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Say ciao to Italian carrier Meridiana, which rebranded as Air Italy on February 19, under new shareholder Qatar Airways. And soon you’ll be able to say hi to Air Italy in the US too: the airline plans to fly to New York as soon as this summer.

The airline formerly known as Meridiana, founded as Alisarda in the 1960s to serve the island of Sardinia, isn’t actually the first Air Italy; the original namesake was a small, northern Italian airline that Meridiana purchased in 2011.

The new and improved Air Italy is the nation’s third-largest airline by passengers carried — flag-carrier Alitalia is third, with Ryanair actually carrying more passengers despite being based in Ireland.

Qatar Airways CEO Akbar al-Baker hopes Air Italy will become Italy’s top airline. “We want to become the number-one airline brand in Italy, and we have the resources to accomplish this goal,” al-Baker said Monday while presenting the airline’s development plans in Italy. “We will show that we are the star.” 

The move is part of a strategic expansion for Qatar, which holds a 49% ownership stake in Air Italy while previous owner Alisarda holds the remaining 51%.

Air Italy’s ambitious growth plans include an enormous fleet expansion by leasing 20 Boeing 737 MAX and 30 787 Dreamliners, al-Baker said, all with the goal of attracting 10 million passengers by 2022. The first Boeing 737 will arrive in April. Qatar Airlines will also lease five of its own Airbus A330-200 aircraft to Air Italy at market rate, according to al-Baker. Quite a jump from the dozen jets it flies today.

The new Air Italy headquarters will remain in Meridiana’s home of Sardinia, but the airline will operate out of the main terminal of Milan-Malpensa Airport (MXP).

Air Italy will expand its current routes with new domestic connections between Milan and Rome, Naples, Palermo, Catania and Lamezia Terme. Three new international routes will follow, starting in June with daily flights from Milan to New York, and four weekly flights from Milan to Miami. The airline will add four weekly flights from Milan to Bangkok in September, with its first long-haul flights from Rome beginning in 2019.

Alitalia has never faced any real competition for long-haul travel from other Italian airlines. The beleaguered airline has struggled for a long time and is currently in bankruptcy, although it still flies a regular schedule.

Qatar competitor Etihad Airways took a 49% ownership of Alitalia in 2014, hoping to reverse its troubled fortunes. However, pervasive financial issues have turned that investment into a drag for Etihad, and the chief executive behind the Alitalia deal, James Hogan, has since left the airline. Alitalia is looking for a buyer, but it’s far from certain that it will survive. Clearly Qatar Airways has decided that now is the time to invest in the Italian long-haul market, whose dominant player may be about to go bust.

Featured photo by Stefano Garau / Shutterstock.com

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