LEVEL, the new LCC spinoff of Iberia recently started non-stop flights between Barcelona and Oakland. Their fares in peak summer tourist season were nowhere near the $149 inaugural offer, but still significantly cheaper than other options, and the desire to try out a brand new airline made me decide to go with them.
Booking the flight was pretty straightforward. Well, sort of. Although LEVEL has their own website, the booking process is handled by Iberia. Once the flight was booked, Iberia offered the option to pre-book a seat in advance. Almost all the seats cost extra, and I found a great Exit row window seat for $37 so booked it and got a confirmation receipt in my email- SEAT 28L. EXIT ROW. $37.00
. All good, right? Wrong!
Few days later while checking my credit card statement, I found out Iberia charged me $75 for the seat without informing me, after sending a confirmation receipt for $37! I would have never found this out had I not gone through my card statement! This was the start of a long annoying process-
1. I immediately called up LEVEL's Customer Service number who shrugged off all responsibility and told me to file a complaint with Iberia using their online form
2. I filled out Iberia's complaint form, and waited and waited. No response at all for one week
3. I tweeted to @flywithlevelEN about this and waited. No response from them at all. Social media PR fail for an airline that promises to be "fresh and young"!
4. A week later, I tweeted the same thing to @Iberia_en and they at least responded promptly with vague PR sweet-talk and promise of following up. Several tweets later, they concluded they can only respond to tweets, but not resolve any actual issues
5. A full 21 days and several tweets later, Iberia's formal complaint department responded, in which they basically said "Yes, our system screwed this up, but we cannot offer you any refunds. Try filing a new complaint AFTER your flight." Yo what the what?
At this point I had already realized one thing- if something were to go wrong with my flight, this is an airline that will NOT take care of you, so just hope everything works out as planned. Luckily, I booked using my Chase Sapphire Preferred card and filed a complaint for the wrong charges with the bank and they will most likely refund me the excess amount charged. BEFORE THE FLIGHT
24 hours before the flight, I try to check-in online on LEVEL's site on my phone, but it directs me to Iberia. Well, no big deal. So, I enter all the details and click "Check In" and get an error pop-up "Incorrect Address". There is one small problem though- the entire check-in form does not have an address field shown anywhere! I give up, but decide to try once more, this time from a desktop and find out the culprit- Iberia's fancy-but-not-so-fancy check-in form has an "Address" field that pops up after you fill half the details, and this thing works only on desktop browsers! Oh well, at least I got the boarding pass in PDF and Apple Wallet formats.
LEVEL, like Iberia, operates out of the new giant Terminal 1 of Barcelona El Prat (BCN). Despite the modern looks, the terminal is a complete madhouse. All passengers for all gates have to go through one security checkpoint, and post security join a long winding queue for passport control, which at one point splits into two with 8 counters on the left and 8 on the right. There is no staff or signs directing the traffic flow, so you just have to go by your gut instincts. Thankfully the lines move pretty fast and I am directed to the E gates on the top floor in one corner of the terminal.
I had not pre-booked meals for two reasons- first, I was not sure if the meals would be worth the extra $37, and more importantly, their meal pre-book page does not offer any vegetarian options. So, I had planned to stock up on food from the airport post-security, but turns out our side of the terminal has only one restaurant with a long queue and two vending machines. I am at the gate area by 13.15 for a 14.20 departure, which I feel is quite early, but boy am I wrong! The gate display says "IB 2621 OAKLAND BOARDING BEGINS 12.50". What?! Who starts boarding a full ONE AND HALF HOUR before departure time? Well, they have not really started boarding but a serpentine queue of 100+ passengers has formed snaking across the terminal. I manage to get at least a bottle of lemonade from the vending machine as my "food" for the flight, and decide to sit down rather than joining the conga line. At about 13.20 the gate agent announces "Boarding Group 1". My boarding pass says Group 2 so I wait. 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 20 minutes, no more announcements but the line is slowly progressing, so I go to the gate and ask which group is boarding. The agent nonchalantly replies "Anyone". Oh great! The group numbers mean nothing, it's a free for all!
