By Andreas Spaeth
Older than 7 days  

How Alitalia reinvents itself

ROME - Pope Francis has a problem: By capacity the pontiff is a frequent flyer on Alitalia, mostly on long haul. And Alitalia's premium service is of such high class since recently that the Holy Father deems it to be too luxurious.

"The Pope wants his meal to be served on a tray, but in our Business Class, we have now abandoned tray service and serve everything á la Carte at your seat", says Barbara Accardi, Senior Manager in Alitalia's new training centre at Rome's Fiumicino airport.

Flights for Papal trips are chartered by the Vatican, and they routinely were a very lavish affair so far. For the predecessors of the current Pope, for example the trip of Benedict to Cuba in 2012, the whole front cabin on the 777 had to be remodelled, all seats were removed.

In came a proper bed and a kind of studio with work desks and meeting tables, with religious icons being installed in the cabin, from a cross to ancient paintings. But no longer: "Francis insists on the same cabin as usual and doesn't want any other privileges", reveals Accardi.

, © Andreas Spaeth

But he is lucky, as he still has a flat bed to lie on, as Alitalia offers in Business Class on its 24 long haul aircraft, 14 A330-200s and ten Boeing 777-200ERs. They are the same Sogerma Solstys seats formerly flying in Etihad cabins, now offered by Air Berlin or Iberia, having been upgraded at Alitalia recently with an elegant cover of fine leather by iconic brand Poltrona Frau.

Since January 2015 Etihad of Abu Dhabi holds a 49% share of the chronically lossmaking Italian state airline it bought for €560m. It only made profits in one year, 1998, since it was founded in 1946. Since Etihad came on board, everything is on reset mode.

»I want Alitalia to be recognized as the best airline in Europe.«
Aubrey Tiedt
Already in June 2015 Alitalia unveiled a slightly modernized brand identity, which keeps the iconic stylised green-red A in the aircraft tails, introduced originally in 1970 for the first Boeing 747. Brand new in summer 2016 were the elegant uniforms by Milan-based designer Ettore Bilotta, in red for flight attendants and in green for ground staff.

With such important assets of outward appearance, Alitalia, now featuring exclusive home-grown products with the claim "Made of Italy", wants to demonstrate that it will again be a force to be reckoned with. Or more immodestly, as Chief Customer Officer Aubrey Tiedt puts it in an exclusive interview with "I want Alitalia to be recognized as the best airline in Europe."

If that should happen one day, it will be to a large part also thanks to Aubrey Tiedt. The charismatic, fast-talking Irishwoman with over 25 years of industry experience under her belt was essential in creating the current brand and product of Etihad, having worked in Abu Dhabi for years.

, © Alitalia

Almost besides she has created totally new brands for the Etihad group like Air Serbia or Etihad Regional, or gave major makeovers to others like Air Seychelles. When Etihad took a stake in Alitalia it was clear the brand couldn't be revived from Abu Dhabi. So Aubrey Tiedt moved to Rome in 2015 on a three-year contract and started her work.

Alongside Australian Cramer Ball, the new CEO, who hails from the Etihad universe as well and was seconded to Rome to finally achieve the profit zone by 2017. "Our goal is profitability, not breakeven, and we are on track for profitability in 2017", Ball states self-consciously. And adds: "Our goal is not just to be good. It's to be the best at what we do."

To achieve this milestone, Alitalia has to make an effort, because despite the millions from the Persian Gulf, the airline is not awash in money. €400m alone were invested in 2016, of which €240m went into more aircraft and a refurbishment of cabin interiors on long haul.

, © Andreas Spaeth

For this, not least out of cost reasons, Alitalia opted for evolution instead of revolution. And always stresses that it is independent, not just a branch of Etihad, as critics have argued.

"The objective of the EAP - Etihad Airways Partners - is to have a seamless experience for our guests, however keeping the personality of each airline", underlines Aubrey Tiedt. She stresses time and again which things she would love to have but can't afford, from a spa in the lounge to virtual reality for crew training. "We are only half way into our turnaround with another 18 months to go, it's not like we have plenty of money, so we have to be innovative."

Aubrey Tiedt and her team are actually quite ingenious in this, also when it comes to motivate themselves and others. In contrast to a newly founded company like Etihad, she can rely on natural resources at Alitalia. Most of all on experienced staff, the average age of the 3,500 cabin crew members is 38 years, unusually high for the industry.

Despite hard times and repeated near-bankruptcies, the loyalty of employees is high. Now the aim is to bring out abilities, talents and self-confidence again that had been long lost or neglected. "Our crews are knowledgeable, they have experience, but there was zero confidence before", observes Tiedt. "And if they don't have the confidence to use their potential, nothing happens." Tiedt likens Alitalia to an unpolished raw diamond at the time she started.

, © Andreas Spaeth

One of the most important investments overall was the opening of the "Alitalia Excellence Training Academy" in Fiumicino, there was never anything like it before. One of Europe's biggest airlines simply didn't do any training for crews and other service staff in dealing with customers.

"It ended in the early 1990s, afterwards there was just safety training and refresher courses as well as initial training for beginners. otherwise you would just train on a computer or it was simply learning by doing", says Barbara Accardi. "Service training was just regarded as a cost factor then, and costs always had to be cut, while today it's a totally different philosophy and it's seen as investment."

Interestingly, Alitalia did not only not hire new crew members, but also no outside trainers. Instead, employees could apply to become trainers, and 300 wanted to coach their colleagues. It's also a novelty to train ground and cabin staff in integrated classes of 16, providing for interesting insights and mutual understanding. All people involved in the service chain, even the drivers of Alitalia's own passenger buses on the ramp, got trained here since September 2015.

"Training is supposed to be fun, not boring", says Barbara Accardi. That's exactly what the visitor encounters, for example in the room where the ladies learn how to apply make up, of course with the new corporate lipstick in the colour "Rosso Alitalia", created by Diego Dalla Palma in Milan and soon also available in retail.

(© Andreas Spaeth)
(© Andreas Spaeth)
(© Andreas Spaeth)
(© Andreas Spaeth)
(© Andreas Spaeth)
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Or at the food presentation, where almost everything on any plate or in any glass hails from Italy. "We can draw on this Italian-ness, hospitality is already there, the people are very warm, family-oriented, love good food, everywhere in the world people love Italy, that's a big asset", finds Aubrey Tiedt.

"A completely different airline"

Even if not all is smooth sailing at Alitalia yet, as the recent strike threat of the pilots brought back to public attention, first achievements become visible: The market share of Alitalia on flights to and from Italy rose by four to 30% in 2015. In May 2016, customer satisfaction was at 91.4%, the highest score since surveys started in 2012.

"It's a completely different airline than twelve months ago, how the staff behaves, how they talk, how they walk, it's been a tremendous change", states Aubrey Tiedt. But not a reason for her to rest on her laurels: "We now have to build more of a consistency across what we do, and review the offerings on our narrow body and short haul fleet. We need more investment on our digital side and finish to equip the rest of the 777 fleet with connectivity, also there are two big lounges coming up here in Rome."

They are now called "Casa Alitalia" and have a similar concept to Etihad's, working with open kitchens. In Rome and Milan-Malpensa, pasta and pizza are freshly prepared on the spot. Almost a pity then that Pope Francis can't experience this.

Andreas Spaeth

Andreas Spaeth flies. Very frequently. On one of the leading European aviation journalists shares his personal passenger experiences traveling around the globe.

Follow Andreas on his Twitter @SpaethFlies.

© Andreas Spaeth | Image: Andreas Spaeth | 28/10/2016 10:52

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