Published in May 2016 issue

In recent months, we dedicated numerous pages to both Alitalia (AZ) (Airways, November 2015) and its home base airport, Rome-Fiumicino (FCO) (Airways, February 2016). On both occasions, we were poised to show the optimism that reigns in the Italian carrier’s management, especially after the recent intervention of the Middle East design-oriented titan, Etihad Airways (EY), in bringing in a freshness that was much needed, both financially and organizationally.

By Enrique Perrella

You may recall that we also reported some inconsistencies and hesitations by both entities.

Many people still doubt the troubled airline’s expectation that it can, indeed, get out of the longstanding crisis that’s been haunting it since the late 1990s. And the threat that FCO poses as an inappropriate hub for a carrier the magnitude of AZ may indeed block any growth and the sought-after perfection EY strives to evoke through all its acquisitions.

That’s why I decided to test, first hand, these improvements—both in AZ and FCO—with a quick flight to Warsaw (WAW) on the airline’s intra-EU product, which, allegedly, has seen many improvements after EY’s intervention.

The booking

Through the many years that I’ve flown AZ (since the late 1980s), I have never been wowed by its technology, its reservation system, customer care, and overall booking process. I’ve found them to be tricky, glitchy, and unreliable. Compared with its SkyTeam partners, AZ always remained several steps behind and below—especially, and most notably, under KLM’s shadow.

However, I can finally—and proudly— say, that I’ve been positively impressed by the airline’s new iPhone App. This quick, easy-to-use, and well-designed app evokes a modern yet elegant look that will definitely raise some eyebrows, in the good sense of the expression. The new logo, predominantly shown on the upper left side of the app, is accompanied by the slick ‘Etihad Airways Partner’ logo on the right side. Right below, on a skyblue background with vanishing White clouds, users are invited to book flights, check-in, check for flight status, review the airline’s timetables, or log in to the Millemiglia Frequent Flyer Program (FFP).

Smitten with the app’s sleek design, I decided to book my ticket through it. I typed in the two airport codes (FCO and WAW), selected the dates, and in less than three seconds, the flight options were shown along with the prices. I was impressed by the fact that the app didn’t re-direct me to an external browser, but showed the options and finalized the booking seamlessly.

The sole daily flight to WAW, which leaves FCO at 10:10, was priced at €132. The next screen prompted me to choose the return leg on the selected date. This was priced slightly higher, at €152, making the total round trip fare come up to €284. As I tapped to continue to the confirmation page, the incredibly quick app asked for my personal details and FFP number before requesting my credit card information and finalizing the booking. The process took less than six minutes, and that was because I took my time enjoying it.

As soon as had I finished booking, an email arrived with my e-ticket confirmation. I was only disappointed that no seat selection was available through the app—the only flaw I could find in it. I went on to AZ’s new website and selected my seats there. The well-designed site emanates the same feeling the wonderful app does. If I were to compare the app to Delta’s (DL) or Air France’s (AF), I’d place it as the winner. By a long shot.

The departing flight

With departure scheduled at 10:10, I decided to arrive at the airport with plenty of time in hand to see how FCO had changed since our article, which hadn’t gone easy on the facility, to say the least. At 08:00 sharp I entered the SkyTeam-dedicated Terminal 1, home to Alitalia and its partners for intra-EU (Schengen) flights. This has been FCO’s best-looking and performing terminal since AZ took over in 2009.

My first impression was beyond positive. The floors were neatly polished and clean, and AZ’s new colorful branding was plastered through all the check-in counters, which made them look modern and updated. The airline had also refreshed its check-in kiosks, which looked inviting and über modern.

Even though I had checked-in through the app the evening before, I went to pay a visit to the neatly dressed check-in ladies behind the counters. I used the SkyPriority line, and was greeted by three clerks who, with a smile, proceeded to print my boarding pass. I must say that, of the hundreds of times I’d flown out of FCO, this was the friendliest check-in process I’d ever experienced.

Holding my boarding pass—which also boasts the airline’s new design—I headed to the presecurity Freccia Alata Lounge, located alongside the check-in counters. This lounge is quite special, as it is perhaps the only one in the world with a full-size flight simulator, which can be used by passengers under the guidance of a certified instructor. I signed up and after a short wait I was able to take it for a spin on a quick flight departing and arriving into Naples (NAP). Upon request, the instructor can input special settings, such as low visibility, full IFR approaches, and even some emergencies, among others.

