Room to Grow: Air Italy's (A330) Business Class From Milan to New York
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While low-cost carriers have been dominating transatlantic travel headlines — with both good news and some bad — there's another new airline that's still flying a bit under the radar of most consumers: Air Italy.
Once known as Meridiana, a carrier with more than 50 years of experience flying Italians and visitors alike under various brand names, Air Italy emerged with a 49% backing from Qatar Airways and some of Qatar's own A330-200s, enabling Air Italy to boost long-haul operations as it builds out its fleet.
There are Qatar touches throughout, from the fancy printed menus to the seat belts, which still sport the country's national animal, the Arabian oryx.
With its newfound QR support, I was eager to see how Air Italy fares against the competition. So, following a good flight on competitor Alitalia, I decided to take Air Italy for a spin, booking a business-class seat on the airline's flagship route from Milan Malpensa (MXP) to New York-JFK after my trip to Africa with UNICEF and Norwegian.
Though Air Italy isn't an alliance member, you can redeem British Airways Avios for award travel. I found a great paid fare, however, getting me from Milan to New York-JFK in business class, and back in economy for $1,217. We paid with the Platinum Card® from American Express, earning 5x points in the process, for a total of 6,085 Membership Rewards points, worth $116 based on TPG's valuations.
And, since I credited my flight to British Airways, I earned about 4,000 Avios, since BA credits Air Italy business-class flights at 100%.
Meanwhile, if you'd rather use your miles to redeem, you can book a one-way flight on this same route for 75,000 Avios, plus about $212 in taxes and fees, including a carrier-imposed surcharge of $126.
British Airways is a transfer partner of both Amex Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards — points transfer instantly from both programs at a 1:1 ratio.
After a connection from Catania (CTA) on EasyJet, I walked over from Terminal 2, home to low-cost carriers, to Terminal 1, which took roughly an hour. I wanted to get some exercise before my long flight home, but you can easily take a free shuttle bus if you'd prefer. Better yet, book your connection with Air Italy and you won't need to move between terminals at all.
There was barely a line at Air Italy's check-in counters, even for economy, so I was through in a couple of minutes. I walked through a special security lane for US- and Israel-bound travelers and a few minutes later was on my way.
Milan's Malpensa Airport had a perfectly serviceable departures lounge at Terminal 1, with restaurants, duty-free shops, lounges and more, but I just walked straight through to the international departures area. With about two hours to go until departure, I passed through an immigration checkpoint, which had a 10-minute wait, then walked over to Air Italy's contract lounge, Sala Montale.
The lounge wasn't too crowded right when I arrived, but within minutes it was almost completely filled up. I asked to take a shower, but it was only free for guests traveling on El Al or Korean Air — everyone else had to pay 17 euros (about $20) for shower access, so I passed.
I spent a couple minutes wandering around hunting for power outlets — not surprisingly they all seemed to be right next to the occupied seats.
Sala Montale was decently large, which was entirely necessary, since it seemed to be the main contract lounge for almost all of MXP's international airlines — after 30 minutes or so, the lounge was so full that with the exception of a seat here and there. The only open space was in the family room.
The buffet area was a total mob scene, so I couldn't photograph all of the food — there were a couple of hot dishes, some muffins, cake and a mix of cold sandwiches and quiches. I knew I'd be stuffing my face with business-class Italian food soon enough, so I passed on having a full meal in the lounge.
Fed up with how crowded the lounge had become, I walked to the gate a bit earlier than planned, arriving before our 12:10pm boarding time. The departure showed a 40-minute delay, with boarding at 12:50pm, thanks to the late arrival of our aircraft. The time kept getting pushed back without explanation — the staff didn't make a single announcement, though they were answering individual questions.
Ultimately, we were told that 40 passengers weren't approved by the TSA to travel, and the airline was working to clear that up before the rest of us could get on our 15-year-old A330 (registration EI-GGO), which previously flew for Qatar Airways. The boarding call finally came at 1:25pm, 15 minutes past our scheduled departure.
Once on board, we were delayed further, with the captain explaining that there were still issues with the American passport database, which were eventually resolved. We pushed back about an hour behind schedule, and took off at 2:40pm. The extra ground delay gave me even more time to experience Air Italy's A330 cabin, though.
Cabin and Seat
Air Italy's A330s sport a total of 260 seats, but almost all are in economy — there are just 24 seats in business class, spread between four rows in a 2-2-2 configuration.
The arrangement is a bit unusual, though — there are three rows of seats in a larger main cabin, and then a mini cabin with one row of seats just behind. You can probably guess where I decided to sit ....
I selected Seat 4K, in the last row of business class. I wasn't able to pick my seat online, even during check-in, but calling the main reservations line did the trick.
The larger forward cabin felt far more spacious, with a high ceiling and more light — next time I might opt for that instead.
One major issue with the mini cabin is that all of the seats are at a bulkhead, just like at Row 1. That means less storage, and a display that folds out from the center partition, which can't be used during taxi, takeoff or landing.
I also popped back to economy for a quick peek before customers began flooding the cabin. It looked pretty comfortable, with a 2-4-2 arrangement throughout.
Travelers in the forward cabin were able to settle in quietly during the boarding process, but every single economy passenger passed through our small business cabin on the way back to coach, since the flight was boarded through the second door just in front of our section.
