You Should Fly Alitalia

Sorry to shock you with the subject line, but it’s really true. Ever since Etihad acquired 49 percent of Alitalia, it has been working on improving things at the carrier. Last week, the latest information on the makeover was released, and you should think of it as Etitalia, Etihad with an Italian flair. The changes are all improvements that are going to make for a really nice flying experience. And now let’s get back to reality. This all sounds great for travelers, but there’s a problem. Just a tiny one. I can’t see how this strategy is going to result in a profitable airline.

Alitalia Worst Airline Ever

Now, I’ve been calling Alitalia the “worst airline ever” for years. Some have incorrectly assumed that was related to the traveler experience, but it’s not. It’s more about what a mess the business was… and is. Just because there’s a new owner doesn’t mean all the old problems disappear. The business that is Alitalia will continue to the worst airline ever until it proves otherwise. But through Cranky Concierge, we’ve put a ton of people on the airline and in general the experience itself has been a good one. That’s not where the airline has problems.

So I was puzzled to find that Etihad thought the airline needed to change its product. We’re not just talking about improvements in business class either. This is an across the board improvement. The basic idea is to make it more Italian and more upscale. Here’s what changes in each class.

Business Class
Alitalia is keeping its current business class seat (which is a good one) and re-covering it with an Italian leather. Travelers will now be able to eat Italian meals whenever they want, instead of at a set time, and a cart will no longer be used. There will also now be a turndown service.

Premium Economy
Travelers here will now get a welcome drink, hot towel, better meal options, new dishware, espresso, and after-dinner drinks. Oh, and they’ll get amenity kits and noise-canceling headphones too.

Coach
As in premium economy, coach travelers will get better meal options and yes, a pillow and blanket. They’ll have more coffee and tea options as well.

For all travelers on long-haul widebody flying, they’re installing new inflight entertainment systems and wifi. Plus, the interiors of all aircraft will get a new look. And next year, crew uniforms will change too.

That’s a lot of money to be pouring into the airline, and Alitalia wants you realize it’s the new Alitalia now. You know what that means, right? There’s a new livery, of course. The pictures I’ve seen don’t really do it justice (too much funky lighting), so instead I’ll just embed this YouTube video showing the new livery.

I don’t get this change. It doesn’t look all that much different. Sure, the green cheatline is gone from the aircraft, but most travelers certainly won’t know the difference. The logo changes are so subtle (mostly shading-related) that it doesn’t really present a different image. But maybe it’s like the management team at American says. Livery changes are for the employees more than anyone else.

How do the employees feel about it? I’m sure they don’t care. If this is a new Alitalia, then somebody forgot to tell them. After all, it was just a mere 2 weeks ago that the pilots and cabin crew went on strike to protest the future possibility of job losses. Methinks Etihad may have lived in its union-free bubble for too long. There’s nothing quite like a militant Italian union to ruin the party. But this is Italy. Those unions won’t be broken.

Let’s pretend like Alitalia can get beyond this whole labor issue and talk about the strategy. Is the new super-premium Alitalia going to have a shot at success? It just doesn’t seem like the right move to me. Italy is a huge tourist destination. Most of the business and industry is up in the north, and Milan is the center for that. While Alitalia is going to try to grow Milan to some extent, it’s still a Rome-based airline. And are all these leisure travelers going to be willing to pay more for this upgraded product compared to what was already a good offering? It’s hard to imagine.

And what about those business travelers that Alitalia does have? It’s now going to have more trouble doing that over the Atlantic within Europe. Alitalia recently announced it would pull out of the joint venture with Air France/KLM in 2017. It’s entirely possible that this is a negotiating ploy. After all, Alitalia must have entered this arrangement when it had zero leverage to cut a good deal. In theory this could just be an attempt to flex its newly-found financial muscle (thanks, Etihad), but if not, well, this is a big hit to the schedule it can offer over the Atlanticwithin Europe. It does say it wants to keep working with Delta (update: and apparently with Air France/KLM as well over the Atlantic, so my initial post was incorrect), so it’s not a total loss. But it’s still going to hurt what it offers to its best customers who need frequency.

Alitalia has a lot of problems, but the quality of the product wasn’t really one of them. But the new team is convinced this is the path to salvation. Now, we just get to sit and wait. What’s your take? Is this a good plan?

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