LEVEL Goes Up, OpenSkies Goes Down

British Airways, IAG

I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s something poignant about IAG’s decision to shut down its OpenSkies subsidiary and expand LEVEL to fill the void. (IAG, remember, is also the parent company of British Airways, Iberia, Aer Lingus, and Vueling.) It’s a big move downmarket, almost like a changing of the guard as the company refocuses its expansion efforts from the premium cabin to the back of the bus. Oh sure, the old guard was more like a sick man that never lived up to his potential, and we don’t know if LEVEL will be a winner or not, but it still feels like a moment worth commemorating.

LEVEL Pushes OpenSkies Aside

IAG has never been strong in Paris. That, of course, is the domain of Air France. But when the US and European Union signed an open skies agreement in 2007 that allowed any European airline to fly from anywhere in the EU to anywhere in the US, many airlines had designs on conquering the continent. Some plans were just goofy. Air France, for example, flew from London to LA for a brief blip in time. In what seemed like a similarly silly idea, British Airways (this was before the merger with Iberia that formed IAG) figured it could hop across the English Channel and make some noise flying from the Continent to the US. Its plan was to capitalize on this trend of having all-premium cabin airplanes (remember Eos, MAXjet, and L’Avion?) and fly from Paris/Orly to New York/JFK. The name, of course, would reflect the agreement that made it all possible… OpenSkies.

This was just the beginning, but the grand expansion plans never really amounted to anything. For a short time, OpenSkies flew from New York to Amsterdam as well as from Paris to Washington/Dulles. But those were put out of their misery during their infancy. Soon after launch in 2008, OpenSkies purchased L’Avion which was doing something very similar. It added Newark flights at the time and at one point even dropped JFK. It eventually went back in to both and today still has a presence in each.

The onboard offering was also something of a work in progress. I can’t remember this exactly, but I believe the initial plan with all-business class seating never came to fruition. A small coach or prem econ cabin was shoved in the back. The airline has shuffled its cabins on more than one occasion, and now it has a more traditional biz/prem econ/coach layout, albeit one that skews toward the premium cabin with 20 flat beds and fewer than 115 total seats on the airplane. (As a comparison, Delta’s 757s with flat beds have 16 up front and a total of 168, so it’s a huge difference.)

It did add a 767 in later years once BA started retiring its aircraft, but that didn’t help grow the footprint beyond Paris-New York. OpenSkies was never the success it was meant to be.
Those visions of grandeur having the airline flying from all over the Continent to the US never came to fruition (and never would have worked).

Somehow, OpenSkies kept soldiering on for a decade, but now, IAG has finally decided to do something about the situation. Next year OpenSkies goes away. And LEVEL comes in.

LEVEL was launched in March with a base in Barcelona. The idea was to create an airline to compete in the low-cost, long-haul space. LEVEL took an Iberia A330-200 with 19 flat beds and 268 coach seats and crunched it down. LEVEL’s A330s have 21 premium economy seats and 293 back in coach. Like OpenSkies, LEVEL is meant to compete in Europe where IAG lacks strength. Iberia may be strong in Madrid, but it hasn’t done well in Barcelona. On the short-haul, that’s been the domain of IAG’s short-haul low-cost carrier Vueling. But with long-haul, IAG has very little. LEVEL (and its annoying all-caps spelling) was meant to turn the tide and eventually grow into other European cities.

So it wasn’t a huge surprise when LEVEL was sent into Paris. After all, IAG is weak there from a long-haul standpoint, but it has a strong and growing short-haul presence with Vueling. Vueling actually operates from both airports in Paris, but here’s the Orly route map via Great Circle Mapper.

IAG wants to see people connect between LEVEL and Vueling. You can see there are a lot of options from New York (and elsewhere) to the Iberian Peninsula, but don’t expect flat beds.

LEVEL will operate in a very different manner than OpenSkies. In New York (Newark, actually), it will start with just 4 weekly flights. But then it will also have 3 weekly to both Boston and Montreal as well as a daily flight that alternates between Fort-de-France and Pointe-a-Pitre in the Caribbean.

For those who want a true premium experience between New York and Paris, they’ll have to fly joint venture partner American. When OpenSkies launched, the joint venture didn’t yet exist. But now it’s silly for them to be duplicating efforts. In the meantime, people who want to fly cheap in coach have a new option on LEVEL.

While it is sad to see a nice niche premium cabin experience disappear, it’s long overdue. Whether LEVEL proves to be a success in Paris remains to be seen, but it probably has a higher chance of success than OpenSkies ever did.

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