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Just a few weeks ago, Air Italy accepted its first 737 MAX aircraft from Boeing. June 1, the airline took another step forward by launching its first flight from New York (JFK) to Milan (MXP).
“This is not just our first flight to Milan,” said Air Italy’s deputy executive chairman Marco Rigotti. “This is our first ever international flight under our new image and under this beautiful, striking livery.”
Air Italy had its first official long-haul flight earlier in the day when it flew its retrofitted, former Qatar Airways A330 to New York.
Air Italy isn’t technically a brand-new airline but is the rebranded version of Italian carrier Meridiana. Qatar Airways recently bought 49% of Air Italy and it’s helping remake what was a lesser-known Sardinia-based airline into what it hopes may one day become a serious international player.
“Our ambition is simple, we want to be Italy’s leading airline,” Rigotti said, firing a shot across Alitalia’s bow. “Our vision is to create a credible alternative for the people of Italy.” Air Italy said it wants to compete with larger international airlines instead of fighting budget carriers like Ryanair or Vueling on shorter intra-European routes.
Air Italy is making a big bet on Milan, Italy’s industrial capital, and will launch seasonal flights between Miami (MIA) and Milan just a week after its inaugural flight to the US. The airline will use Milan Malpensa Airport as its hub — underserved from long-haul point to point flights and as a connecting hub. The airline thinks there’s strong demand in Milan, a modern and rich city, for a full-service airline to cater to Italian businesspeople and leisure travelers. Right now, most people traveling long-haul to and from Milan have to connect through a larger European city such as Frankfurt or London.
Air Italy hopes to expand outside of Milan as well, Rigotti told a group of journalists at JFK. By the end of 2018, the airline will fly to two other international destinations, Bangkok (BKK) and Mumbai (BOM), and it plans on announcing two more long-haul routes before year’s end, Rigotti said.
Rigotti surprised the group by saying Air Italy also has plans to launch long-haul point-to-point flights from Rome (FCO). Why? Because “Rome is Rome.” Unfortunately the executive wouldn’t cough up any details as to when.
“We don’t want to operate as a nostalgic airline,” Rigotti said, possibly referring to Meridiana’s old, outdated product or Alitalia’s penchant for marketing its product based on a “dolce vita” idea of Italy. Rigotti then pointed to Air Italy’s A330, which features onboard Wi-Fi, angle-flat business class seats reclining to 165 degrees and high-quality food. You’ll even be able to watch live World Cup games when the matches begin this summer. (The other airlines competing on the JFK area to Milan route, Alitalia and Delta, offer 180-degree lie-flat business class seats.)
Air Italy will operate five A330-200s by the end of the year, but those aircraft don’t exactly scream “the future.” Fortunately, the airline is planning on taking over 30 Boeing 787-8 Dreamliners from Qatar by 2022. They’ll be laid out in a similar fashion to Qatar’s widebodies with the first one being delivered to Air Italy in May of 2019.
The A330 features 24 seats in business class and 236 in economy. Economy offers a 31″ of pitch while business gives you 6.5ft to stretch out. Passengers in biz will receive turndown service, a Fedon amenity kit and even pajamas and slippers — something that’s more often found in first class cabins. Sample dinner menus include Italian dishes like veal Milanese and caprese salad.
The airline is also expected to receive 20 737 MAX 8 over the next three years — these will replace Meridiana’s 737NGs. The MAX 8s will serve six Italian destinations via Milan including Palermo, Rome, Olbia, Catania, Naples and Lamezia Terme. Rigotti said these Italian destinations will grow over the coming months and years. Each aircraft will feature 16 business class seats and 162 in coach class — business and economy passengers will both receive a meal and beverages on short-haul flights.
Air Italy’s hard and soft product feel like decent business and economy offerings but they really aren’t anything exceptional. Customer experience and service seem like bigger priorities for the airline and will help it stand out from competitors — which Rigotti kept pivoting back to throughout his talk. “We are more focused on the service than on the price,” he said. Still, the airline has been offering frequent sales since it rebranded because it needs to attract new customers in its infancy — and to do that it needs cheap fares.
When TPG asked about the creation of a frequent flyer program, the CEO said that it’s very happy with the one it has. Although it’s not really its own, you can earn and redeem British Airways Avios on Air Italy flights. The airline has ambitions to join its Qatari partner in the Oneworld alliance, so it’s possible flyers will one day use American Airlines miles on the carrier.
When questioned about how Qatar has helped shape the carrier’s business, Rigotti answered, “There’s been a very quick learning curve. Without them we would not exist.” Still, he emphasized that Air Italy is truly independent from its benefactor and that it’s not being micromanaged. He’s got a point: Right now Air Italy won’t be offering any connections to Doha (DOH), Qatar’s main hub. Qatar wants to avoid the mistake of Etihad’s disastrous investment in Alitalia, a bankrupt carier currently on life support via cash injections from the Italian government.
Nonetheless, it’s an exciting time for Italians, Milanese flyers and those looking for a new, direct way to get to Italy. Only time will tell if Air Italy lives up to its hope of being the country’s top airline.
All images by the author.
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