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Good seat and legroom. Attention to aesthetic detail.
Messy boarding, uninispiring food, outdated seatback monitor, arrival at bus gate.
What airline has been bankrupt since 2017, but keeps flying thanks to government loans and might even end up getting an investment from Delta?
That’s Alitalia, Italy’s flag carrier and member of the SkyTeam alliance which, despite its dire financial straits (and culturally insensitive advertising), is still very much a presence in the US. On its flights, you can earn and redeem Delta’s SkyMiles, as well as FlyingBlue miles, which can be a valuable currency for Delta flyers.
Alitalia flies from Rome and Milan to Boston, New York JFK, Washington Dulles, Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles on Airbus A330s and Boeing 777s. All sport an all-aisle-access business class and a true separate cabin for premium economy. We’ve reviewed its transatlantic service in business, finding it good, and coach, with less remarkable results. Premium economy, a separate class between biz and coach, offers legroom akin to domestic first class in the US and wider seats than economy, but not the lie-flat beds and personalized service found in business.
But before we go further, you’re probably wondering: Should I fly a bankrupt airline?
Alitalia’s been bankrupt once before, and emerged. The Italian government today is going out of its way to help sell the airline. Meanwhile, the European Union is investigating whether government loans to Alitalia violate rules against state aid.
But none of that is affecting service. Alitalia has an excellent safety record and is known for strict maintenance standards and top-notch pilot training. You can reasonably expect it to continue flying through 2019.
This flight in premium economy from New York JFK to Rome’s Fiumicino airport was the return leg of a round trip from Italy to the US. We paid a cash fare of $1,309 for the return ticket and put the fare on the Platinum Card® from American Express, which earns 5x Membership Rewards points on airfare booked directly with airlines or American Express Travel. At 2 cents per point according to our valuations, the 6,545 points we earned are worth $131.
Flying SkyTeam partner airlines is a good way to earn a ton of Delta miles quick. When my outbound leg from Milan to New York via Rome in April was canceled, Alitalia rebooked me on Emirates, a snafu for which I still managed to get Delta SkyMiles credited.
Per Delta’s partner-airline earnings chart, flying premium economy on Alitalia yielded an amount of redeemable SkyMiles equal to 150 percent of miles actually flown. I also got a bonus for being a Platinum Medallion member, bringing my total haul of SkyMiles to 9,838, worth $118 at our current valuations.
In addition, I earned 150 percent of miles flown as Medallion Qualification Miles, i.e. the only miles that count to qualify for elite tiers. You also need qualifying spend to make an elite tier, and this flight got me $1,283 in those Medallion Qualifying Dollars, or 30 percent of the miles flown. That’s because tickets bought on and flown on Delta partner carriers earn qualifying dollars as a percentage of distance flown. Had I bought my ticket on Delta.com to fly the same flight on Alitalia, I would have earned far fewer qualifying dollars.
All that showed up in my SkyMiles account two days after the flight.
Trying to check in online or in the Alitalia app resulted in constant errors. For example, the site told me that flight AZ603 from JFK to Rome FCO didn’t exist, and the app said it was operated by a partner airline. Neither was true.
I called Alitalia’s Italian customer service number to inquire. A very polite agent told me — switching from Italian to English midsentence — that the site was “out of fashion.” What? It turned out that he meant “out of order.”
The check-in desk at JFK — Alitalia is at Terminal 1 in row F —worked fine, though, and had no queue. The priority line for business, premium economy and passengers with elite status was clearly marked in SkyTeam’s signature red, indicating SkyPriority lines.
Exhibiting my premium-economy boarding pass got me into the security lane marked “First & Business Class,” but that’s where the privilege ended. Unfortunately, Alitalia does not offer TSA PreCheck, so all of its passengers from the US must remove their shoes and take laptops out of bags.
With security taken care of at 4:30pm for a 5:45 departure, I had time for a lounge. Per Alitalia’s lounge-access policy, premium-economy flyers cannot get in, but I did, thanks to SkyTeam Elite Plus status as a Delta Platinum Medallion.
The Casa Alitalia lounge is usually not my first choice when flying SkyTeam carriers out of JFK’s Terminal 1; the Air France lounge next door is better, although it’s been known to turn away partner-airline passengers on occasion. This time, though, Casa Alitalia surprised me in a good way, once past a sad-looking entrance still sporting the airline’s old logo.
It was blissfully quiet and the warm pizza slices on offer at the buffet were excellent. The selection of San Pellegrino beverages included chinotto (kee-NOHT-toh), a soft drink known as Italy’s national soda and hard to find outside the country. Between the pizza, the soda, the midrange but solid Italian wines, the prosecco and the ample selection of Italian newspapers, the Italian atmosphere was done right.
