- A new airline – Air Italy – made its maiden voyage on Friday between its hub in Milan and New York’s JFK airport.
- The airline aims to reposition Milan’s Malpensa airport as a major international hub, while creating a high-quality service and experience-focused product.
- The airline is 49% owned by Qatar Airways, which was ranked 2017’s best airline in the world, and built its product around Qatar’s model.
A new Italian airline launched its first long-haul route on Friday, with its maiden flight from New York’s JFK airport to Milan’s Malpensa airport. As Air Italy’s Airbus A330 received the traditional “water cannon salute” upon landing at JFK, the airline’s stakeholders and leadership celebrated the beginning of what many hope will be a swift and effective expansion of routes throughout the world.
The flight represents a major milestone for the airline, which aims to grow from a small niche carrier to major international airline over the next several years, starting with six long-haul routes in 2018. The airline has more than 50 aircraft on order.
Air Italy is actually a rebranding of legacy Italian regional carrier Meridiana, which was itself the product of mergers with several other small Italian carriers. While the airline had flown successfully, promoting its brand and launching new routes as recently as 2014, the airline faced financial difficulties.
In late-2017, Qatar Airways – the top-ranked airline in the world in 2017- announced that it was acquiring a 49% stake in Meridiana, which it planned to overhaul and rebrand as Air Italy. The other 51% is held by the previous sole shareholder Alisarda, which is in turn owned by the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, as reported by aviation news website The Points Guy. The two companies – Qatar Airways and Alisarda – have formed a new holding company for Air Italy, AQA.
According to Marco Rigotti, Air Italy’s Executive Deputy Chairman, the airline is poised to grow quickly. It recently took possession of the first of 20 new Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft for intra-Italy flights from the Milan hub, and has 30 Boeing 787 Dreamliners on order – the first will be delivered in Spring 2019 – to operate its long-haul network. Until the Dreamliners are ready, Air Italy is flying Airbus A330 aircraft from Qatar for its long-haul flights.
In addition to the Milan-JFK route, Air Italy is launching a nonstop flight between Milan and Miami on June 8th. Flights to Bangkok and Mumbai will launch this fall, and two more long-haul destinations will launch in 2018 – these have not yet been announced.
Air Italy’s launch and ownership by Qatar represents a unique opportunity. Current Italian flagship carrier Alitalia has been in financial straits for several years and is currently in bankruptcy, despite a 2014 move by Qatar competitor Etihad Airways to invest in the airline. As Alitalia continues to struggle, Qatar Airways and Air Italy’s leadership see an opportunity to rise as a new Italian long-haul standard bearer.
In an interview with Business Insider and several other outlets, Rigotti said that the investment by Qatar provides Air Italy the framework, inspiration, and impetus to build the new airline around service, style, and passenger experience.
“Without [Qatar Airways and their chief executive Akbar Al Baker], this project would not exist,” he said. “Not in just in terms of the financial aspects; they have been fundamental inspiration in terms of how to create a high-quality product.”
The onboard experience
Air Italy’s long-haul economy class seats will all be equipped with personal in-flight entertainment screens, at a time when airlines have been eliminating those monitors in favour of a “bring your own device” system, sometimes with streaming available from an onboard entertainment server. Flights will be equipped with Wi-Fi, and all passengers will have access to live satellite TV – including matches during the World Cup this summer. Economy seats, which are laid out in a 2-4-2 configuration, have 31″ of pitch – comparable to most full-service long-haul carriers – and are equipped with USB charging ports.
Economy class meal service, meanwhile, will feature Italian wines and dishes, with meals like gnocchi and lasagna, and snacks including pizza and focaccia with aubergines.
Business class cabins feature lie-flat seats in a 2-2-2 configuration. With 78″ of pitch, they can be turned into beds for overnight flights. All business class passengers get amenity kits stocked with comfort products for the flight, as well as a turn-down service with mattress pads for “bed mode,” as well as a more robust catering service throughout the flight.
A hub in Milan
Air Italy’s launch and use of Milan as its hub provides an opportunity to draw tourism and business traffic to the city and northern Italy. And it also serves international business travellers travelling anywhere in the country.
“We chose Milan for a couple of reasons,” said Rigotti. “Notably, Alitalia used it as a hub until several years ago, but the airline abandoned it due to financial difficulties. We see the city as an opportunity.”
“More then that, we’re creating a hub from today because we are feeding connections on to Rome, Naples, and Palermo, and more. The passengers on the first flight are not just heading to Milan – they’re going on to other destinations.”
The two goals – building a new, customer-centric, service-focused airline, and building Milan as a hub for the entire country, go hand-in-hand, according to Rigotti.
“These goals are coherent with what Milan represents in Italy,” he said. “Milan is truly the most modern, contemporary town in Italy between fashion, its financial district, its activity, and its design. We have the same values, and that’s how we’ll operate.”
While early reception has been positive – reporters from Airways Magazine on board the first flight from JFK gave the airline’s business class a rave review – one thing is clear for travellers: competition for the Milanese and Italian markets seems to be a good thing.
As of publication, flight searches found that Air Italy currently offers the least-expensive service to Milan and Rome for this summer and fall.
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