Exclusive: The Rise of Air Italy

The Italian aviation sector wasn’t ever going to be ready for the disruption a small, rebranded airline was about to present to a monopoly-driven air travel market that’s for years been shrouded in government interference, corruption, and a long-standing expectation that “the flag carrier is invincible, bankrupt or not, regardless of competition” as one former Alitalia official was quoted saying.

Ready to shake up air travel in Italy, ‘Air Italy’ became Europe’s newest airline in February 2018, when Meridiana and it’s charter subsidiary (which was named Air Italy) merged to form the new Air Italy that’s flying today. The rebrand took place following the joint investment from just two investors. Italy’s Alisarda owns a majority 51% stake in Air Italy, with the remaining 49% stake owned by one of the Middle East’s largest airlines, Qatar Airways. Qatar Airways investment portfolio is extensive, and the airline holds key stakes in airlines including British Airways, Iberia, Aer Lingus, LATAM, Cathay Pacific, and China Southern.

Air Italy is now a new, young, full-service carrier a world away from its former self, Meridiana. The airline has quickly established a hub model at Milan Malpensa Airport where it connects passengers to/from its long-haul routes to either domestic Italy flights, or European routes, some of which are operated by codeshare partner airlines.

Given the sudden, yet strong emergence of Air Italy, the airline is talked about…a lot. While any new entrant to the European aviation market which offers long-haul flights to North America was bound to catch the attention of its neighbouring competitors, Air Italy isn’t just the new kid on the European block,  but it’s taking on Italian flag carrier Alitalia by offering Italians an alternative, or “an airline Italians can actually be proud of” Rossen Dimitrov, Chief Operating Officer of Air Italy tells me, whilst we are both seated in 1J and 1K onboard an Airbus A330-200, climbing to an altitude of 40,000ft. It’s the inaugural flight from Milan to Toronto, Canada — the latest North American seasonal route launched by Dimitrov and his team.

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There is a strong history between Canada and Italy. There are generations of Italians living in Toronto, and we know that the demand between Milan and Toronto is there, especially for the summer” Dimitrov explains. Air Italy has year-round routes to North America: New York and Miami, but Toronto joins Los Angeles and San Francisco as the third seasonal destination. “It’s been very clear from the beginning, our seasonal summer destinations LAX, SFO and YYZ will be replaced by winter seasonal destinations Maldives, Mombasa and Zanzibar. Next Spring, we will resume the summer destinations, plus two new routes to North America” he tells me. It’s a modern approach to route network planning, and Dimitrov says they’re focused on flying to destinations that suit the time-of-year demand.

The aircraft we are flying onboard is an A330-200 leased from Qatar Airways. The aircraft is fitted with the original 24 Business Class & 228 Economy Class seats that it flew with during its Qatar days, but the branding is now Air Italy’s own. But while the seats may be the same, Air Italy has gone all-out on luxury when it comes to the ‘extras’. A full turn-down service, with a mattress, duvets, pillows, pyjamas, slippers, amenity kits, inflight WiFi and more, are all standard for all of Air Italy’s business class flights — already setting the airline miles ahead of British Airways and Iberia, in terms of onboard offerings.

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Dimitrov is known in the industry for his attention to detail when it comes to design, and when I bring this up, he laughs and admits “I was laying on the boardroom table to measure myself against the duvet…just to make sure it was large enough to get cosy onboard, as you would at home.”

While a 2-2-2 configuration doesn’t provide window-seat passengers with direct aisle access, Air Italy makes up for it with its onboard service. The ‘dine on demand’ dining concept means the service on the Italian airline is closely aligned to the likes of the Gulf carriers than a European airline (where most crews decide when you’re eating).

At cruising altitude over the Atlantic Ocean, I discuss Air Italy’s original plan to become an all-Boeing carrier, operating a mix of Boeing 787 Dreamliners and 737 Max jets. Dimitrov exclusively reveals to me that they have taken the decision to abandon plans to introduce the 787s into the Air Italy fleet. “Because of the delay in Boeing 787 Dreamliner deliveries, we have decided to expand the fleet with Airbus A330s instead. We will add more A330s this year, and next year too” he tells me.

The 787-8s Air Italy was due to take delivery of were being leased directly from Qatar Airways. However, the delivery of those jets can only take place after Qatar Airways receive their brand new 787-9 Dreamliners from Boeing — which are delayed, due to Boeing’s supply chain issues, and a worldwide engine shortage. As a result, Air Italy has decided to commit to an all-Airbus long-haul fleet.

The next A330s to be introduced to the Air Italy fleet will again be leased from Qatar Airways, in order to ensure consistency for passengers. “We want to lease the next A330 jets from Qatar as we would like to maintain the consistency in our product. We don’t want to create confusion in our product, and this aircraft is proving to be perfect for us. We’ll stick with the same cabins, and continue to roll-out our service and cabin upgrades, etc” Dimitrov adds. By the end of this year, the airline will have a total of 13 aircraft. “We’re too small to have a mixed (Airbus and Boeing) fleet, we realised it would be too costly” he explains.