Alitalia has long marketed itself as the airline of the dolce vita lifestyle, with inconsistent success. In this lounge, the walls are adorned with paparazzi photos of movie stars getting on and off planes in the golden age of Rome’s Cinecittà film studios. Slightly cheesy, maybe, but effective enough in context.
Roger Moore, Sofia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida are easy to recognize in the photos below, but more than one face left me wondering. Aviation and film buffs would appreciate detailed captions: Where was Moore coming from, in full James Bond mode, on a Douglas DC-9? And where was Lollo off to on a long-range DC-8?
Casa Alitalia is also a good place to do some planespotting. On that day, the airline’s Boeing 777-300ER flagship was pushing back from the gate just outside the lounge windows. That big jet is another of Alitalia’s bizarre incosistencies. After going bankrupt, the airline actually expanded its long-haul fleet, leasing that stretch-model 777 at a rate of a million dollars a month. Yet it had no money to replace a logo that changed 10 years ago, on the door of the lounge at its most prestigious international destination?
Things devolved rapidly once I got to the gate. I have never taken a long-haul Alitalia flight that did not begin with having to wade through a throng of passengers who did not have access to the priority boarding lane but had been camping there for a while, amid indifference from ground staff. This departure was no exception.
Upon finally boarding, I got a glimpse of business class.
Cabin and Seat
In premium economy, I found an unusually high number of elderly passengers and families with small children who had pre-boarded. It was already full, with unruly kids running around the small 17-seat cabin. Premium economy on Alitalia A330s is in a comfortable 2-3-2 layout in a cozy, intimate cabin. During flight, it’s separated by heavy curtains from the economy section behind and the galley in front.
I was in seat 9J, in a block of two seats, ideal if you’re traveling as a couple, which I was not. My seatmate was an elderly Italian lady, who crossed herself on the takeoff roll and again after we landed.
A big, cozy blanket, pillow, headphones and a small water bottle were on every seat.
My seat sported 38-inch legroom and 19-inch width plus the ability to recline with impunity, since I only had the coach-class divider behind me. Row 8 could recline far back into my space, though.
I ignored the worn, wobbly footrest at my seat and stretched my legs under the seat in front of me all the way to Rome. The 38 inches of legroom is a vast improvement over 32 in regular coach, and even at 6 feet 2 inches, I did not feel cramped.
A tiny Italian flag on the adjustable headrest added a touch of class.
Again like many premium-economy seats, adjustment was mechanical, not electric like in biz; a button in the left armrest controlled seatback recline and another in the right one extended the footrest. Also in the right armrest were the wired remote for the inflight entertainment and the headphone outlet. (Bring a three-prong adapter if you want to use your own instead of the airline’s mediocre headsets.)
Each seat had its own power plug. Right above it was a network outlet, an anachronistic touch from the days before Wi-Fi on airplanes made connecting to the Internet with a cable obsolete. Charging was also available via the USB plug under the IFE monitor.
Despite the haphazard boarding, we were ready to go on time, welcomed by an announcement by the first officer “on behalf of Captain Amedeo Bianchi.” It’s always nice when the skipper is introduced by name. It’s even nicer when you check LinkedIn on your phone as the plane’s doors close and see that you’ll be crossing the ocean under the command of the airline’s chief A330 pilot, a captain with 20,000 hours of flight time. (My devout seatmate would have been happy to know that he was once selected to fly the Pope).
Our ship was the Tiziano, named after an Italian painter like Alitalia’s other A330s. Delivered new in 2012, it bore an Irish registration, EI-EJO, for tax reasons — again like almost all of the Alitalia fleet.
Amenities and IFE
The inflight entertainment was a low point: The content wasn’t very exciting and presented on a low-resolution display that felt very early 2000s. The touchscreen was so unresponsive, I used the remote to control it instead. And while 150 movies, TV-show episodes and lifestyle videos might seem like a lot, there wasn’t much that I wanted to watch among the bland, mainstream selection.
I had better luck with the excellent music section, an eclectic mix of around 100 CDs presented with pithy and informative blurbs, obviously the work of a savvy music writer.
BBC World and CNN International live feeds both streamed well.
The sports-video section was shockingly devoid of any soccer content, but what the IFE lacked in the Italian national pastime it made up for in another, perhaps less-known area of Italian excellence: space exploration. Several modules of the International Space Station have been built in Italy, and the science section of the IFE largely consisted of videos about it produced by the Italian Space Agency. All would have looked fantastic on a better display.
Alitalia A330s also have front- and downward-facing cameras that can give an exciting view of takeoff, but they did not work until cruise altitude, when all you could see was clouds.
The Wi-Fi wasn’t fast enough to do anything more than text. It was too slow even for the Speedtest app to calculate download and upload speeds. There can be sound technical reasons for that, so I wasn’t upset, but I was annoyed by the paltry 10 MB of free internet offered to premium-economy customers with a scratch card distributed by the crew.
