Italian airline Meridiana said it will change its name to “Air Italy” and will embark on a major expansion backed by new shareholder Qatar Airways, in a clear bid to take on the country’s reigning but ailing flag carrier, Alitalia.
Known mainly for leisure flights to Rome, Sicily and other popular destinations, Meridiana’s fortunes changed recently when Qatar said it would buy a 49 percent stake in the Milan-based carrier.
Air Italy, which now has a dozen planes, will grow to a fleet of 50 aircraft by 2022, executives from both Meridiana and Qatar announced last week. They also unveiled a new livery, which, with its shades of purple, bears an uncanny resemblance to the design scheme of Qatar Airways’ own jets. Among the new planes are 20 Boeing 737 Max jets as well as Airbus A330 and Boeing 787 widebodies for long-haul routes.
Qatar Airways CEO Akbar al-Baker said his aim is to make Air Italy the country’s top airline. “We want to become the number one airline brand in Italy, and we have the resources to accomplish this goal,” adding “we will show that we are the star.”
Air Italy plans to start flying from Milan to both Miami and New York by this June; and will boost its domestic network with new flights from Milan to Catania, Naples, Palermo, and Rome — plus the small Calabrian town of Lamezia Terme — this year.
Another Middle East airline, however, has already lost a significant investment in Italy’s airline business: Etihad was until recently a major shareholder in Alitalia, which last year effectively put itself up for sale — while the Italian government threw the legacy carrier a lifeline in the form of a bridge loan. That loan has kept the airline afloat, barely, while the carrier entertained offers from an assortment of possible suitors, ranging from Lufthansa to Ryanair.
The Italian government recently said it was hoping to strike a deal to sell the airline before the country’s next elections, which are due to take place Mar. 4.