MILAN — A wind of fresh air has invaded Italy today. On the same day that the new Italian Prime Minister was sworn in—following a lengthy void of negotiations and political gaming—the country’s newest airline, Air Italy, launched its first international flight.
The opening of international, long-haul operations of the new Italian carrier from its home base in Milan-Malpensa (MXP), sparks the light of hope in a country that not only has faced endless political woes, but also the disappointment of having a flag carrier that’s been on the brink of failure for more than 12 years.
Air Italy’s goal, as said by its CEO, Marco Rigotti, is to become the new Italian flag carrier.
And to do so, the airline has to penetrate a tradition-oriented population that knows—and is used to flying—one airline only: Alitalia.
Penetrating, Poaching The Market
Air Italy has set its goals straight. Akbar Al Baker—the Qatar Airways magnate whose hands bear the powers of turning projects into successful ventures—bought 49% of the shares of Meridiana, a modest Italian airline with a niche-oriented business plan.
Al Baker guaranteed that Meridiana—now Air Italy—will become Italy’s flag carrier. “It is the only Italian airline that has not gone through bankruptcy,” he said.
With this, the Qatari CEO revealed that his investment would bring a powerful order of 20 Boeing 737 MAX 8s, and 25 Boeing 787-8 Dreamliners; enough to create a powerhouse capable of displacing the wounded Alitalia, and rising a new empire.
And this displacement strategy would begin on the very first day of international operations. The airline scheduled its New York – Milan departure at the very same time of Alitalia’s Flight 605, leaving both at 20:30.
Both airlines are now flying the same route, departing at the same time, on the same aircraft type. The competition is on.
Playing The Alternative
But Marco Rigotti, the airline’s CEO, believes that Alitalia won’t pose as a significant competitor on the JFK-MXP route.
“They [Alitalia] abandoned MXP in 2009,” he told Airways. “We are creating a hub there with connections to six Italian destinations. Alitalia does not offer that right now.”
“Air Italy is a modern, contemporary, and a full-service alternative built around the needs of our customers,” he added.
The airline’s focus will be to offer a reliable, on-time service through its MXP hub, feeding its first two Airbus A330s (out of five that Qatar Airways has leased them until the 787s arrive) with passengers flying in on brand-new Boeing 737 MAX 8s from Rome, Naples, Palermo, Catania, Lamezia Terme, and to Olbia.
The Inaugural Flight
The inaugural ceremony took place at JFK’s Terminal 1, right next to the Air France check-in desks where Meridiana has operated for the last 13 years.
The incoming flight from Milan departed with a slight delay due to an ill passenger that had to be deplaned before taking off.
🇮🇹 Air Italy s’envole aujourd’hui vers New York depuis Milan !
Vol quotidien en A330-200 (ex Qatar Airways) 🍝✈️🗽 pic.twitter.com/BNTb8uEQRG
— air plus News (@airplusnews) June 1, 2018
Upon touching down at JFK, the plane was greeted with the traditional water cannon salute, then parking at Meridiana’s usual Gate 4.
“This is not just our first flight to Milan, it’s our first international flight,” Rigotti said to the audience during the ceremony.
Along with the CEO, were the airline’s VP for the Americas, Dino Favano; Steve Rowland, Executive Director of JFK Terminal 1; John Selden, the New York Port Authority’s Deputy General Manager; as well as members of the Italian Federation in New York.
“We have had an unbelievable relationship since 2005 with Meridiana,” said Selden. “We now expect Air Italy to become a much bigger client as they bring their 787s to Terminal 1.”
The ceremony concluded with cutting the ribbon, popping a bottle of Champagne, and cutting a commemoratory cake.
Executive Chairman Marco Rigotti cuts the ribbon before roasting to the airline’s first international flight. pic.twitter.com/PbAtjL4soy
— Enrique Perrella (@Enrique77W) June 1, 2018
“This is our newborn baby on its first international journey. It’s a very emotional moment for all of us involved,” Rigotti added.
As the press conference ended, boarding began at 19:20.
The boarding queue up at Gate 4 had a myriad of confused passengers who had Alitalia boarding passes in hand to Milan.
Air Italy’s staff acted rapidly announcing that this was not an Alitalia flight and rapidly began boarding for an on-time departure.
As both Air Italy and Alitalia announcements were made in Italian through the airport’s public addressing system, confusion ensued.
Airways had the opportunity to pre-board the A330 and explore the pristine plane before everyone else.
Upon entering the cabin, slight remains of the Qatar Airways style were evident. However, the Air Italy branding, together with the modern looks this relatively new A330, makes for a pleasing cabin.
In the Economy Class section of the plane, the typical 2-4-2 layout with a 31-inch pitch is available for 236 passengers.
Each seat is fitted with the Panasonic ex2 entertainment system.
On each seat, a pillow and a plastic-wrapped cover were also available.
Walking up to Business Class, the cabin is divided into two sections. Ahead of the 2L/R door galley, three rows of seats are available in the typical 2-2-2 configuration.
Immediately past the galley, a mini cabin is also available with one row of Business Class seats.
Each one of the 24 seats is fitted with the ex-OryxOne IFE and more than 78 inches of pitch, turning into full-flat beds.
Once the cabin was fully explored, Airways was invited to the aircraft’s flight deck, where Captain Marco Valerio Panico and First Officer Stefano Milan introduced themselves.
The former Meridiana Boeing 767 pilots had recently finished their certification process on the Airbus A330 at the Alitalia training center in Rome.
