personal belongings. Since this was the first flight, it was very clean and empty. I ended up storing my laptop here before takeoff and it didn’t intrude on my legroom space.
I really enjoyed how much room there was between the window seat and the cabin wall. There was enough space for me to store my personal item without it intruding too much on my foot space.
The nine-inch in-flight entertainment screen featured a headphone jack and USB port. In addition, it was motion sensitive so if your hand raised in front of the screen, it would light up.
The picture was crisp and clear, the touchscreen monitor was extremely receptive and the tilting function worked perfectly when the seat in front of me reclined.
One of my favorite features of an in-flight entertainment system is the ability to track the flight. I love knowing how far we are, how fast we’re going, our altitude and, most of all, where we are geographically. So when I saw that this in-flight entertainment system didn’t have a map feature, I was a bit disappointed. But it wasn’t a deal breaker.
The rest of the IFE system feels very refreshing. The layout and color scheme was user-friendly and fresh looking, including the safety video. I think LEVEL put a lot of thought into its IFE system, especially since it’s one of the few features travelers don’t have to pay extra for.
There was a vast selection of movies and TV shows available, with new release options ranging from La La Land to Hidden Figures and Beauty and the Beast, among others. There was also a pretty nice music library, so I had plenty to keep me entertained on this 12-hour flight.
There was also a shopping function built into the IFE system that allowed you to buy anything from headphones to L’Oreal and Bare Minerals makeup, Bluetooth speakers and extra virgin olive oil, among other items.
Not only was the selection huge, but the payment system was pretty innovative and you could add your items, whether they were from the shopping section or food and beverage options, to your cart on the IFE screen. Once you’re all set, simply select the checkout option and you’ll be given a unique four-digit code. From there, you just need to log onto your personal device — either a laptop or phone — and go to the LEVEL website. There, you’ll create an account, add a credit card to your profile (if you prefer) and enter the four-digit code. Once the payment has been processed, a flight attendant delivers your purchase to your seat based on your name and seat assignment. I could see this becoming an issue if passengers agree to switch seats during the boarding process, but that’s a different story.
While the system could be a great solution for in-flight purchases, unfortunately on this inaugural flight, it wasn’t working properly. I was able to go through the motions up until the last point and the system notified me that my order had gone through and it would be dropped off soon. Thankfully, it was dropped off, but I was required to pay with a physical credit card machine through the flight attendant instead of the usual way. She informed me that on future flights, the process would work seamlessly.
That wasn’t the only technological mishap on this flight. When we reached 10,000 feet, I looked at the in-flight Wi-Fi options since I wanted to be connected and get some work done, so I bought the full-flight package, which cost 29.99 euros (~$34).
My payment went through, but unfortunately when I went to activate the pass, I got a notification that I could not be connected and that I should contact LEVEL for a refund.
On this flight, there were a few men walking around wearing matching white polo shirts with the blue and green LEVEL logo on the front. On the back, there was a Wi-Fi logo and the text, “Digital Support.” I don’t know if they’ll be on all LEVEL flights or if the carrier was anticipating some mishaps on the inaugural, but I found it both humorous and oddly comforting that they were there to help in case anything came up.
I asked one of the Digital Support technicians about my issue. Thankfully, I had taken screenshots of my entire purchase process to show him so he could see what I was talking about. (Pro tip: Always take screenshots of your in-flight purchases. That way, if something happens, you’ll have proof and can explain the situation with examples.)
The uniformed technician didn’t have a solution to the problem so he called over a plain clothes-dressed man who asked me to show him what was wrong. After going through a couple of troubleshooting steps, I still wasn’t able to get it to work. He asked if I’d tried to purchase another package and I replied that I hadn’t because I didn’t want to be charged again.
The man then told me that I should use his card to purchase another package. This struck me as a bit odd, but I didn’t question it. Thankfully, on the second attempt with the technician’s card, I was able to connect to the internet. Of my entire LEVEL experience, the customer service provided by the plain clothes-dressed man was by far the best.
Speeds seemed to be working just fine for me, but when I tried to run a speed test, it wouldn’t load properly.
The most aggravating part of the in-flight experience was what the “full flight” package actually included — just 200MB of internet. For a 12-hour flight, I would have expected at least 10x that amount, especially given the steep prices! After 30 minutes of use, I’d only had 95MB left. This needs to be drastically improved from LEVEL’s end — it’s entirely unacceptable to label a package as being good for a “full flight” when it ended up lasting me less than an hour.
Wi-Fi issues aside, I was pretty impressed with the IFE selection. Once the payment system is up and running, it’ll be a seamless way for passengers to make in-flight purchases.
