Italy’s revival despite its moribund airline…

Italy has generally taken good advantage from the Covid-19 tourism hiatus, to develop new world class hotels, refurbish aged ones, build new airport terminals and more. Milan’s city airport Linate has been upgraded and it is a pleasure to spend some time in it between flights. Rome’s Fiumicino airport has become a world class hub with state-of-the-art facilities, full wall LCD screens everywhere, tasteful design, real high-quality malls with the best global designers and brands. In short, an apt window into what Italy is best at, design, fashion, and good taste.

Rome’s aging hotel stock is also being upgraded and complemented with global and local brands which are attracting well-heeled tourists from around the world. This is in addition to a reborn short-term letting industry which has suffered during the pandemic but seems to be emerging stronger than ever. Away from Rome and Milan, “new” beautiful tourist destinations have also gone international, imagine places such as Puglia and Forte dei Marmi, which were traditionally domestic destinations, and are now boasting world class hotels with an increasingly jet setting international clientele.

The remaining black mark for Italy is unfortunately in its national visiting card—its flag airline, Ita Airways (PKA Alitalia). Despite uncounted billions of euros of government investment during the last two decades, Alitalia was always on the brink financially, and barely acceptable from a passenger experience point of view. Last year, after the umpteenth auction to sell it to private equity or to a global competitor failed, the state was forced to buy it and recapitalise it by letting Alitalia close down and setting up a ‘new Alitalia’, Ita Airways that effectively acquired its planes, slots, and most of its employees. Nine months into the process, very little seems to have changed, starting from the planes, most of which are still painted Alitalia, even though there is a growing number that have been repainted with Ita’s livery at a cost of $50,000 a plane. Aside from this, the airline is setting new lows for client service. To get a glimpse you can check online reviews, which give it an average of 2/5 on most categories.

While nations can thrive without a national carrier, one would think that if you have one, it has to adequately represent its host nation. Emirates had a big role in promoting Dubai as both a hub and a destination in its own right. Alitalia/Ita is today a poor window into an Italy that is turning around, a mediocre low-cost carrier with a major airline ambition and cost base. On a recent trip in business class, I was one of three passengers in a class that can carry 16, and the reasons are obvious… the seat configuration, not to speak of the service are simply inadmissible in today’s competitive marketplace.

The airline seems to be up for sale again…Let’s hope that it can find a suitable buyer that will either upgrade it to a national pride or downgrade it to an efficient low cost. The middle seat is untenable as well as uncomfortable.