At this point, it’s becoming a little difficult to see Air Italy as little more than a Milan-based front for Qatar Airways to continue its North American expansion. Just a day after announcing it would start flying to Toronto, Air Italy says it will open up a new route between Milan and Chicago in May 2019. This all comes just two weeks after Air Italy also laid out plans to start flying to San Francisco and Los Angeles – an announcement that caused a furore over Qatar Airways’ plans for the airline.
Of course, Qatar’s investment in Air Italy, as well as the heavy involvement its had in shaping the airline’s business strategy isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The recently rebranded airline will add significant competition in the Italian aviation market where it’s sorely needed – given the fact that flag-carrier Alitalia is living off a seemingly never-ending bridge loan funded by the Italian taxpayer.
Passengers should also benefit from a much improved onboard experience although they should be forgiven if they happen to get confused about what airline they’re actually flying. Qatar Airways has loaned its own long-haul aircraft to Air Italy, complete with distinctive burgundy-coloured furnishings. On the outside, Air Italy’s branding also features the same burgundy shade that you’ll find on the Qatari national flag.
It’s probably no coincidence either that Air Italy’s cabin crew and ground staff wear a near-identical version as that worn by their Doha-based colleagues at Qatar Airways.
One theory for Air Italy’s current expansion plans is that it’s targeting the Indian diaspora. New route openings to Dehli and Mumbai will connect to metropolitan areas with some of the largest Asian Indian populations in North America – it’s a similar market that Qatar Airways has longed targeted by connecting passengers through its Doha hub.
If Air Italy continues with this strategy don’t be surprised to see the likes of Washington DC, Seattle, Houston and Dallas added as routes in the not so distant future. We’d also wager a service to Manila, and maybe even a Chinese mainland destination coming at some point in 2019 as well.
This all comes at the same time that Qatar Airways has been forced to tame its own North American expansion plans. It’s ambitions, however, don’t appear to have been diminished by a concerted campaign against competition offered by Persian Gulf airlines against their U.S.-based counterparts.
Scott Reed, a campaign manager at the Partnership for Open & Fair Skies – a lobby group funded by some of the largest airlines in the USA including American and United is far from impressed by Air Italy’s latest announcements.
“Once again, Qatar is using Air Italy as a Trojan horse built from subsidized cash to avoid its commitments to the Trump administration and launch new fifth freedom routes,” Reed said in an emailed statement.
“What’s clear now is that the writing is on the wall. Qatar Airways knows that President Trump and Secretary Pompeo won’t accept flagrant trade cheating that hurts American workers, and is quickly launching further subsidized flights before the administration takes action.”
“As we said earlier this month, faced with clear evidence that Qatar will not play fair or abide by its commitments, we expect the Trump administration will stand up for American workers in response to these violations.”
Qatar’s plan for Air Italy is novel but arguably no different than what the likes of one of its biggest critics, Delta Air Lines has done itself – in that case, buying a significant stake in Virgin Atlantic to gain a foothold at Heathrow Airport and then changing up the airline’s route network to focus on North America.
At the same time, Qatar Airways / Air Italy is actually opening up new routes that will benefit consumers in both Italy and India. It’s probably worth noting that U.S. airlines have underserved India for many years so they have the option to compete on both fronts if they choose to.
Air Italy is pretty much Qatar Airways by a different name. That is by no means a bad thing although it’s understandable why competitors are getting upset about the upstarts ambitious expansion plans.
Edited to include statement from Scott Reed, Partnership for Open and Fair Skies.