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After editor-at-large Zach Honig found Alitalia’s business class from the US to Italy to be a serious contender despite its bankruptcy, we at TPG wanted to see if the back of the bus measured up as well.
The Italian flag carrier has been bankrupt since May, for the second time since 2008. It loses money, it’s hemorrhaging pilots, and it avoided liquidation only thanks to a government handout of 900 million euros. Yet it manages to fly long-haul jets all over the world seemingly without a problem. It’s even expanding: It just introduced new routes and a new flagship, its first Boeing 777-300ER. It’s also still a functioning full member of the SkyTeam alliance: You can earn and redeem Delta SkyMiles and Air France-KLM Flying Blue miles on its flights without a hitch, as well as earn and burn on its own MilleMiglia program.
Possibly because of the carrier’s bankruptcy, Alitalia economy class seems to offer a distinct advantage for the passenger: lots and lots of room. Seat maps for Alitalia flights from New York-JFK to Milan-Malpensa Airport(MXP) in late October consistently showed near-deserted coach sections. Not so for partner Delta, whose flights to MXP all showed nearly full for the dates I checked.
With that taxpayer money backing up the airline, there is (so far) little risk of being stranded because Alitalia isn’t paying its fuel bills. So I confidently booked a JFK-MXP one-way on Oct. 26 on the Delta Airlines site for $638, paying with my Platinum Delta SkyMiles credit card from American Express. Using the Platinum Card from American Express would have netted me 5x points on airfare, but I was working toward spending $25,000 on Delta-branded Amex cards, which waives Delta’s Medallion Qualification Dollar (MQD) requirement to hit elite status.
There’s also some relatively decent award space for this flight, with some weeks having at least one seat available every day of the week. Since Alitalia is a member of the SkyTeam alliance, you can use any SkyTeam points or mileage currency to book it. For instance, if you used Delta SkyMiles, you’d pay 35,000 miles for the one-way economy award between JFK-MXP, with roughly $143 in taxes, fees and surcharges.
My flight, AZ605, was sold by Delta as DL1046. One month out, the seat map on the Delta site showed that coach class on the 256-seat Airbus A330-200 was pretty much empty, and I imagined that, with potential customers scared away by the bankruptcy, it would stay that way. I turned out to be right.
The flight netted me 3,995 Delta Medallion Qualification Miles, helping me hit Platinum Medallion in 2017, as well as 610 Medallion Qualification Dollars — the latter being moot, since I was going for the $25,000 waiver in credit-card spend. Thanks to the bonus for Medallion members, I added a total of 4,880 miles to my Delta account for this flight.
Check-in for Alitalia flights was not available on the Delta site, so I went to the Alitalia site and printed a paper boarding pass. Alitalia needs to work on its translations — the process was littered with clunky, stilted and user-hostile English.
I could have easily checked in at the airport, though. I showed up at JFK’s Terminal 1 two hours before our 8:30pm takeoff time and found no lines at the Alitalia check-in counters. There was, in fact, essentially nobody there but the staff.
The crowds were waiting at the security checkpoint instead. Alitalia doesn’t participate in TSA PreCheck, but at Terminal 1 the PreCheck and first/business lanes all fed into the same area as everybody else anyway. So I took off my shoes and belt, removed my laptop from my bag, and queued for 20 minutes amid small children who were very, very loudly unhappy to be there. Had I flown Delta long-haul out of Terminal 4, my PreCheck or SkyTeam Elite Plus status would have given me separate lanes.
After security, I could have accessed the Casa Alitalia lounge, thanks to that SkyTeam status, even when flying coach. But the JFK lounge was a far cry from the excellent Casa Alitalia offerings at Rome Fiumicino (FCO) and Malpensa, which were renovated in 2016 and feature outstanding food and wine. At JFK, you get cellophane-wrapped sandwiches in an ugly, nondescript room, and my advice is to steer clear.
There was a Korean Air lounge across the hall accessible to SkyTeam elites, so I headed there instead, but my Alitalia-printed boarding pass inexplicably did not show my elite status. Rather than explain the snafu, I used my Priority Pass membership, which I have through both the Citi Prestige and Chase Sapphire Reserve credit cards, and walked in to find ample room and warm ambience. The lounge overlooked the tarmac, and by day it would’ve made for a fine plane-spotting location.
This is a perfectly good place to relax before your flight, if you aren’t especially hungry: Food is limited to snacks. Anticipating that the coach-class meals on my flight weren’t going to be the feast that delighted Zach up in business, I decided to check out the third, and final, lounge accessible to SkyTeam elites at T1: Air France’s, which offers far better eating than the nearby lounges of the other alliance partners.
Getting in required fiddling with the Delta app to show the front desk I was a legit SkyTeam elite, since the boarding pass didn’t. The food and vast selection of printed media was worth it, even though the minimalist decor didn’t feel the warmest.
