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A straightforward, no-surprises transatlantic coach experience, with solid Wi-Fi.
A truly abysmal website, bland food.
There’s a new competitor on routes between the US and Italy — the ambitious Air Italy, which is betting on bringing back to Milan the long-haul traffic lost when bankrupt flag carrier Alitalia closed most of its routes there. Last year, the airline formerly known as Meridiana relaunched with a new name and a 49% investment by Qatar Airways, but its long-haul fleet is currently small, just a handful of Airbus A330s leased from Qatar. Boeing 787 Dreamliners will arrive this year, also leased from Qatar, and they will be the most modern planes serving Italy from the US.
There are signs that Air Italy’s aggressive expansion strategy in the US may get scaled back, with the start of flights to Chicago (ORD) postponed. For now it serves New York-JFK and Miami (MIA) from Milan (MXP), and plans to begin routes to Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO) in the spring.
Air Italy will need all the marketing push it can get to make its mark on the New York-to-Milan route, where it’s fighting five incumbents: American, Delta, United and Alitalia plus Emirates, which runs a daily fifth-freedom flight on the Dubai-Milan-New York route. The airline may prove most attractive for US flyers who collect Avios, the points currency used by British Airways, which you can earn and redeem on Air Italy flights.
Last year, we reviewed Air Italy’s business class from Milan Malpensa to New York-JFK: Editor-at-large Zach Honig found it OK, but not as good as Alitalia’s. Now we wanted to know how Air Italy compares to its Italian rival in economy class, where Alitalia offers a pretty standard experience.
Booking in November for a one-way coach flight in late January, the airfare came to $664. I could also have used 30,000 Avios, per Air Italy’s award chart, plus $194 in taxes and surcharges — not a very good redemption.
Adding $32 to select a seat and purchase priority boarding, I put the $696 total on my Citi Prestige card, yielding a haul of 2,089 Citi ThankYou points, worth $35.5 by TPG’s January valuations. At the time, the Citi Prestige awarded 3x points on travel purchases, but the reissued card that is now open for applications ups that to 5x, albeit with a higher annual fee.
My go-to card for airfare is the Chase Sapphire Reserve, also giving 3x points on travel spending — but when I needed to buy the ticket, I had just discovered an instance of fraud on my card and had requested a new one, which hadn’t arrived yet. The Platinum Card® from American Express is TPG’s other mainstay for airfare, with 5x Membership Rewards points on flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel.
The booking process was also where this Air Italy experience earned the most demerits, with a clunky site and an onslaught of terribly translated English that might have caused serious problems for someone who did not happen to be fluent in Italian.
Examples of this stilted, impossible-to-follow language included this gem:
You aren’t hallucinating. The text really said, “For the minor of 18 years (not emancipated) the inscription at the program Meridiana Club and the communications of the personal information are subordinated at the consent of responsability [sic] of the parents or from who have the protection of them and is managed from them.” Examples of this kind abounded.
But wait — what is this Meridiana Club, anyway?
It’s Air Italy’s Avios-earning frequent-flyer program. Curious about its workings, I joined it just before booking the flight. I could also have chosen to credit Avios to a British Airways or Iberia account.
Opening an account involved telling Air Italy what my occupation was, for some reason. The drop-down menu of possible professions ranged from offensive (“Housewife” — welcome to the dawn of the jet age, circa 1959!) to absurdly broad (“Blue Collar”) to weirdly specific (“Journalist” — I’m flattered that you recognize me, Air Italy, but why? Why no entries for, say, plumbers or librarians?) And that’s before we even look at the ungrammatical “Craftman” or the bizarre “Not occupied,” a direct and nonsensical translation of non occupato, a seldom-used Italian term for “unemployed.” Whew.
A week before my flight, the airline sent me an email with the rudely imperative subject line: “Choose your seat, left 7 days before your departure.” For starters, I had already chosen my seat and paid for the selection. Didn’t the reservation system communicate with the email engine? Also, not even machine translation sounds that ridiculous.
Air Italy’s English communications felt like the product of a session with a dictionary by someone who had no idea what they were doing. Surely there was at least one among Air Italy’s more than 1,000 employees able to put together something that resembled coherent English. Not to mention Qatar Airways, where native English speakers are plentiful. So the answer had to be that no one cared.
Software engineers did not appear on that menu of possible occupations, but Air Italy could have used a couple good ones. A full eight days after arrival, my Avios hadn’t shown up in my Meridiana Club account yet. I called to inquire, and was told my frequent-flyer number had not been included in my booking — which wasn’t true. I had also twice asked the check-in agent at JFK to make sure the number was in, which she assured me it was. It even appeared neatly on my boarding pass!
“It happens a lot that the check-in system doesn’t record the Meridiana Club number,” said a phone agent when I called in about the Avios.
I ended up having to email a request for accreditation.
The next day, 1,001 Avios finally appeared in my account, or 25% of the miles flown, per the Meridiana Club guide — written, you guessed it, in barely comprehensible language. Sample sentence: “A Club of unique services for who wishes to fly AIRITALY as a VIP at high levels of comfort and benefit from all those opportunities that convert your transfers into journeys carrying the hallmark of comfort and convenience.”
