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Qatar's Italian job

Posted 14 August 2018 · Add Comment

Qatar Airways’ now-finalised involvement in Meridiana – for many years Italy’s ‘second airline’ – will see the Italian airline adopt a new identity and potentially challenge beleaguered flag-carrier Alitalia. Alan Dron reports.

It was the sort of press conference that combative Qatar Airways CEO, Akbar Al Baker, relishes. Air Italy, the newly renamed and rebranded Meridiana, he said, would put the cat among the pigeons in the Italian market.
Qatar Airways has a 49% stake in a new holding company overseeing Air Italy and intends to have a major influence on the Italian airline – notably by leasing it around 50 aircraft over the next five years that will more than quadruple the size of the Sardinia-based company.
“I know we have already caused a lot of excitement in the industry,” said a smiling Al Baker at the Milan news conference announcing the rebranded airline’s plans. “Excitement not in a positive way – in a negative way, because now [other airlines] will have different competition.”
Interest from Qatar Airways in the then-Meridiana began in 2015. Having made heavy losses for several years at the turn of the decade (the company’s owners took it private in 2015 and up-to-date details of its financial status are unknown) it seemed an unlikely partner for Qatar Airways.
However, Al Baker seems to have seen something in Meridiana that most people did not. At the Arab Air Carriers’ Organization (AACO) AGM in Casablanca in 2016, he commented that: “If we didn’t have confidence that we could turn it around quite quickly, we wouldn’t be interested. We see there’s huge potential in Meridiana; it’s the second national carrier of Italy and it’s not burdened with as much debt as people think.”
Despite being Italy’s second-largest airline, it is almost unknown among the travelling public outside its homeland. So, the more readily recognizable Air Italy name has now been adopted.
Qatar Airways’ influence on the revamped airline is immediately obvious. The Arab carrier’s distinctive maroon branding is prominent in Air Italy’s new livery (the accompanying bluish-green is said to represent the colour of the sea off the Costa Smeralda, Sardinia’s northeast coast that has become a popular holiday destination).
Meridiana’s recent history has seen its fleet shrink from 27 aircraft in 2014 to just 11 today, made up of eight Boeing 737NGs and three 767-300ERs. The last of a batch of elderly McDonnell Douglas MD-80s has just left the fleet. However, there will be an immediate infusion of new aircraft as a result of Qatar Airways’ involvement.
From this April, it started to receive what will eventually be more than 20 Boeing 737 MAX 8s from an order previously placed by Qatar Airways, together with five Airbus A330-200s from Qatar Airways’ current fleet. The A330s will replace the Boeing 767s.
Although the A330s will carry Air Italy’s colour scheme, their interiors will essentially remain that of Qatar Airways.
The A330s will, in turn, be replaced at Air Italy from May 2019 by Boeing 787-8s, again from a Qatar Airways order with the US manufacturer. The aircraft will be leased to Air Italy by Qatar Airways at market rates.
The existing 737s and 767s will be retired over the next two to three years.
Milan Malpensa will be the main hub for Air Italy’s long-haul destinations in an intercontinental route network that will expand considerably beyond the current handful of destinations. New routes to New York JFK, Miami and Bangkok are already in the pipeline and Al Baker said that three additional long-haul routes will be announced by the end of 2018. A second long-haul base will be set up at Rome Fiumicino.
Air Italy will open a batch of new domestic Italian routes and Qatar Airways will codeshare on several of them. It will also codeshare on some of Air Italy’s international sectors, starting with Dakar, Senegal.
Significantly, however, Al Baker said that Qatar Airways would not codeshare “on any international routes to the west” – presumably to prevent accusations by US carriers that the Qatari airline is trying to increase its presence on their home turf.
In turn, Air Italy will codeshare on all Qatar Airways flights from Italy to Doha, as well as on several onward destinations, including Tokyo, Singapore, Seoul and Malé.
 

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