British Airways parent launches Level, a discount trans-Atlantic carrier

Initial flights will be between California and Barcelona, with fares starting at $149

Yesterday it was JetBlue eyeing lucrative trans-Atlantic routes. Now the parent company of British Airways, already an established international carrier, is elbowing its way into the fray -- announcing that it is launching a new carrier, called Level, and will start selling tickets as low as $149 today.

Level said it will fly two new Airbus A330 aircraft branded in its own livery and fitted with 293 economy and 21 premium economy seats. Initially it will be operated by Iberia’s flight and cabin crew.

The expansion of cut-rate international travel by Norwegian Air has caused legacy carriers to consider the potential costs of sitting on the tarmac while upstarts eat their in-flight snacks.

JetBlue, no longer a hungry upstart but not quite a legacy carrier either, said earlier this week that it is studying the possibility of flying a new Airbus A321LR narrow-body jet on East Coast-Western Europe routes. But JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes said he would have to be convinced the routes would yield an adequate return.

Apparently British Airways parent, International Consolidated Airlines Group SA (IAG), has already made those calculations and decided it's time to apply some thrust.


IAG said today that Level will start flying from its base in Barcelona, Spain, to airports in Los Angeles and Oakland, California, as well as Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, and Buenos Aires, Argentina, with service starting in June. 

Checked luggage (in addition to a free cabin bag), meals, seat selection, and the latest movie releases will be complimentary for customers flying in premium economy, Level said. Those traveling in economy can "choose what they want to buy," the airline said. Entertainment and high-speed internet will be available. 

Willie Walsh, IAG chief executive, said Level would become its fifth airline brand alongside Aer Lingus, BA, Iberia, and Vueling.

"Barcelona is Vueling's home base and this will allow customers to connect from Vueling's extensive European network onto Level's long-haul flights," he said.

For decades, Atlantic routes have been dominated by legacy carriers in the U.S. and Europe -- British, American, Lufthansa, etc. More recently, lavishly funded Middle East airlines like Emirates have entered the market, offering lavish service at competitive prices. 

The entry of low-cost carriers styled on the domestic disrupters -- most notably Southwest, which upended American travel in the 1900s -- is likely to be a boon for consumers, bringing more seats and lower fares, but it is certain to be a headache for established carriers.

Emirates CEO Tim Clark called it a "gathering storm," according to a Wall Street Journal report, which is probably one of the more polite reactions among airline executives. 

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