Those Avios are worth $15 at our current valuations. Air Italy’s English, on the other hand, is priceless.
With a suitcase to check, I used the check-in counters at JFK instead of the airline’s app. The seat map online was showing a pretty empty flight, and the contract employee at the desk confirmed that this flight would be far from full — “But last week it was packed!” she said.Photo by Alberto Riva/TPG
Air Italy uses Terminal 1 at JFK and does not participate in TSA PreCheck, so it’s the general lane and shoes off for everybody at security. That evening, the line was surprisingly quick. Air Italy also does not have a lounge, relying instead on the Korean Air lounge for business-class passengers.
I was in coach, but could still access lounges in the Priority Pass network, thanks to several credit cards including the Chase Sapphire Reserve and Citi Prestige. Priority Pass lounges at T1 include the Air France lounge, which is OK but turns away Priority Pass holders at peak times, and the Korean Air one, which is a very subpar space but was almost empty when I got there. A notice at the entrance alerted Priority Pass users that they were welcome from 2pm to 8:30pm. As usual, the lounge had no food other than instant ramen, fruit and pastries.
Shortly after 7:30pm, an Air Italy ground staff member came to alert the other two passengers of Flight IG902 in the lounge besides me that boarding would begin soon. I have no idea why she went right for them but ignored me. Granted, they were easy to spot as likely Air Italy passengers, since they were speaking Italian in a thick Milanese accent, but why not ask? There were only about 15 people in the lounge, after all. It wouldn’t have been hard.Photo by Alberto Riva/TPG
At Gate 8, I found a very short queue for the Air Italy flight, but in a very confusing setting. A Royal Air Maroc flight to Casablanca (CMN) was boarding right next at the same time, and one gate over from that, an Alitalia flight was also boarding. My priority boarding was honored with no problems once I had found the appropriate line, and at 8:05pm I was among the first aboard one of Air Italy’s five Airbus A330s.
Registered in Ireland as EI-GGP, it was a short-body A330-200 model, delivered new to Qatar Airways in 2003 and then passed on to Air Italy in 2018. Owned by leasing firm Castlelake, it bore an Irish registration for fiscal reasons, like most of Air Italy’s fleet.
Cabin and Seat
As often happens with Italian cabin crews, the flight attendants who saw me take pictures asked what I was doing and why. Unlike their Alitalia colleagues, who tend to crack down on picture taking, they didn’t insist when I replied I was just an innocent tourist, and let me shoot away.Photo by Alberto Riva/TPGPhoto by Alberto Riva/TPGPhoto by Alberto Riva/TPGPhoto by Alberto Riva/TPG
Most A330s feature coach cabins arranged in a 2-4-2 layout, with some rows of 2-3-2 where the fuselage is narrower at the back, and this one was no exception. Air Italy’s A330s have 236 seats in economy and 24 in business class, the latter arranged in a now-dated 2-2-2 layout. Unlike on regional rival Alitalia, there’s no premium economy. Coach is divided into two sections.
My seat, 32A, was a window in the aft cabin just behind the wing. Seats, upholstery and cabin furnishings were left over from Qatar, but with added Air Italy touches. With 32 inches of legroom in most rows and 18 inches of width, Air Italy’s coach seats weren’t anything special, nor were they especially cramped. Beware, though, the reduced legroom at window seats, which have two boxes of equipment used by the inflight entertainment system underneath.Photo by Alberto Riva/TPG
Armrests also didn’t go all the way up, annoyingly, but other A330s have the same problem, including Alitalia’s.
Photo by Alberto Riva/TPG
Positives included an adjustable headrest with head-supporting flaps that actually stayed in place, and a beautiful, breathable mesh upholstery. There was also a power outlet between each pair of economy seats. The USB outlet next to the IFE screen functioned as charger, too.
Coach class had five bathrooms, four at the back and one between the two economy cabins. They were standard-sized A330 lavs, and I found those I visited clean and well-kept.
At my seat, I found only a blanket and tiny pillow — no eye mask, much less slippers. But I also found no one sitting next to me, just as the online seat map had shown. The boarding music was a curious choice, delivered through scratchy loudspeakers: a compilation of cheesy Italian-American hits, from Dean Martin’s “That’s Amore” to Louis Prima and on to the pop productions of contemporary Italian megastar Eros Ramazzotti. For an airline whose tagline is “Imagine the World Differently,” that seemed like a remarkable lack of imagination. Things improved during pushback from our gate and taxiing, with David Bowie’s “Heroes” and an announcement from Capt. Luca Rizzi introducing himself in Italian and good, clearly enunciated English. Maybe Air Italy should run translations by him.