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With plenty of time to spare, I went through security in less than two minutes, using the dedicated SkyPriority lane, also available to passengers using the Rome-Milan (ROMAMILANO) airlink, which AZ established in 2009 to compete against rail companies.

As I entered the spotless terminal, I saw that both the restaurants and services had been markedly upgraded. The workers seemed to be smiling (unusual for FCO), and the overall look and feel was welcoming. The hallways were very crowded, yet one could walk around without feeling clustered.

After walking the entire B concourse, I headed to the C and D ones, which had been heavily affected by the massive fire that struck in May 2015. To my surprise, the whole building had been refurbished and looked immaculate. All columns had been fitted with LED screens, new restaurants opened, and the space looked as modern and up to date as one would expect at an international gateway. I was utterly pleased. Then, there was that unique charm that can only be found in Italy: all caffé bars were crowded with people enjoying their espressos and marmaladefilled cornetti (croissants), gentlemen dressed as if the terminals were a fashion show, and regular people wearing modern sunglasses, despite the low light found inside the buildings. This is Italy.

On the top floor of the D concourse is yet another Freccia Alata Lounge, where I stopped to enjoy a cappuccino and chat with the barista. As I entered, two Young ladies greeted me and took note of my flight to announce the boarding time—a nice gesture. And, in fact, 45 minutes later, I was called to walk back to the B concourse and board my flight to WAW.

May 2016
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Flight AZ490: FCO WAW

Airbus A319-111

EI-IMW (MSn 5383)

Upon reaching the gate, four lines were being carefully organized by the friendly agents. The first line welcomed all Business Class and SkyPriority passengers, whereas the other three Split up Economy passengers depending on the on-board seating rows they had been allocated. In a rather organized fashion, we were invited to board at exactly 09:35. I, still fascinated with the iPhone app, used the mobile boarding pass, which the gate system quickly recognized.

As I walked down the jetway, which was also in excellent shape (and air conditioned), I passed next to the handful of newspapers offered to all passengers. I entered the Airbus A319, which was staffed by an all-male crew—all dressed with elegant long dark blue jackets bearing Alitalia’s ‘A’ on both shoulders— and went straight to my chosen 11A seat, one row behind the emergency exit.

After settling in, I noticed that the leg space was quite limited. According to the airline, its Airbus A319s offer 31 inches of pitch in Economy Class, but I felt as if it were much less. As the cabin crowded up, my travel neighbor arrived—a 60-ish year-old-lady—wearing a heavy winter jacket. Immediately after saying hello, I noticed that a very bad smell had started to permeate the atmosphere, which worsened as she removed her coat, sweater and gilet. Finally seated next to me, I started feeling ill because of the intensity of the scent. It was so strong that I even considered canceling my trip had the flight indeed been full.

Thankfully, however, after the Fas announced that boarding was completed, I noticed that the emergency exit row was completely empty. I didn’t hesitate and asked to be moved to that row’s aisle seat, and the FA gladly agreed. With my leg space thus increased, and breathable air around me, our A319 pushed back at 10:10—right on time. Ten minutes later, we rocketed out of FCO’s runway 25 and climbed to an altitude of 34,000ft, where we would spend the next two hours and 20 minutes.

All Alitalia A320-family aircraft are fitted with slim-line Recaro seats, very comfortable but with a pointless screen and credit card reader that doesn’t work. In 2013, the airline, in fact, removed the IFE boxes from below the seats to reduce the aircraft’s weight, leaving the now useless ultra-small screen adorning the back of every seat.

Upon reaching cruising altitude, cabin service began. I was expecting the traditional sweet or salty snack bags AZ used to serve on all its intra-EU/regional flights, but was pleasantly surprised with a mozzarella cheese sandwich with tomatoes, arugula, and pesto cream, along with a beverage of choice. The sandwich was fresh and moist, far better than I had been expecting.

As the flight progressed toward Eastern Europe, I relaxed and enjoyed the ride. The FAs passed numerous times, making sure the passengers were content. And, soon enough, we began our descent into Warsaw at 12:10.

Following a bumpy but uneventful approach, we landed at precisely 12:25 after a quick battle with 25-knot gusts. The overall experience was more than satisfactory. I hoped for an equal or better experience on the flight back the next day.

