I flew for the first time on July 4, 1971, when I was 14 years old. My family took an Alitalia flight from New York City to Rome, and I was on vacation with my parents and my younger sister and brother. The trip was a big deal for us; it was my father’s first time back to his native Italy in 16 years, and it was our first trip abroad. I remember a lot of the details. The plane was a new Boeing 747, and even in economy class they gave us slippers to wear. The dinner’s centerpiece was a filet mignon in a red wine and mushroom sauce. Excited to be on a real vacation, my 11-year-old sister and I explored the plane. “Maria, come here!” I called to her as I peered beyond the curtain toward the first-class cabin and its spiral staircase. “No, go there,” the mustachioed flight attendant told me, pointing us back toward steerage.
Ever since that first flight, I’ve taken Alitalia a couple of dozen times. The Italian flag carrier was historically generous with its mileage loyalty programs, and its direct flights to either Rome or Milan were a godsend to people who dislike changing flights and going through security more than once. It served as the unofficial carrier of the postwar Italian diaspora, and was the pope’s official airline.
But Alitalia is about to taxi back to the big hangar in the sky, joining other defunct airlines like Sabena, TWA and Pan Am. Years of bad management, wildcat strikes, patronage staffing levels, and indifferent service took their toll. Alitalia has been in receivership since 2017, and the Italian government of Mario Draghi and the European Union finally pulled the plug. Sure, successive Italian governments tried to keep Alitalia aloft, but after billions in bailouts and repeated, unsuccessful efforts to find it a suitor, everyone called it quits.
There’s a psychological element to the carrier’s end. Although a lot of Italians had become tired of its hijinks, Alitalia remained one of the last cornerstones of Italy’s postwar boom, which saw the mostly rural, war-torn country become a modern economic and social power. Indeed, Alitalia’s fate echoes the fate of other big Italian companies, like the auto giant Fiat, which once stood for that postwar economic miracle and is now just a part of a French-led conglomerate, Stellantis. This hollowing out of Italy’s big companies has taken a big toll on Italian pride, no matter how many soccer championships the national team wins. This psychological toll is one of the reasons for the ascendancy of populists like the Lega’s Matteo Salvini, and the right wing party Brothers of Italy. The latter is led by the photogenic Giorgia Meloni, who can be thought of as the Italian equivalent of the French politician Marie Le Pen.
Taking Alitalia’s place will be ITA, or at least a company called ITA at this moment, which may or may not use the Alitalia brand and aircraft livery when it takes to the skies this month. A public sale of the old company’s assets will be held soon. Think of the change as something akin to the bailout of General Motors back in 2009, when the U.S. government severed the automaker’s assets from its debts and let the “new,” debt-free GM continue to operate. Only this time, the EU specified that there’s to be less continuity between the old and new companies. Ticketholders for flight’s after Alitalia’s October 14 demise have been told, basically, tough luck, file for a refund.
Despite all the bad times, some of us will be sad to see Alitalia land for good. Sure, thousands of people complained about bad service. Booking agents could be impolite or even hostile; delays were, for a time, legend. But the airline served as a cultural bridge and a symbol of the stylish, dolce vita Italy. When you boarded an Alitalia flight at JFK—an often-chaotic ritual, to be sure—you felt as though you were already in Italy, for better or worse, between the Italian announcements and the proper, rather snobbish attitude of the designer-attired cabin crew.
For one thing, Italy’s humanity in all its glory seemed to be embodied by the flight attendants. I once watched a female attendant watch with concern as a very young couple tried to soothe their screaming infant. “Give to me,” she told them in accented English. Putting a napkin on her shoulder, she walked up and down the aisle with the infant, rocking it softly and cooing to it. The baby fell asleep within minutes and she gave it back to the parents. “See?” she asked them. “It’s not so hard. Be calm.”
Alitalia’s premium economy service was a terrific medium between the lay-flat luxury of “Magnifica” class and the awful, cramped economy cabin. Flight attendants brought us glasses of prosecco and swag bags by designers like Dolce & Gabbana and Diesel. The cabin was intimate, with only 17 seats. For a small premium, budget-minded travelers could feel cosseted and a little special.
Often, though, those good moments were punctuated by less-happy times. The cabin crew wasn’t always interested in keeping flyers happy, retreating to the back of the plane and telling people they could serve themselves from the cart if they were thirsty mid-flight. The meals declined in quality—a recent Covid-19 compliant meal consisted of a few overcooked, stuck-together ravioli and two bottles of mineral water. Italian speakers often got much better treatment than non-Italians. Forget about it if a celebrity boarded and headed to first class; most of the crew would migrate to the front, leaving the other passengers to fend for themselves.
The final indignity, at least for my wife and me, came recently with an email canceling our flight back to New York. We’ve been here in Umbria a few months now, and have to get back to New York for the holidays. And I’ve filed for a refund from the €100 million the government has set aside for people like us, and rebooked on another airline. It seems that under the agreement with the European Union creating ITA, the new entity doesn’t have to honor our tickets nor does Alitalia have to find us flights on other carriers—which is the usual procedure here in Eurolandia
So farewell, Alitalia, it’s been a tempestuous affair between you and me. But I’ll still miss you. Now where’s my refund?
Photo up top: Andrea Tavoni, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Other photos are by author.