Capt. Rizzi told us flight time would be seven hours, five minutes — a fast run, thanks to the strong winter jet stream pushing us across the Atlantic — but with some turbulence early on. After a flight attendant walked down the aisle offering candy and cleansing towelettes (not hot towels) from a box, we lined up on JFK’s Runway 31L at 9:07pm and were in the air after a quick takeoff run. After turning eastward to follow the coast of Long Island, we were treated to the lights of JFK shining bright to our left, above the dark water of Jamaica Bay.
With a light load of passengers and fuel, we climbed fast to cruising altitude, but our skipper had been right about turbulence: A light but constant chop delayed dinner service until almost two hours after takeoff. With that jet stream behind us, though, we hit a remarkable ground speed of 680 mph, and some bumpiness was a small price to pay for the push from the wind.
Cruising became smoother as we progressed, and at 8:45am Milan time, 2:45am in New York, the cabin lights came back on as we completed our oceanic crossing with an hour and a half to go. During the descent, the usual amazing views of the Alps appeared, with Mont Blanc dominating the scene — a major reason for getting a window seat into and out of MXP. We touched down very smoothly at 10:09am local, 41 minutes ahead of schedule and greeted by a rare commodity in Milan: the brightest of blue skies and Mount Rose towering over the horizon above the airport.Photo by Alberto Riva/TPGPhoto by Alberto Riva/TPG
Upon deplaning, I finally got a good look at the ship that had taken me across the ocean. Barely three hours later, it would depart again to make the same journey in reverse, lifted by the long wings that give the A330 an unmistakable look from the front.
Food and Beverage
Meals for Purchase
First, the good news: Air Italy provides menus in coach class, and they are written in proper English. They were distributed shortly after takeoff along with headphones.
The bad news: The food wasn’t very good. Granted, no one expects a gourmet experience in coach, but this was Air Italy, and maybe, just maybe, Italians would do even economy-class food right. Alas, they — or more properly, the contracted facilities at JFK — did not. When a perfectly nice flight attendant served me the chicken nuggets with potatoes I had chosen over the other entree, cheese ravioli, they turned out to be an utterly bland vehicle for a lot of salt, smothered in a slimy sauce.Photo by Alberto Riva/TPG
There was no water and juice station set up in the back galley, which is what Alitalia does on long-haul flights, but a flight attendant happily opened a bottle of water for me when I showed up midflight in the galley, parched and asking for a drink.
Served 45 minutes from landing, the breakfast omelet with cheese I selected over cinnamon-apple crepes was quite tasty, accompanied by fresh fruit — a decidedly better breakfast than on Alitalia, where they basically dump a warm croissant wrapped in cellophane on your tray table.
In business class, Air Italy serves ice cream and espresso — “Gourmet ice cream and original espresso coffee in the cup are introduced directly from the Italian tradition,” in the bizarro English of the airline’s site — but back in seat 32A, all I got was a paper cup of barely drinkable coffee. Definitely not from the Italian tradition, that.
Amenities and IFE
Just like with the food, there was sort-of-good news and bad news here. Wi-Fi was the good news, with a stable connection fast enough to stream video. The most expensive option was for 180 MB of traffic for 21 euros ($25), which is plenty enough to work with text but gets eaten up fast by video or heavy image files. I made it last for the duration of the flight, but make sure you have automatic updates turned off if you are using your phone, or that 180 MB will go quickly. There were three other options at the same connection speed but different prices, depending on the amount of data available.
The bad news is that the IFE content selection was middling and presented on a 9-inch touchscreen that showed its age. It could tilt and be controlled by a remote as well, but just wasn’t as sharp or responsive as the current generation, with a resolution visibly lower than today’s displays. On my flight, the system offered 36 movies, 28 TV shows and 23 albums in the audio section, which may sound like a lot but isn’t on par with the best IFEs these days.
Live TV was listed as an option, but was unavailable. There was no outside camera either, while Alitalia offers one on its A330s. The moving map could not be zoomed, and the headphones provided by the airline were in-ear and low-quality — my advice is to always bring your own.
Kudos to Air Italy for providing an offline entertainment option, its Atmosphere magazine. That good idea, though, was not executed very well. The Italian text was the stuff of glossy and meaningless travel brochures, and the English translations were, once again, verging on the incomprehensible.
Polite but perfunctory.
There isn’t a lot to say about service on a seven-hour transatlantic hop in coach, unless it’s especially good or bad. On this flight it was neither. Trays were handed to me and removed politely, interactions with the crew were perfunctory and to the point, smiles happened here and there — my crew earned a passing grade, but that’s it. I would have expected a touch more warmth and enthusiasm from a newcomer in a tough market, battling big competitors.
This flight was not a bad experience. Far from it. But it stood firmly in the nondescript middle ground, when it didn’t veer into the negative, such as with the chicken dinner. The hard product will be much, much better when Air Italy begins flying the Boeing 787, a generational improvement over the Airbus A330, and the soft product will undoubtedly improve if Qatar Airways’ service culture seeps through to its Italian partner.
Until then, Air Italy will have to do better if it wants to truly differentiate itself in the crowded US – Italy market. And, for the love of all that’s good: Fix that website!
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All images by the author.
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