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The returning flight

After spending a very productive 20 hours in the beautiful city of Warsaw, where I had time to walk its nice parks, climb to the top of Stalin’s tower, and meet with fellow aviation enthusiast friends, I arrived at the airport at noon sharp—75 minutes ahead of scheduled departure time—leaving plenty of time to explore this airport before heading back to Rome.

Upon entering the modern terminal, I was stunned by its Sharp architecture, a combination of glass and metal, and superb lighting. The check-in counters are all set up horizontally along the building’s length. The first two lanes are dedicated to SkyTeam carriers, and the rest to Star Alliance. The last three lanes are occupied by the airport’s home carrier, LOT (meaning ‘flight’ in Polish), with an entire lane just for its Business Class passengers, adorned with a large scale model of its Flagship, the Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner. Overall, I was truly won over by the gorgeous terminal.

After that quick glance, I returned to the first lane where Alitalia, Air France and KLM have their counters. I entered the SkyPriority line and had my boarding pass rapidly printed. I was then invited to pass security through the Business Class lane (located next to the crew access one), which enabled me to save at least 20 minutes’ queuing at the Economy Class line on the opposite side of the terminal.

Less than four minutes after having my boarding pass printed, I was airside with 40 minutes to spare. I walked the entire gate area—equally designed with modernistic décor—and ended up in the stunning Fantazja Executive Lounge. This must be one of the best lounges I have seen, especially for an airport the size of WAW. The food/beverage section was spectacularly adorned with some sort of chandelier above light wooden tables, mirrors, and glass. The choice of newspapers and magazines was overwhelming, as were the private spaces for resting and working: four private rooms fitted with brand new computers with free Internet and WiFi connectivity. A truly superb lounge.

Soon thereafter, boarding was called and I had to walk around five minutes to reach gate 26, where the Airbus A320 was being prepped for my two-hour flight back to the Eternal City.

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Flight AZ490: WAW-FCO

Airbus A320-216

EI-EIE (MSN 4536)

Just as on the inbound flight, boarding was set up in four lanes. I boarded quickly via the SkyPriority lane—this time with my printed boarding pass, which didn’t have the airline’s new branding—and entered the aircraft straight to my 5F seat, in the first row of the Economy Class cabin.

Upon settling in, I noticed that the middle seat had previously been used for the intra-EU’s Business Class setting, making the armrests severely narrower and the lumbar portion reclinable. Although providing much more comfort for the aisle and window seats, this leaves the middle seat with at least six fewer inches of width. And, in fact, when the middle seat passenger arrived, she started complaining about how uncomfortable it was. I couldn’t complain, but she had all reason to.

At 13:20, five minutes behind schedule, our A320 was pushed back from the gate and we taxied to the top of runway 13 to perform a rather powerful and steep takeoff. We could see the city of Warsaw clearly from our position, a stunning view as we climbed into a thin layer of clouds.

Fifteen minutes after leaving Warsaw, the FAs began the quick inflight service, which consisted of olive bread with turkey and artichoke, and a beverage of choice, which, for me, was sparkling water. The quality of the sandwich was indisputable—a great snack for a one-hour 50-minute flight. The trek to Rome continued uneventfully and we began our descent at 15:00.

A positive outcome

This trip showed some great consistency on Alitalia’s intra-EU Economy Class product. I was quite proud to see that, despite all the issues the airline has faced in the last decade, its service was spot-on-time, all FAs and gate agents performed their duties to perfection, their lounges in FCO were immaculate, with unrivaled offerings, and the overall passenger experience exceeded my initial expectations.

Likewise, I was positively struck by FCO’s current state. After endless negative experiences at Italy’s main airport, it was invigorating to see it clean and relaxed, and everything working as it should. However, I must say that, after my quick exploration of WAW, I still believe that Rome needs a new, modern, and stunning airport. Warsaw was on its knees after WWII, then faced horrific socioeconomic turmoil, yet it now boasts one of the nicest airports I have ever been to. I don’t get this kind of feeling every time I set foot in FCO—which should be a must, given the cultural significance of the city.

In any case, there wasn’t a single negative item on this quick round trip to Poland. Well, except for the poorly scented lady that could have ruined it all. I wonder whether special provisions should be put in place for passengers like her, to ensure they don’t affect the flight’s due course.