 Our conversation turns to the short-haul fleet. “We have very recently re-evaluated our network and fleet in light of the 737 MAX groundings” Air Italy is a 737 MAX operator, with three 737 Max 8 jets in the fleet. In the next article, I’ll reveal more information on the implications the grounding is having on the airline. It could have been more streamlined if we were an all-Airbus customer, and it’s something we are exploring as an option. We are evaluating our network and fleet, and we’ve reviewed our fleet plan very recently in light of the 737 MAX groundings.

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Dimitrov goes on to say: “As you know, the plan was for us to have transitioned now to become an all Boeing operator, with 737 MAX and 787 Dreamliners. But with the groundings and delivery delays, could we see short-haul Airbus? Never say never”.

For now, Boeing’s worldwide fleet of 737 Max jets remains grounded. Dimitrov adds “I like the Airbus A220 (former Bombardier CSeries), I spoke to colleagues from Swiss Air and they’re very happy with that jet. We would have to make sure it’s something that works for us before committing, but crew commonality is the bottom line, and we fly Airbus long-haul jets too”.

My dining experience begins as our flight crew are handed over to Gander — home to an oceanic air traffic management system that automatically processes flight data for Atlantic overflights.

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The quality of the food is fresh, beautifully presented, and reveals the extent of the training cabin crew have received to deliver a five-star service. We have launched new equipment, and have invested heavily in the training the cabin crew to make sure it’s perfect. Everything from emotional engagement, to galley efficiency. Our people are the heart of the airline, they represent the heart of our brand” Dimitrov says.

The service throughout the journey was incredibly professional, experienced, and among the best I have received in the skies — (which comes as a real shock, I must admit). The crew proved themselves to be polite and charismatic, and all of them displayed the very best of Italian hospitality. It felt authentic, and the precision and impeccable nature of the service meant it was more on par with the likes of Singapore Airlines. Italian quirks include how Gelato is served to passengers, created by Chef Massimiliano Scotti, who has partnered with the airline to design unusual flavours and variants of the famous (and delicious) Italian ice cream.

After a quick glance at Air Italy’s branded cutlery, glasses and tableware — it’s evident the airline has invested a lot in its product. “We’re not just offering A to B service, our passengers realise this” — but the luxury nature of the airline hasn’t been well received by US competitors who accuse Air Italy of being ‘another Gulf airline’ and claim the airline is receiving money from the State of Qatar which is a “direct violation of the “fair competition” agreement stipulated by the Open Skies agreements that govern air travel between the US and the Middle East.

Dimitrov hits back. “The accusations are ridiculous; this is nothing but a personal attack on Qatar, and it’s in line with their agenda against Qatar. Air Italy is an independent airline, it’s compliant with all European Union regulation and ownership. Qatar Airways is the minority stakeholder (49%), for them, it’s a pure investment. They do not manage the airline; they do not dictate what we must do. We make our own decisions. If we had bottomless pockets as the US carriers claim, and didn’t care about our budgets because the State of Qatar was funding us — tell me why we did we pull out of India?” he says.

I follow up by asking about Air Italy’s sudden removal from the Indian market, which came soon after launching a route to the country. Air Italy suspended two routes, Delhi and Mumbai. “We entered the market at a time airlines were exiting. We had delays with the aircraft deliveries and frankly we needed to strategize to ensure we are only operating routes that are working for us financially.”

While it’s certain the US carriers will not be looking to partner up with Air Italy any time soon, the Italian carrier says its current codeshare agreements are working very well. “We have agreements with airlines including British Airways, Iberia, LATAM and Bulgaria Air, and they are proving very beneficial for us, Dimitrov says. “LATAM fly direct from South America to Milan, connecting many passengers on to our domestic Air Italy flights through our Terminal 1 hub. It works well”

Final Thought

I disembark the A330 in Toronto, following a water-canon salute arrival. The quality of the experience overshadowed the fact that I wasn’t on a glitzy new A350 XWB, and instead on a regular A330 — but one with every ‘add on’ possible (from a large selection of magazine and newspapers to soft, breathable fabric pyjamas).

It’s clear to me that the further rise of Air Italy should be paced, and well-managed — not rushed. The decision to have three summer routes swap with three winter routes is reflective of the paced-nature approach the airline is adopting. Dimitrov assures me they do not want to grow too suddenly and are conscious of the realities of Europe’s aviation climate. “Europe is a risky market. So many airlines are trying different business models, but at the end of the day, it’s competitive” he says. “For us, our focus is Italy, our long-haul operations, and our hub model through Milan”.

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