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Air Italy's Rossen Dimitrov talks:
Air Italy has continued to build its North American service this year, launching nonstop service between Milan and Toronto in recent weeks. Its growth also has reignited a long-running dispute between a coalition of the largest U.S. carriers, as well as Qatar Airways, which has a 49 percent stake in Air Italy; the U.S. coalition alleges Air Italy's growth violates an agreement that Qatar will not add fifth-freedom routes, meaning routes whose origins and destinations fall outside Qatar Airways' home country. Air Italy COO Rossen Dimitrov spoke to BTN transportation editor Michael B. Baker to answer those allegations and discuss the interest the carrier's new routes are drawing from corporate travelers.
BTN: What are your newest markets, and what are your expectations from those markets?
Dimitrov: What we have launched this summer is three seasonal routes to North America. We have opened Los Angeles and San Francisco, and we have just inaugurated Canada with service to Toronto. These markets are very important to us. In addition, we operate our year-round New York and Miami flights. We also operate into Africa, so we cover Nigeria, Ghana and Egypt. We will be announcing new winter routes to Maldives, Mombasa [in Kenya] and Zanzibar [in Tanzania]. Next summer, we will introduce the seasonal routes again—Los Angeles, San Francisco and Toronto—and we will add two more. We're still planning to continue our growth. We're planning to have up to 50 aircraft by 2022 and continue expanding.
BTN: What is your mix of business and leisure?
Dimitrov: When we were looking at the business cases for our California routes, we knew there was a demand for business [travel] but we felt the demand for leisure traffic would be much higher. We have seen the demand for leisure traffic as high as we expected, but unexpectedly and positively, we have seen much in demand for business travel, which is really good for us. We have revamped our business offering in terms of product and services, and obviously the public is catching up with what we offer and it makes a lot of sense for them to travel with us.
BTN: When we spoke with your airline last year, you planned to court U.S. deals. Has that happened?
Dimitrov: It has, and it's ongoing and it will continue to grow and expand. We do have a New York office with a sales team covering the East Coast. We're also expanding the team into the West Coast and Canada.
BTN: What's your demand outlook for the rest of the year?
Dimitrov: We are seeing very good corporate travel demand and growth, especially out of the East Coast. We have been pleasantly surprised by the demand from the West Coast. We are doing some additional work and will be introducing some additional programs to attract more corporate travel, which is very important to us.
BTN: How are you responding to the U.S. carriers' accusations of an Open Skies violation?
Dimitrov: This is absolutely nonsense, and I think it's a personal attack on Qatar. I don't know why people don't just get together to resolve their issues. We are a small little airline with five widebody aircraft, and apparently we're this big threat to American airlines and American jobs. We employ Americans in the U.S. If you go on Flightradar and look at United, Delta and American and how many aircraft they have over Europe at any given time, it's probably 10 times what we have as a fleet. If you go over the American airspace [that] they claim we are taking away from them, you will see our aircraft in a sea of sharks on the radar. They are saying that Qatar Airways is managing the airline, which is an absolute joke. Qatar invested. We were already an existing airline, and they're a minority shareholder. When we had to go source wet lease aircraft for the Max grounding, we went out in the market with a proper RFP just like anyone else. Yes, Qatar participated in that RFP, but the aircraft they had available was not the aircraft we needed and we were able to find European-registered aircraft from a European airline at a better rate, so we took those. If Qatar was managing us and telling us what to do, they would tell us, "We're giving you two or three aircraft, and that's it." We look for what is best for us as a company. [The U.S. carriers] claim that Qatar uses Air Italy as a vehicle to transfer passengers to and from the U.S. Let them show proof that we have transferred from Qatar via Milan to the U.S. or vice versa. We don't. We have a codeshare with Qatar, and that codeshare is simply on the routes from Milan to Doha and the Maldives and we are launching our own Maldives flight this coming winter.
BTN: Where are the business class upgrades you mentioned?
Dimitrov:To North America, on the Airbus 330-200 widebody aircraft, we're offering 24 flatbed seats in business and 228 seats in economy. In business, we offer full turndown service, with mattresses, plush pillows, pajamas and amenity kits design by Fedon. We have inflight, high-speed connectivity, and we offer in-seat, on-demand entertainment with thousands of hours of entertainment. We have recently revamped the equipment for our business class menu offering. We have just launched recently with our California routes our dine-anytime concept, which means you can create a dining experience for yourself with the items available. It's a very individual service: anything you would expect in a five-star restaurant in Italy with award-winning wines, typical Italian food and breads and other Western choices.
BTN: What is your strategy in terms of partnerships?
Dimitrov: The big codeshares we have are with Latam, British Airways and Iberia. We recently launched a codeshare with Bulgaria Air. The Bulgarian community in the U.S. and Canada is very large, and although the codeshare is very new, on the second flight [from] Milan to Toronto, there was a very large group of passengers that connected from Bulgaria to Milan. Alliances and partnerships are very important to us. We will be adding more codeshares. We're working on quite a few of them and interlines, which we will be announcing very soon. We are not a member of a particular alliance. To become a member of such an alliance, it would have to make sense for us and the members in the alliance, and at the moment, we are not there. When the time is right, we are open to it.
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