Food and Beverage
I didn’t have high hopes for the food and beverage services on LEVEL. Being a low-cost carrier and with me flying in economy, nothing was included so if I wanted a snack or drink, I’d have to purchase it on my own. I guess it’s just one of the tradeoffs for paying just $105 for a flight from Spain to California.
When I boarded the plane, I took a peek at the menu in the seat-back pocket. Its typeface and graphics were appealing and very on-brand with everything I’d seen from the airline thus far. Plus, there were plenty of options, and many seemed appetizing.
I decided to order a chipotle chicken sandwich and a glass of white wine. On the IFE system, I’d asked for the sandwich to be served heated, but when I got it, it was cold. It wasn’t a big deal and I could tell the FA’s were stressed with the influx of orders and the system not working as it was supposed to, so I let it slide. The sandwich was pretty good and of better quality that I’ve had on other full-service carriers in economy. The wine was great, too.
Not long after “meal service” had ended (or, the time after people had ordered once the system opened), a flight attendant came over the speakers, offering free ice cream bars for all passengers. This was a nice surprise, and likely due to it being the inaugural flight. Nevertheless, I can truthfully say I did not expect to fly LEVEL and get anything for free, so the ice cream was a sweet surprise and pretty tasty, too.
I’ll preface this section by saying this is a ultra low-cost carrier, so there are virtually no amenities unless you purchase them separately. But given that this was a nearly 12-hour flight and I wanted to test out what LEVEL had to offer, I decided to order a Comfort Kit, which cost 12 euros (~$15). It was delivered in a plastic bag and inside was a cute, drawstring white knapsack-like bag. It even had the LEVEL branding on it.
Inside the bag were a couple of nice things, and I actually do think they did make my flight more comfortable. Plus, the items were colored with the LEVEL branding, which I loved.
First up was a large green fleece blanket, which was much softer than the ones I’ve gotten on other, full-service carriers. Also inside was arguably the strangest amenity item I’ve ever received: a blow-up pillow. I will say that it was very logistically friendly to offer a pillow that fits inside this small bag rather than an already fluffed pillow.
I felt a bit weird blowing up my pillow, as did the other passengers around me who also ordered the Comfort Kit. Once a few of them had been opened, there was a very noticeable fragrance that smelled like beach balls throughout the cabin. I will admit that the pillow was actually extremely comfortable. I find that other neck pillows lose their stiffness when used a lot and the beans inside shift around. This one, however, stayed the same no matter how long I used it. And it was worlds better than the piece of fluff you get on some economy flights, which I think are worse than having nothing at all. Also inside the bag were some smaller things you might expect to see in a typical amenity kit: eyeshades, earplugs, socks and a dental kit. Overall, I was pretty impressed with the Comfort Kit.
The level of service both in the airport and in the air fluctuated too much for me to fairly gauge. Overall, I would say it was mediocre at best and, to be honest, I was expecting much more in this regard since it was an inaugural flight. The overall vibe I got from airport staff to cabin crew was that they would rather be anywhere else. That being said, I will cut them some slack knowing that this was, in fact, the first-ever flight for LEVEL. Surely, there are kinks that still need to be worked out, and crew were undoubtedly stressed about the boarding mess, delayed departure and payment system not working as planned. Still, service with a smile would have been nice.
One thing I found particularly interesting was the lack of acknowledgement that this was the inaugural flight. I think if there had been some sort of announcement to passengers that this was LEVEL’s first flight, they may have been more understanding — especially with the boarding chaos and in-flight payment mess. The first notice we got that this was the inaugural flight was after we were already in the air. At 10,000 feet, the captain came over the speakers and apologized for the delayed departure, saying that next time the boarding process would be better. While it was nice to hear that from the captain, I just wish that the inaugural flight acknowledgment had come sooner — even at check-in.
Honestly, I didn’t have many expectations coming into this flight, especially since it was the first-ever flight and on a true low-cost carrier so there was plenty of room for error. And, after the nearly 12-hour flight, there are definitely some kinks the carrier still needs to work out — especially regarding its soft product. The service could use the greatest improvement, followed by the atrocious boarding process.
However, LEVEL does have a lot going for it. The airline’s got a fresh, clean look, new equipment and offers tremendous budget-friendly fares for savvy travelers looking for a great deal. The carrier also offers passengers a very comfortable hard product. I enjoyed my time in the air thanks to the firm seats and wide selection of in-flight entertainment options. And, even though we departed about 40 minutes late because of the ridiculous boarding process, we arrived in LA at 7:05pm — 50 minutes early from our scheduled arrival time of 7:55pm. I’d be curious to see how it evolves down the line.
Have you had a chance to fly on LEVEL yet? Tell us about your experience, below.
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