And it wasn’t free after all; a bill for $2 appeared in my email after the flight. Only later did I notice that the scratch card was valid until May 31, a week before my flight. I ate the cost, but that interaction did not go into the positive column.
Food and Beverage
Meals for Purchase
No-frills food, served fast and undistinguishable from coach-class fare, was the gist of meal service on this flight. I liked the unobtrusive service that maximized sleep time, but expected a marked differentiation from economy.
During boarding, flight attendants brought out a tray with blood-orange juice, prosecco or still water, followed by American or Italian newspapers. Simple and practical amenity kits followed shortly.
Dinner began to be served just half an hour after takeoff at 6:50pm, a very early dinnertime for many Italians but one that enabled passengers to sleep longer.
There was no menu, which other airlines provide in premium economy. My choice came down to beef or pasta, described vaguely by flight attendants. I’ve seen Alitalia do pasta spectacularly well on flights from Italy or badly on flights from the USA, so I got the beef. It was the standard-issue international coach-class beef with peas and carrots: salty, nondescript, filling and forgettable. The mesclun salad with chicken was to the same standard. Wines were the same midrange bottles available in the lounge.
After dinner, the usual trays with tea or coffee were presented. “Coffee how?” my Italian seatmate asked a flight attendant. “Ehh, caffè americano,” he replied in a tone that said he understood her unexpressed concern. “I can make you an espresso later if you’d like.” Clearly relieved that civilization didn’t need to be abandoned while up in the air, she nodded an enthusiastic yes. (The Americano I requested out of curiosity proved that my seatmate’s concerns were justified.)
With cabin lights out from 8pm until midnight — 6am at our destination — people could sleep comfortably, uninterrupted by crew announcements. Only those same unruly children occupying a lot of premium economy broke the quiet.
The bathroom was just in front of the premium-economy section, ensuring it was shared only passengers in that cabin. I found it clean throughout the flight.
Breakfast was served as we overflew the middle of France, 75 minutes from landing. Disappointingly, only bottled yogurt and a croissant were offered. Other airlines serve omelets for breakfast in the same class of service. Schooled by my earlier caffè americano mistake, I ordered an espresso, a sound idea. The strawberry-jam croissant was excellent as well, despite the shoddy presentation. As if to illustrate Alitalia’s uneven soft-product standards, the croissant was the same as in coach and came in its cellophane wrapper with no plate, but the espresso was served in an elegant Richard Ginori china cup on a saucer.
The saucer featured the beautiful Alitalia logo, a swooping variation of the 1967 classic designed by Landor & Associates, which also appeared everywhere from napkins to trays. Why can’t a company with such a developed sense of aesthetics extend that same attention to every aspect of the passenger experience?
Amd most of all, why did we park at a remote stand? FCO is the airline’s home base. It’s a big airport. Yet there was no jetway for us, and we had to take a bus. It was fine on a sunny June morning, but would have been miserable in the rain or in Rome’s stifling high summer.
Efficient but minimalist interactions.
Alitalia has a mixed reputation, which my experience with the airline confirms: Its cabin crews can be a delight or occasionally downright rude, but on AZ603 that day they were neither, and delivered an efficient if minimalist crew-interaction experience.
The smartly dressed flight attendants were largely absent other than at meal times, and were polite but offered no personalized welcome or attention. My SkyTeam Elite Plus status got zero recognition; neither did anyone else’s, that I could hear.
And speaking of elite, the crew had left a passenger manifest out in the deserted galley behind biz class, with the full names, elite status and frequent-flyer account numbers of every last soul on board. That was bad. Airlines do not share passenger names, because of privacy laws and security issues. Someone less innocuous than a curious journalist might easily have gotten hold of the list.
That manifest was sitting on a shelf next to the water bottles that Alitalia always leaves in galleys for passengers to help themselves. That’s a great idea, but nobody told people that water was available. I just happened to know from experience. Why not make a quick announcement immediately after dinner?
With no crew staffing the galley, I could also roam at will, inspecting the coffee maker (espresso on the left, standard coffee on the right.)
That said, I wouldn’t fault the cabin crew for any major service flaw. A press of the call button brought out a courteous crewmember within seconds. And I appreciated hugely, on an overnight flight, the lack of annoying PA announcements while the lights were out. One can only wish those rambunctious kids would have gotten the same memo about keeping the cabin undisturbed.
I got a seat with very good legroom for a relatively good price. Aside from the bus-gate annoyance, so-so food and substandard IFE screen, Alitalia provided a smooth flight in a nice seat. Compared to what coach class would have been on an eight-hour flight, premium economy legroom proved to be worth the cost.
If the airline that two bankruptcies couldn’t kill is still there the next time I need to fly from the US to Italy, I will consider flying its premium economy again. But I’ll bring a tablet loaded with movies or a book, because that screen is, frankly, painful.
All images by the author.
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