Our plane is parked at a gate with views blocked by the jetways but I take a brief glimpse and do not see any plane in the LEVEL livery there! Instead there is a plane in Iberia livery! Turns out the scheduled plane for our flight had gone kaput so they had borrowed an Iberia A332 to operate today's flight! There goes my chance to actually getting to try out the LEVEL on-board product. The borrowed plane also means seat configuration has gone for a toss, and with less seats than LEVEL's LCC configuration, several confirmed passengers are now being put on standby, who are all understandably angry. I scan my boarding pass and the scanner beeps DENIED. Uh oh. I am taken aside by one of the gate agents who informs me my seat has been reassigned. Thankfully Iberia/LEVEL had taken the effort to make sure passengers who paid for Exit rows get Exit row seats in the new configuration. Phew. However, they have no more boarding passes at the gate, so the agent writes "28L" on a piece of paper, tears it off and hands it over to me. This is my new "boarding pass". Truly putting the "low cost" in LCC!My "low cost" boarding passFLIGHT DETAILS
Flight number: IB 2621
Aircraft: A330-200 (Iberia livery)
Flight time: 12hr 10minTHE FLIGHT
Due to the plane swap, the onboard product is a hodge-podge of two different brands. The IFE screens, bulkheads and safety cards say Iberia but the food menus and cabin crew uniform is LEVEL. From the pictures I have seen of LEVEL planes, the seats looked identical between the two airlines. Once the boarding is complete, the crew is confused whether to do a manual safety briefing or play the video, so they first do it manually, but then also turn on the video which nobody knows how to stop! In the chaos, we have pushed back, taxied to the runway and gotten clearance to takeoff too! Both crew members supposed to take jumpseats in front of my exit do not realize this, and end up running up the aisle to take their jumpseats while the takeoff roll is already going on!
The meal service begins an hour into the flight, with two crew members serving all those passengers who had pre-ordered their meals. After they are done, another crew guy rolls a cart down the aisle without saying a word. Is he rearranging stuff? Is this the "buy onboard" phase of the service? You'd never know unless you flagged him down and asked! So I did just that and turns out yes, that silent walk is indeed their BOB service. I buy a couscous salad which is served cold and tastes decent and not bad for 8 Euros. The drinks are a bit steeply priced with even a cup of coffee costing 3.5 Euros! Even water is not free as per the menu, with a 500ml bottle priced at 2.5 Euros, but I guess the crew realizes this is a bit too cruel even by LCC standards for a 13 hour flight, so they quietly leave a big bottle of water and some cups in the rear galley so passengers who want to be hydrated without breaking bank can walk back and get their fix.
The flight itself is quite uneventful. The Iberia IFE has decent collection of movies and TV shows but sadly this being a new LEVEL route, the moving map is confused and does not show anything for the entire duration. There are no earphones provided, nor are there any pillows or blankets (all these items can be purchased for an additional fee). About two hours prior to landing, a second meal service is done, and again the BOB guy does not say a single word unless you specifically flag him down. I get an omelet sandwich on baguette and a coffee for 11 Euros, ending my "meals" for $19 total. Not bad, I think. Despite starting 30 minutes late, we arrive Oakland 10 minutes before scheduled arrival time and have to wait on the apron for 15 minutes until one of the few widebody-capable gates at OAK can open up.CONCLUSION
It is pretty clear Iberia jumped the gun the launched LEVEL in plenty of haste just so that they can get into the BCN-OAK market before Norwegian started the same route weeks later, but in their hurry they have created an airline that is unprofessional and half-baked. I had a hearty laugh after landing at OAK, looking at the giant signs inside the terminal put up by the airport that says "NON STOP TO BARCELONA" and lists only Norwegian as the option, not LEVEL! Ha, so much for being first! Needless to say, I am not going to be eager to give LEVEL my business again unless they are the only option or significantly cheaper than others to justify the annoyances.