Inside Air Italy’s First 737 MAX, With Qatar Airways Boss Al Baker Looking On

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The newest (sort of) airline in Europe just got its first Boeing 737 MAX, the airplane it wants to use to create what its chairman says will be “the leading Italian airline.” Air Italy, in which Qatar Airways bought a 49% stake last year, took over on Friday the first of 186-seat MAX 8 models, with 19 more to come. Qatar Airways’ CEO Akbar al Baker was present himself at the ceremony at Boeing’s Delivery Center in Everett, outside Seattle — a clear indication that the government-owned carrier is really serious about making its bid on Italy work.

The same feat eluded Qatar Airways’ neighborhood rival Etihad, the Abu Dhabi-based carrier that bought 49% of Alitalia to turn it around and make it into Italy’s top airline again. That did not work, and Alitalia is now bankrupt and for sale after Etihad soured on the failed investment. Air Italy makes no secret it wants to fill that void, by focusing on what bankrupt Alitalia stopped doing when it ended most long-haul flights from Milan to concentrate on Rome instead: Serve the lucrative market in Italy’s richest region. The MAX 8s, and the 30 Boeing 787s Air Italy will get from Qatar, will be based at Milan’s Malpensa airport (MXP).

“There is clear demand in northern Italy,” Air Italy chairman Francesco Violante told attendees at the Everett ceremony. Those passengers, high-spending business class flyers, currently connect at hubs outside Italy for long-haul flights, he said. Violante wants to win them over by offering “the best connections, in terms of travel experience, for Italian travelers.”

“Italy does not have a strong airline today,” al Baker said in response to a question from TPG. “We want Malpensa to become an international hub for the Italian community. Our goal as shareholder is to establish a major airline.”

This is not going to be a low-cost project. Quite the opposite. It will offer “a premium product on a full-service airline,” al Baker said. Air Italy “will be stylish and sophisticated and will create an alternative for the Italian people,” he added.

Its airplanes sport, outside and inside, a look very much reminiscent of Qatar’s maroon-dominated branding. The cabin is in a one-class layout without fixed dividers between the business and coach sections; the premium end of the cabin, behind a curtain, will be differentiated by blocking the middle seat in the classic 3-3 arrangement as well by a bit more legroom even though seats are the same, with roughly 33 inches of pitch out front and 30 in back.

Akbar al Baker in the cabin, with the curtain that will separate the business and coach sections
Akbar al Baker in the cabin, with the curtain that will separate the business and coach sections

The planes won’t have individual IFE screens, mirroring a trend on 737 MAXes — American Airlines, for example, also eschewed IFE in favor of supports for passengers’ own devices connected to inflight Wi-Fi. The real differentiator between Air Italy and the competition, the airline says, will be service. Business class will be offered even on domestic services, which in Italy are generally short: Milan to Sicily, about the entire length of the country, is barely a 90-minute hop.

From the rear, the lack of IFE screens is the biggest difference between most current 737s and Air Italy’s MAX 8s.

Air Italy is putting its new 737s in service on those domestic routes first, including airports serving major tourist destinations “such as Taormina in Sicily, the Emerald Coast in Sardinia, Rome, Sorrento and Capri,” according to Marco Rigotti, the chairman of Alisarda, which holds the other 51% of Air Italy’s shares.

The flight deck of the 737 MAX looks like a miniature version of the 787, easing the transition between the two types for Air Italy pilots.

The jet, delivered Friday and bearing the Irish registration EI-GFY because it’s technically owned by an Ireland-based leasing company, will fly to Milan on Sunday. Captains Riccardo Criscuolo and Luca Massaro will fly to the plane’s new home base with 20 Air Italy and Qatar Airways staffers and four crew members, via Shannon, Ireland. At 4,500 miles, the Seattle to Shannon leg is a whopper for a 737 — even with a very light load, it’s an amazing feat considering that the original 737s from the 1960s had half the range. But today’s MAX models are a far cry from those 737s, with very little in common. From the flight deck to the back galley, they are wholly different airplanes that happen to share a model name.

Air Italy Captains Criscuolo (L) and Massaro were clearly proud of their new charge. The transition to the MAX from current 737 models is quick and seamless, they said.
Air Italy Captains Criscuolo (L) and Massaro were clearly proud of their new charge. The transition to the MAX from current 737 models is quick and seamless, they said.

One of those passengers on the delivery flight will be Akbar al Baker himself. “It’s of fundamental importance for him to be there,” said Loredana de Filippo, Air Italy’s chief spokesperson. Al Baker is extremely focused on details like seats and interior furnishings, she explained, and wants to check everything out himself — even if that means a cramped transatlantic flight.

Air Italy is taking delivery of eight more 737 MAXes this year. For an airline that currently has just about a dozen jets, that is a major jump. Al Baker says he’s confident that the airline will make a profit in a few years — he didn’t say how many — but he minced no words when describing how tough it’s going to be for his new protégé to make such a big expansion work. “You will have a lot of challenges,” he said at the delivery, sitting next to Rigotti and Violante, “taking so many aircraft in so little time.”

All photos by the author. 

This story has been amended with the correct amount of seat legroom.

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