The Travel Adviser: Anatomy of a trip

Summing up my experience with Alitalia is easy. While the seats aren’t the most amazing, everything else is quite good.

Passengers board an Alitalia airplane at Cagliari airport, Italy, July 9, 2018 (photo credit: STEFANO RELLANDINI/ REUTERS/ FILE PHOTO)
Passengers board an Alitalia airplane at Cagliari airport, Italy, July 9, 2018
There are a myriad of factors when one decides whether to take a trip. For business, the choices are limited; work is calling you, meetings are scheduled, an important conference needs to be attended.
For the leisure traveler, it can run the gamut from the desire to get away, explore a new place, take an adventure and partake of the local customs. It’s when you get that invite, on fancy paper, in a font that symbolizes the seriousness of the event, that a new mindset is required. A wedding of a sibling or a parent is usually a no-brainer. No matter the cost, if one can stretch the budget, and take the time off from one’s day to day affairs, then travel one shall.
For me, having recently experienced a personal tragedy, celebrating the wedding of the son of good friends was an event I desired to share.
Did I really want to fly 15 hours by myself to see some of my closest friends reveling in the wedding atmosphere? It took me a considerable amount of time to decide, but I did and decided that life should be embraced firmly with two hands.
Once I had made up my mind to partake in the nuptials, I then had to decide how I could fly to the Windy City for a long weekend wedding. Since no airlines fly nonstop from Tel Aviv to Chicago, I had to peruse my options, to choose airlines that fly via the East Coast of the US or Canada or fly via Europe. An evening flight through New York was my initial thought, but being apprehensive of thunderstorms at this time of year, I chose to fly via Europe.
I needed an early morning flight with good connections and an early arrival time in Chicago. Thus, at 2 a.m. on a hot and humid morning, I found myself driving to Ben Gurion airport seeking the Alitalia check-in counter. Curiously, during all of my varied flying experiences, I had never noticed that the Alitalia check-in counter has its own personal area in a far corner of the airport. Flying in for three days meant I would have no checked baggage and the process took a mere five minutes and my boarding passes were procured.
Alitalia’s name combined the Italian words ali, which means wings, with the country, Italia (Italy). It was created in 1946 with a 40% ownership and capital injection by the Italian Government and British European Airways, an airline that ceased to exist long ago.
This pattern of requiring foreign investment has sadly been an issue of most of Alitalia’s recent existence. Like many government-owned airlines, Alitalia operated on a formula that was more union-minded than focused on their paying customers. Not reliant on making money, government after government supported the labor unions to the detriment of their bottom line. In essence, the Italian people were paying a high price for the pilots and crew members.
No pie in the sky here: Alitalia has reported only one year of profit since its inception in 1946. It was back in 2003 that Alitalia announced a 10% cut in employees with an eye toward merging with Air France and KLM. La Dolce Vita would soon disintegrate into Pompeii.
Being part of the European Union was the impetus behind the EU’s setting a moratorium on additional government assistance. Those years where both left- and right-wing governments loaned the airline money faded faster than a panna cotta. Pope Benedict revealed that his morning prayers were on behalf of Alitalia’s recovery. Those prayers were not answered and in 2008 bankruptcy was declared.
On January 13, 2009, the “new” Alitalia launched operations. The new owners of Compagnia Aerea Italiana sold 25% of the company’s shares to Air France-KLM, stressing they were a totally different company. The flying public did not find much new about the airline; complaints continued about outdated equipment, lost luggage and often inedible meals. The staff in Israel, comprised of some of the best in the business, were too often left to apologize and problem-solve rather than aggressively market the airline.
It wasn’t until late 2014 early 2015 when the Abu Dhabi-based UAE national airline Etihad Airways announced it was taking a 49% stake in Alitalia that massive investments were made. New aircrafts were procured, new routes opened up and the flying public embraced the changes wholeheartedly. No longer were Alitalia flights disorganized and delayed. One could literally feel the difference in the airline. Customers – Italians and others – enjoyed flying the airline.
Unfortunately the greed of the workers and their refusal to reduce some of their perks, left Etihad with egg pasta on their face and last spring New Alitalia entered bankruptcy proceedings. The government continues to give short-term loans guaranteeing to clients and suppliers that they will keep the airline afloat through 2018 and into 2019. Travel professionals around the airline feel confident enough to sell the airline in the short term; and so I elected to fly on it.
The plane to Rome was an Airbus 321, with reasonably comfortable seats and, surprisingly, a quite tasty meal. I snagged two hours of sleep and arrived at Rome Airport, which only two years ago completed massive renovations and looked as shiny as extra virgin olive oil. Navigating to the Casa Italia lounge was relatively easy and I spent a brief 15 minutes there before heading to the plane to Chicago.
A far larger, Airbus 330 awaited me, and being fortunate enough to be sitting in business class, I was able to soak up the atmosphere. The business class section is comprised of one seat on one side, two in the middle and one on the other side. This means that you’ll find staggered seats in a 1-2-1 configuration. In the window rows, the seats alternate between being closer to the window and closer to the aisle (I’d highly recommend a “real” window seat). In the middle row, there are seats closer to the aisle as well as a pair of seats very close to each other every other row. Those seats are especially great for couples, but very awkward in any other situation. Let’s speak about the seats themselves.
The basic cabin of the Alitalia long-haul Business Class isn’t especially modern, but the seats are fairly comfortable and come with a very sleek design, which you’d expect of an Italian airline. All seats can be moved in a fully flat position. In a dulcet tone I was offered water, juice or champagne to imbibe. A pillow and duvet were tucked in my seat and a set of Ferragamo toiletries was offered to me. There’s an entertainment system, which isn’t the most modern and takes its time in all steps. The screen isn’t the best either, but the choice of movies, music and games is absolutely fine. Last but not least, Alitalia has Wi-Fi in most of its long-haul aircraft, which at the moment is offered gratis. Surprisingly, all the flight attendants in business class were men and I found them exceedingly polite.
My return flight to Rome Airport was just as pleasant. I ambled back to see their Premium Economy cabin; a product that many clients have embraced as a reasonable solution to flying with more comfort without being forced to pay a king’s ransom. Settling into my comfy seat, I snagged six hours of sleep before disembarking and spending a longer sojourn in the Alitalia lounge at Rome Airport.
Entering the aircraft back to Tel Aviv, I sought out a place to plug in my laptop. It was nonexistent, along with any other option to charge an electrical device. In speaking to a flight attendant he shared that the largest complaint of their business clients on these short-haul flights was the lack of such outlets. I’m not quite sure why, when Etihad was upgrading Alitalia’s fleets, installing power outlets – if not throughout the plane but at least in the business class – was forgotten. Most business class passengers make the assumption that any aircraft they fly will have them.
Summing up my experience with Alitalia is easy. While the seats aren’t the most amazing, everything else is quite good. This makes me recommend Alitalia overall, not only due to their constantly good offers. The cabin looks stylish, the seats are fairly comfortable and offer a decent sleeping experience (especially the real window seats), the catering offerings are on a high level and the service standards on my flight were high, too. Only the entertainment system is a little disappointing, but the entertainment selection, including WiFi, is still good overall. Overall, I’d definitely recommend flying with Alitalia in either Premium or business class.
The writer is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments email him at [email protected]