I’ve always easily found seating here, but I’ve never been around when a full 80-seat business-class section on the daily Airbus A380 to Paris shows up. At 7:00pm, the Air France 380 was already gone, and I had room to leisurely enjoy a plate of smoked salmon and repeat helpings of a lovely potato, leek and bacon soup from the buffet. The lounge Wi-Fi was fast enough for browsing and emailing on my phone. But with a top-notch newspaper and magazine selection, old-fashioned paper reading proved more attractive.
When I got to the gate, 45 minutes before departure, people were already lined up and crowding the area even though boarding was nowhere near beginning. Boarding long-haul Alitalia flights frequently turns into a chaotic experience, with passengers completely disregarding priority lanes as staff do little to sort out the mess. This flight was no exception.
But in another sign that Alitalia wasn’t quite behaving like a bankrupt airline, an agent handed me a card saying that I’d be eligible to win two long-haul round-trip tickets if I took a survey after the flight at airsatisfaction.com. This was not the action of a company barely keeping afloat.
The Airbus A330 waiting for me at the gate was a 200 model, the backbone of Alitalia’s relatively small long-haul fleet. Built in 2012 and registered for fiscal reasons in Ireland, with the tail number EI-EJM, it was a relatively new and well-kept jet. Alitalia names its A330s for Italian artists and architects; this was the Tiepolo, “arguably the greatest painter of eighteenth-century Europe.”
Cabin and Seat
The 20-seat business class was full, according to the seat map, but I could not verify this, as coach and premium economy did not pass through business to board.
Premium economy featured 17 seats with 38 inches of pitch, 19 inches wide, in a 2-3-2 layout. On my flight, it was more or less deserted.
The 219 coach seats were in the 2-4-2 layout typical of the A330 and A340, with 32 inches of pitch and 17 inches wide. Nothing exceptional, but with nobody next to me and nobody in front to recline into my space, I could pretty much sprawl out to my heart’s content. I’m 6 feet, 2 inches, and I was just fine all the way to Milan.
The in-flight entertainment boxes under the window seats reduced my usable legroom, and the armrests did not go all the way up. This forced me to perform annoying contortions to get out. While tolerable on an empty flight, it can be downright torturous when you have a neighbor.
The two last rows of coach tapered to a 2-3-2 configuration with extra legroom, but I didn’t get my hopes up. These were crew rest seats, as evidenced by the lack of IFE screens, and they were curtained off during flight.
The seat was a pretty standard long-haul coach-class product, with a USB-powered plug by each touchscreen and a power outlet between seats. The IFE had a remote in the armrest that could be used instead of the touchscreen, which wasn’t as responsive as the latest generation. American passengers who often complain of foreign-airline cabins being too hot would’ve been fine here: Overhead A/C vents were available at every seat, which is not the case with all A330s. The adjustable headrest with wings was a welcome touch. At my seat, I found a good-sized blanket and the usual tiny pillow.
Boarding was completed speedily as Andrea Bocelli’s “Con Te Partirò“ played over the PA. (Alitalia, which has been marketing itself as a sort of “La Dolce Vita”-lifestyle airline, clearly uses it as a signifier of Italian-ness, but most Italians would find the song cheesy.)
With boarding complete and the cabin still near-empty, an announcement invited passengers to move seats after takeoff if they wanted. During the 50-minute taxi, pretty long even by JFK standards, the captain described the route in clear if accented English, but did not introduce himself, which I found slightly rude.
My inner AvGeek cringed a bit at the safety video — a sober affair, with none of the jokiness common in safety videos these days — showing the flight deck of an A380. Whether Alitalia survives or not, it’s most definitely not buying that airplane.
But AvGeek happiness was promptly restored by the front-facing camera streaming on the IFE (too bad it was dark) and by beautiful views of JFK, and the New York City borough of Queens around it, after takeoff. The night was clear enough to make out the terminals and runways.
An extremely fast takeoff roll and climbout reminded us that we were loaded very lightly. Eight hours in the air was no sweat for the long-legged A330, and between the few passengers and fuel tanks far from full, we got quickly to a high initial cruising altitude of 39,000 feet.
Barely 15 minutes after wheels up, senior cabin manager Roberto Dessì took to the PA to introduce himself, unlike his captain, and announce the imminent beginning of service.
The IFE offered a pretty standard experience, with a relatively robust selection of rock music under the audio section. What was disappointing was the movie selection — it offered only six classics and nine action movies, for example, with four of the latter being Star Wars films. Not a huge problem on a cross-Atlantic hop, but Alitalia flies the A330 on routes twice as long, and I could imagine seriously bored passengers on those flights.
