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Alitalia’s ground service needs a lot of work, but the in-flight product is top-notch. The Pros: Fantastic food, great crew, decent privacy in some seats. The Cons: Poor experience at JFK, unexplained delay, the airline is bankrupt.
In late September, I traveled to Europe for the 2017 Star Alliance MegaDo. That event was quite an adventure on its own, but I also had some fun getting across the pond, beginning with a flight from New York-JFK to Rome on bankrupt Alitalia. My return on also-bankrupt Air Berlin ended up being even more… exciting — you can read that review here. Today, though, I’ll be sharing my experience on Alitalia, Europe’s most troubled large airline.
Once I decided to travel on Alitalia for my flight to Europe, my first thought was to burn some Delta miles for a business-class award. Unfortunately there wasn’t any availability on the dates I needed, which wasn’t a huge surprise given that the flight was almost full. I settled on a paid round-trip flight to Frankfurt via Rome, with business class on the outbound and economy on the return for $1,723.
We booked using The Platinum Card from American Express to earn 5x points on airfare, which in this case netted 8,615 points, worth $164 based on TPG’s most recent valuations. I checked back often to see if award space ever opened up — unfortunately it never did.
I had originally selected seat 11J, in the last row of the second business-class cabin, but I moved to 1A, since that seat offers significantly more privacy.
Since I was traveling on a paid ticket, I’d be eligible to earn miles as well. I credited the flight to Delta, earning 6,416 redeemable miles and MQMs, along with $1,283 MQDs.
Airport and Lounge
Alitalia flights depart from JFK’s Terminal 1, which I absolutely despise. Not only is the security situation always a mess — it took me 20 minutes to get through on this visit — but the terminal is quite dated. Most of the lounges are sub-par, with the exception of Lufthansa’s First Class Wining and Dining facility, which I of course didn’t have access to with my Alitalia ticket.
Terminal 1 offers an underwhelming Air France lounge, along with a Korean Air lounge, both accessible via Priority Pass. I was planning to use one of those, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that Alitalia operates its own lounge as well, which is also accessible to Philippine Airlines and Air China passengers.
While the lounge wasn’t crowded, it was also way past its prime. Considering Alitalia’s current financial situation, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that a renovation probably isn’t in the cards at this point.
There was also a smaller room to the side… I’m really not sure what to make of this table.
As for food options, Alitalia was serving a variety of packaged sandwiches, wraps and salads from a refrigerator.
There were also bags of chips and other snacks, along with a very modest selection of liquor.
And some unremarkable wine and Prosecco.
Non-alcoholic beverages included sparkling water, juice and flavored water.
I headed out to the terminal a few minutes before our scheduled boarding time of 3:25pm, an hour before the 4:25pm departure.
The gate ended up being quite a mess, with a delayed Air China 747-8 boarding from the same area.
There was absolutely no method to the madness up until 20 minutes after the scheduled boarding time, when a delay was announced and a gate agent aggressively asked the entire group of gathered passengers to step back about 30 feet so he could set up the boarding area. We were pushed back a few feet at a time over a span of five minutes. Many passengers were beginning to get frustrated and impatient at that point.
Boarding ended up getting pushed back a few minutes at a time. Ultimately, the agents began scanning boarding passes around 4:50pm, 25 minutes after our scheduled departure time. While we never got a clear explanation for the delay, a few passengers noticed the captain sneaking through the gate area just a couple minutes before we were allowed on the plane.
Cabin and Seat
I typically try to board first to get some photos of the empty cabin, but given the commotion at the gate there were a few passengers ahead of me by the time we finally stepped foot on the plane.
Alitalia operates two types of long-haul aircraft, the Airbus A330-200 and Boeing 777-200ER, which is what I picked for my flight to Rome. Seats on both planes are arranged in a staggered 1-2-1 configuration, with just 20 seats in one cabin on the A330 and 30 seats on the 777, with 20 in the front and another 10 in a mini-cabin just behind.
Center seats alternate between the “honeymoon” configuration above and the aisle-side position below. If you’re traveling with a companion, I’d opt for the side-by-side “E” and “G” seats in odd-numbered rows, since even-numbered seats are quite far apart, and also much more exposed to the aisle.
Window-side seats also alternate, with “A” and “L” seats in the odd-numbered rows offering much more privacy.
On the 777, there’s a small toilet just behind the cockpit and a second small toilet between the two business-class cabins. Both were very basic, but the crew kept them fairly clean.
I was especially pleased with my selection of 1A, located on the port side in the first row of the forward-most cabin.