As for my business seat, I felt like this version was designed for lounging first, with sleep almost an afterthought.
For example, the adjustable headrest was more useful while sitting upright, and the tray table and monitor didn't feel like they were designed to be used with the seat reclined too much.
You could adjust seat components individually, though, which I always appreciate, making it easy to sit upright but with your legs raised a bit during the meal, for example.
The seat extended to a near-flat position, too, but it was not completely lie-flat — great for lounging during a daytime flight but less ideal for an overnight red-eye.
I ended up spending most of the flight with my legs up, but the seat itself just partially reclined. I found myself wishing I had selected a seat that wasn't a bulkhead, since the monitor seemed larger and easier to watch in a deeper recline, not to mention the storage issues (more on that below).
These seats didn't offer much in the way of privacy, either, though there was a useful slide-out divider — it did a much better job of hiding me from my neighbor when fully reclined.
My biggest issue was with the storage, because ... well, there just really wasn't any. My seat had just one tiny compartment below the wired remote, and that was occupied by the provided headphones. Once removed, I had room for my phone and a small pocket camera, but nothing else.
Upon boarding, I found a pillow and blanket at my seat, along with an amenity kit filled with essentials including a dental kit, lotion and lip balm from Italian brand Acca Kappa, an eye mask, earplugs and disposable socks. Air Italy also offers pajamas and mattress pads on red-eyes, but these aren't available on daytime flights.
The carrier also provided generic headphones, but they didn't sound great, so I pulled out my Bose set, instead.
As I mentioned, the entertainment system popped out of the center console at the bulkhead seats, which meant it was only accessible after takeoff and prior to landing.
There was an especially modest selection of new releases — just eight films in total — though there were a variety of older films and TV shows available as well, plus a moving map, though it wasn't working on my flight.
Wi-Fi was also available on board, but it was fairly sluggish — too slow to run a speed test, for example, though emails and text messages loaded without issue. Business-class passengers got 60 MB for free, but I had already purchased a plan by the time I received my voucher. I bought the 21-euro (about $24) "Total Wi-Fi" package, which included 180 MB of access. You could also purchase a 15 MB plan for 3 euros, a 60 MB plan for 9 euros or a 120 MB plan for 15 euros.
You might need more than that, though — I was shocked to find that 100 MB of my quota disappeared in just five minutes, so be sure your phone isn't syncing photos, updating apps or engaged in other high-bandwidth activities while connected. And I recommend disabling Wi-Fi whenever you aren't using the service. Otherwise, your iPhone will probably eat up your quota as your sleep.
Food and Beverage
Food was definitely the highlight of my Alitalia flight last year, and given that we were flying from Italy, I expected it to be a focal point on this transatlantic journey as well.
Air Italy offers one menu for both directions. This time, I selected from the section for flights leaving Italy.
I was offered a pre-departure drink, and selected Champagne — the airline serves Maxime Blin Carte Blanche Brut, which I enjoyed, even though I wasn't at all familiar with the brand. Then I was offered my choice of drink after takeoff as well — my Aperol spritz arrived with a bowl of stale nuts about 45 minutes after takeoff.
Then, another 45 minutes after that — a full hour and a half after takeoff — my table was set for the main meal.
My appetizer, a Caprese salad, arrived 15 minutes after that. I had high hopes, and was sorely disappointed — after a week of incredible food in Sicily, I barely managed a couple bites of the mozzarella-and-tomato salad.
Ten minutes later, my main course arrived, but since I was looking forward to it, I pointed out that we hadn't been served the pasta — my entire cabin had missed out, it seemed. Confused, the flight attendant brought my main course back to the galley and returned with the pasta, which was pretty good — a sort of thick ravioli.
Ten minutes after that, my main course returned — I had originally requested the mixed grill of Mediterranean fish, but they ran out of that quickly. So I asked for the Milanese veal cutlet (when in Rome! Or Milan ...), but that was gone as well. The flight attendant did manage to dig an extra up, though, so she served me that instead of my last choice, the chicken breast with rosemary brown sauce. My entree wasn't hot, I'm guessing because they had mistakenly brought it out earlier, and left it in the galley as I ate my forgotten pasta. The flavor was decent, but the meat was a bit tough, and the veggies were overcooked.
Ten minutes later, so two hours and 15 minutes after takeoff, the most interesting course of all arrived: cheese! I especially liked the dried fruitcake, which tasted fantastic with a bit of cheese and marmalade.
I rounded out the meal with a delicious mango mousse, but I was stuffed at that point, so I only had a few bites.
Finally, before landing, we were offered a snack, which consisted of fresh (but really not-so-fresh) fruit, mixed cold cuts and a miniature pizza, served together on one tray. It was all pretty mediocre, but I was still full from lunch, so I wasn't all that bummed.
Airport lounge, boarding and departure issues aside, I did enjoy my Air Italy flight — and at just over $1,200, the price was right. I was disappointed by the quality of the food, though, especially considering how good my meal was on Alitalia. And while Qatar's old angle-flat seat were fine for a daytime flight, I'd probably book something else for the eastbound red-eye.
Air Italy's business-class experience is about to get a huge boost, though, once the airline adds Qatar Airways' Dreamliners to its fleet. The airline is planning to lease more than 30 787-8s, offering 1-2-1 seating in business class, an airier cabin and a far more pleasant ride overall.