Of all the different branding elements that an airline can use, the cabin crew uniform has to be one of the most important. From the distinctive red hats worn by Emirates cabin crew or the iconic sarong kabaya of Singapore Airlines, the right uniform can instantly bring brand recognition and evoke feelings of trust and professionalism.
It’s understandable then that airlines spend a fair amount of time, effort and money developing the right uniform. Staff not only have to be smart and professional but the look has to make them ‘stand out from the crowd’ – a walking billboard if you like that will hopefully make passengers stop in their tracks.
You would have thought then that a new airline would want to dress its crew in a uniform that really is different. That, however, can’t be said of Air Italy – look quickly and you could easily be forgiven for thinking they’re from Qatar Airways.
It’s a strange decision and one that is only going to cement the concern raised by many critics that Air Italy is a subsidiary of State-funded Qatar Airways – being used to circumvent an agreement the Persian Gulf country reached with the United States last year.
Air Italy isn’t technically brand new – Qatar Airways bought a 49% stake in little-known Italian airline Meridiana a couple of years ago. Then, in February 2018, Qatar Airways announced plans to rebrand Meridiana as Air Italy – there are plans to grow the ‘new’ airline quite significantly over the next few years.
By 2022, Air Italy hopes to have 50 aircraft in its fleet – the airline will be getting brand new Boeing 787 Dreamliner’s, as well as 737 MAX aircraft that have all been funded by Qatar Airways. In the interim, Qatar Airways has also leased out its own A330 aircraft.
Air Italy says it will work with Qatar Airways to “build a sustainable airline alternative for the people of Italy”.
In fairness, the involvement of Qatar Airways with Air Italy has always been fairly obvious – the branding makes use of the distinctive Qatari burgundy colour in the bucket load. Apart from the fact the airline has the word ‘Italy’ in its name, you wouldn’t know it was actually Italian.
And then there’s the uniform – aside from the Air Italy logo and an updated neck scarf, the uniform is exactly the same to the one worn by Qatar Airways cabin crew. We actually thought this was a temporary solution but no, Air Italy confirms this is the permanent uniform that was originally designed for Qatar Airways by Danish workwear company Olino in 2008.
Critics claim Qatar Airways has received (it’s claimed) over $25 billion in undocumented subsidies from its government owner, so in turn, the argument goes that Air Italy has also been financed through State-funded subsidies. You would have thought that Air Italy would want to distance itself from its controversial majority shareholder.
The timing for Air Italy’s launch has also raised eyebrows – it came just months after Qatar and the United States reached an agreement over an Open Skies dispute. Qatar agreed to become more transparent and also said it had no plans to open any fifth-freedom routes to the United States.
You could argue that Qatar Airways investing in Air Italy is no different than any other airline making international investments – say, like Delta Air Lines buying a stake in Virgin Atlantic in order to increase its market share at London’s Heathrow Airport. But Delta says that’s missing the point.
Qatar Airways isn’t subject to market forces like Delta because it’s funded through government subsidies. Essentially, they claim the competition that Air Italy is creating might be good for passengers but it’s not fair and could put jobs at risk.
That argument, though, is slightly clouded by the existence of Alitalia. The Italian flag-carrier hasn’t made a profit in years, is technically bankrupt and is being propped up by a multi-billion Euro government loan paid for by Italian taxpayers. For all intents and purposes, the airline should have gone out of business but is only still flying because it’s being bankrolled by the Italian State.
The plan is to offload Alitalia on to private investors by the Summer – if that does actually happen (there’s every chance it doesn’t) then that could make it a lot harder to justify where Air Italy is getting its funding from.
To be continued…
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.