All seats include a side table, which in the case of “A” and “L” seats offers decent separation from the aisle.
Seats are 22 inches wide on the 777, compared with 21 inches on the A330.
There’s also a generous 46 inches of pitch on the 777-200ER, and, due to the position of the large footwell, I was able to keep my feet elevated even without reclining the seat.
Storage is tight, though, with an open area under the ottoman and only a small side compartment to the left or right of the seat.
There’s also a small literature compartment, a USB port and a universal power outlet.
The seat controls were straightforward and responsive, though the touchscreen remote was fairly buggy — I’m not a fan.
The seat was comfortable in bed mode, but the bedding itself was limited to a small pillow and a comforter. I still managed to sleep for most of the flight, and arrived in Rome feeling more refreshed than I usually do after a transatlantic redeye.
While the seat arrangement meant I didn’t have to make eye contact with my neighbors, I had a perfect view of another passenger’s feet…
Alitalia offers pretty spiffy Bulgari amenity kits, which a friendly flight attendant brought over shortly after I arrived at my seat.
It included all of the essentials, and I can see the design being a hit — definitely not your run-of-the-mill business-class kit.
Beyond the amenity kit, there were noise-canceling headphones for me to use during the flight. They sounded decent, but hardly outstanding.
There was also a plastic-wrapped pillow and comforter.
I found the IFE system to be adequate, with a fixed 15.4-inch screen.
There was a moving map, of course…
…and a downward and forward camera view — though something wasn’t quite right with the camera alignment, as you can see below.
You select content on the wired touchscreen remote, which I found to be a pain to use. There was a decent variety, with a number of new releases, such as Gifted and Table 19; older films, including the Star Wars collection; and TV series, such as 30 Rock and Modern Family.
There was also a moving map on the controller itself, which I definitely appreciated, since I could watch movies on the main screen while also keeping an eye on our position.
Another slick feature was the audio adjustment screen — believe it or not, this is the first time I’ve seen an in-flight entertainment system offer treble and bass adjustment.
Food and Beverage
Menus were waiting at my seat, including one covering the dinner and breakfast options, a wine list and a coffee menu.
A very friendly flight attendant came by just after I boarded to offer juice or Champagne from a tray — I opted for the latter.
Then, before we pushed back, another flight attendant took my dinner order and wine pick. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted, and she was very patient as I asked questions about some of the dishes.
Dinner itself was quite the event, and started about an hour after takeoff when a flight attendant set my table and brought me my selected appetizer of Italian cured ham with orange slices and black olives. The orange slices had been marinated in olive oil, which gave them a really distinct, but pleasant flavor.
I also requested an Aperol Spritz, which was served promptly.
Next up was the first course of pasta al pomodoro. It was just a bit al dente and was fantastic overall. I was offered fresh grated parmesan as well. When in Rome… (or on the way to Rome?).
For my second course, I ordered the sea bream fillet, which was fresh, moist and loaded with flavor.
Finally, dessert came out around 90 minutes after takeoff, which certainly wasn’t terrible, especially compared to my recent United flight to London.
My favorite dessert was the small chocolate pastry, which was filled with delicious, oozing chocolate. It was outstanding. The cream puff, cheesecake and cheese plate were all good as well, but not memorable.
Breakfast was a bit of a disappointment. I had heard good things about Alitalia’s breakfasts, but unfortunately I slept through mine and instead woke up to a very loud flight attendant almost yelling over the PA in Italian, which I soon discovered — thanks to the English translation — was the typical “prepare for landing” announcement.
The moving map page indicated that we had 30 minutes to go, so I asked if I could have breakfast anyway. My request was denied; when I pushed back a bit, the flight attendant offered to prepare an espresso with some pastries on the side, which did the trick.
For me, the highlight was definitely the food. There was a lot of it, sure, but it was also outstanding. Easily one of the best meals I’ve had on a plane — with the exception of the underwhelming cheese course and the breakfast I missed, of course.
What Alitalia really needs to work on — other than overcoming its current financial situation — is the ground experience. Things were a total mess at JFK, with a disappointing lounge and terrible communication at the gate. Then, we arrived late in Rome and inexplicably pulled up to a bus gate. From there, we were bussed to the terminal, where we encountered a gigantic queue at immigration.
I understand that Alitalia isn’t directly responsible for a backup at immigration, but there’s no question that the airline should have influence at its hub airport, and could perhaps put some pressure on authorities to rectify the situation.
The experience on board was top notch, though, and, armed with the expectation that there will be some inconveniences along the way, I’d definitely consider flying Alitalia again.
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