“We love the transition!” they said. “It is a wonderful plane, we’re very happy.”
The inaugural flight to Milan was scheduled to last seven hours and 45 minutes.
According to Captain Panico, favoring winds would expedite our arrival into Milan the following morning.
Spot on service
The all-new Air Italy Business Class service begins with the customary pre-departure beverages.
Champagne, Orange Juice, and Sparkling Water were offered while Italian music was played through the cabin speakers.
The menu and the wine list were also distributed, together with the airline’s new Amenity Kit, furnished by Italian brands Fedon and Acca Kappa.
At 20:34 local time, our A330 pushed back from the gate, followed by a welcoming announcement from our flight crew.
The cabin’s deep blue mood lighting was turned on in the Business Class cabin, while in the Economy section was soothed in a very light blue.
Air Italy is the first airline in the country to offer mood lighting variations in its planes. Even though Alitalia’s A330s are also equipped with the system, the airline rarely changes the colors during flight.
The captain indicated that a lengthy taxi to JFK’s runway 22R would delay our departure time by 30 minutes, though a strong tailwind would allow us to catch up with our scheduled arrival in Milan.
At 21:08, our A330 rolled down the runway to become airborne, rapidly, and silently climbing to 34,000ft.
The Flying Ristorante
With only six passengers sitting in the premium cabin, privacy and comfort were maximized.
Immediately after takeoff, Elisabetta—the lead Flight Attendant in Business Class—came to take my order for the evening’s dinner service.
To begin with, she offered me Italy’s favorite aperitif. During summertime, the most popular beverage in the country is the Aperol Spritz. I gladly accepted and received a perfectly done cocktail with a small peanuts plate.
From the Menu, I was able to choose a Bresaola and Grana Cheese antipasto; a First Course of Cannelloni filled with Ricotta, Spinach, Pesto Sauce, and tomato with mozzarella cheese; as well as Main Course of Chicken Breast in Thyme Sauce.
About 90 minutes after takeoff, Elisabetta came to set my table. I was immediately surprised to see her level of precision while placing the different components in front of me.
Everything was positioned at a precise angle, with the Olive Oil bottle facing its branding towards the passenger, and the salt and pepper containers one next to the other.
Elisabetta did everything with enthusiasm, reminding me of the conversation we had with Rigotti before departure where he told us that his Flight Attendants were the friendliest in Italy.
Soon later, the antipasto arrived. The Bresaola was exquisite, whereas the Grana Padano was too dry. It is my impression that the cheese was kept at a cold temperature without a proper cover, therefore losing its typical moisture.
The first course, the cannelloni, was exquisite.
I must admit that having been spoiled by Alitalia’s award-winning catering all my life, I came prepared to undermine Air Italy’s pasta dishes. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the level of quality in this dish.
At last, the main course arrived. The chicken breast was moist, flavorful and as beautifully presented as the previous dishes.
Already closing in on midnight, I asked Elisabetta to clear my table. She eloquently reminded me that there was still fruit, cheese, and dessert on the way. Though after such a hearty meal and looking at the short five hours of flying time left, I politely declined.
She insisted on the fruit, which I was happy to accept given her enthusiasm and remarkable service.
As I stepped into the lavatory, Elisabetta set up my bed with a cozy cushion and the airline’s new covers.
When I came back to my seat, I found the full-flat bed set up for sleep with the airline’s pajamas and a pair of slippers.
That, together with the complete Amenity Kit—which offers the typical eye shades, a pair of red socks, a moisturizer, a lip balm, toothpaste, and toothbrush—rounded up for a remarkable resting experience.
I returned to the lavatory and put the super comfortable pajamas on, later falling asleep for the next five hours of flight.
Arrival in Milan
With less than 20 minutes of flying time to go after I woke up, Elisabetta came with a cold glass of sparkling water.
She was sad that I’d missed the breakfast service, though on such a short flight, having a heavy dinner and breakfast in less than four hours is not an option.
Our landing in MXP was smooth, reaching the gate with only 10 minutes behind the schedule.
The Creation Of Something Big
Air Italy was born in March following the announcement Akbar Al Baker made of turning Meridiana into an all-new airline with an all-new level of service.
To see an inaugural flight go so smoothly with only four months of preparations to spare, with a quality of service that could only belong to a seasoned carrier, is utter evidence of success.
It is also reassuring to see that in a country where political and economical uncertainty is the norm, something as bold and mature as Air Italy could have been conceived.
Rigotti admitted that there are many challenges ahead. “We’re having very high load factors on these first flights. That is scary. We must keep it up!” he stressed.
And with the summer season just starting—the most lucrative for the airline industry—its the perfect timing for Air Italy to tighten up its knots and be ready for the tougher winter season.
Another challenge that lies ahead is capturing the clientele that’s used to flying other airlines.
With Norwegian wooing youngsters out of Rome; and Alitalia owning the majority of the long-haul market share together with the ‘tradition’ factor, Air Italy has a lot of poaching to do.
Rigotti told Airways that his marketing campaigns in Italy are strong. “We are showing videos in movie theaters at prime times, targeting the population we want to capture,” he said.
“But we need to raise awareness and position ourselves better.”
Overall, there’s nothing else due than complimenting the Air Italy team for a successful inaugural flight.
All bets are on whether the airline will continue to offer a consistent service capable of changing the Italian aviation landscape.
With a new government, a new airline, and the Doha-powered influence behind, we might be witnessing the creation of something big in Italy.