The IFE screen noted prominently that Alitalia is an Etihad Airways partner, as did many onboard announcements. That was a reminder of how disastrous the Emirati airline’s strategy of investing in second-tier European airlines has been so far, with Air Berlin out of business and Alitalia bankrupt.
The views over Long Island as we climbed were far more entertaining.
The Wi-Fi, when I tested it after dinner above the Gulf of St. Lawrence off Canada, was all but unusable. I could not even load Gmail and Twitter. I chose the $6 Flexi package, offering 50 MB of data, but ended up not being able to use any of it. I eventually managed to send one email: a $6 message. Things were just as frustrating on my phone. Speedtest showed that the connection was practically nonexistent.
Food and Beverage
As dinner was served, one hour after takeoff, I recalled hearing a flight attendant tell a passenger — Italian, like seemingly everybody on board — that the pasta was “fantastica.” So I opted for the oven-baked pennette with tomato sauce over the beef stew, figuring that if an Italian tells another Italian on board an Italian airplane that the pasta is good, it’s probably true.
Unfortunately it wasn’t: Any self-respecting Italian cook would have been disappointed with themselves if they had made the overcooked dish I got. I’ve repeatedly had pasta on Alitalia that was indeed fantastic, albeit in business class, and this was nowhere near.
A slice of ham and one olive rounded out the dinner; I ignored the potato salad and a large puff pastry with chocolate chips. The latter might have been a good idea for breakfast but felt very out of place at 10:00pm after dinner. Even in coach class, the airline bearing the name of one of the great food destinations in the world could do better.
When I made my way to the back galley to take advantage of the makeshift drinks station that Alitalia always sets up there, with juices and still and sparkling water, two flight attendants — free from having to serve passengers who weren’t there — were happy to chat and offer me a warm beverage or a snack. They did not appear to be very worried that their airline might go under, and even expressed confidence in an eventual purchase: They had heard, they told me, that Lufthansa or a US investment fund might buy Alitalia. (Lufthansa is indeed negotiating to buy part of the airline, according to Italian media, but even if that happened, thousands of jobs would be in danger.)
When I remarked that a Malpensa-to-JFK flight I’d taken recently was just as empty in coach, they replied that the New York flights are full all the time. A check of seat maps for AZ605 over the three following days showed that they might have been either misinformed or misleading me.
Aside from this, the cabin crew was perfectly pleasant and walked the aisles with water and juice a few times. Together with the quiet cabin, spacious bathroom and turbulence-free ride, this made for a smooth flight.
Breakfast was served as we approached the Alps over central France, with the cabin waking up to natural light from window shades left open. Despite the shoddy presentation, the warm strawberry-jam croissant was a buttery pleasure. Together with a cup of Lavazza coffee (not an espresso, sadly, but better than anything found in coach on most other airlines) it was a typically Italian way to start the day, standard morning fare in any one of the nation’s myriad bar caffè. I elected not to drink alcohol on this flight, but I consumed vast amounts of the blood orange juice, which I’ve never found on any other airline.
With the sun now high on the horizon, the Alps came into sharp focus as we began descending. When flying transatlantic into MXP, a window seat on the left almost always guarantees an amazing view of the mountains, like 15,777-foot Mont Blanc, which we spotted as we began coming back down to earth.
Conversely, a seat on the right on westbound flights out of MXP usually offers equally stunning views of the Western Alps, like those I shot on a previous Alitalia flight.
After a seven-hour-and-23-minute flight, we landed half an hour behind schedule at 11:15am, with our still-nameless captain apologizing for the delay. Only one other Alitalia long-haul jet stood on the tarmac as we docked. AZ used to be a real presence at the airport before unwisely decamping to Rome, abandoning the high-yield business demand out of northern Italy in favor of a questionable tourism-centric strategy.
To the Point
What bankruptcy? You couldn’t tell Alitalia was in real trouble from any aspect of my experience as a passenger. Granted, it remains an airline known for erratic service standards, occasionally surly flight attendants and indifference to the fate of checked luggage, but I haven’t personally seen anything of the sort in the past year. My experience on AZ605 was a perfectly adequate Atlantic crossing, with a few glitches — haphazard boarding, a subpar dinner, unusable Wi-Fi — but the bonus of a lot of space in an empty cabin.
Alitalia won’t, however, be able to compete with low-fare Norwegian on price for leisure fares to Rome and soon to Milan, and business travelers are generally better served by the bigger networks and reliable operations of competitors such as Lufthansa. Its future is very much in doubt, and the questionable ways in which it’s spending taxpayer money do not inspire confidence that, absent a white knight, Alitalia will be a going concern much past the April deadline for buyers.
But for now, Alitalia should remain on your radar, especially if you are a SkyTeam loyalist — and if you do not demand your coach-class pasta to be fantastica.
All images by the author.
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