Italian airline Air One hit turbulence this month before its first flight between Logan International Airport in Boston and Malpensa Airport in Milan could take off. A delayed delivery of new seats has postponed the carrier’s inaugural US flight by almost two weeks, to Friday. It also has pushed back the launch of service between O’Hare International Airport in Chicago and Milan from yesterday to Thursday. As a result, the private carrier has rebooked more than 1,000 passengers – mostly US-bound Europeans – on partner airlines. Still, Air One is confident it will become popular – and profitable – in the United States just like it is in Europe. The airline, which has pocketed profits since 2002, carried 7.5 million passengers last year – 20 percent more than in 2006. That’s when Air One decided to break into the US market. And its optimism mounted in August when its main competitor, Alitalia-Linee Aeree Italiane SpA, said it would shift nearly all its trans-Atlantic flights from Milan to Rome by this summer. Air One chief revenue officer Giorgio De Roni spoke with Globe reporter Nicole C. Wong.
Why did Air One choose Boston for its first US destination?
There is a strong business relationship between Milan and Boston. Just consider high tech and medical research. There is a strong relationship between Harvard University and Bocconi University. Boston is pretty important for leisure for Italians. People from Italy come to Boston and the States for shopping. There’s an important market from the States to travel to Italy, the economy notwithstanding.
We analyzed many opportunities in the US market. United Airlines and US Airways are our partners. US Airways’ shuttle service goes from Boston to Washington, D.C., and New York. New York should have been our first US destination, but because of congestion at JFK [John F. Kennedy International Airport] it isn’t. We cannot keep an aircraft on the runway one hour and 30 minutes just for taxiing out. That contributes to cost and dissatisfaction of passengers. Newark [Liberty International Airport] is Continental-based, and we don’t have a partnership with them.
You’ll also be flying between Chicago and Milan. Where do you want to expand after that?
We don’t know if 2009 will be a good year. Certainly we’ll have one new destination in the United States for 2009, maybe two. Dulles [Washington Dulles International Airport] is meeting with us. We’ve received an offer from Detroit Metro Airport. Detroit is a strong market, but we do not have a strong partner there. Our commitment to grow in the long-haul market is sure.
Your partners – United Airlines and US Airways – just announced they will charge many passengers $15 to check in the first piece of luggage. What do you think of that?
What we’re witnessing in Europe is an increase in fuel surcharges. To my knowledge, no traditional carriers in Europe are charging for bags. I’m against this measure. One of our strengths has always been to be transparent to the market. It’s not fair to come out with an ad campaign that says the ticket is $300 and in small print say there are airport fees, fuel surcharges, bag fees. We all have to rethink our model. We also should keep in mind our customers. If you make customers pay at check-in counters, you’ll have long queues. Then probably everyone will try to bring big bags on board. That will create delays or confrontations between flight attendants and customers, these types of nasty things. My feeling as a passenger is we sometimes forget the bottom line is achieved through a satisfied customer.
Why not just raise the base price and avoid add-on fees but still compensate for rising fuel costs?
If we do this alone, we’ll suffer tremendously in terms of competition because the [online comparison] selling systems rank in terms of fare and not total cost. We are increasing fuel surcharges domestically, but not long-haul because we haven’t started [flying to the United States] yet and we just came out with an ad campaign that’s $799 [including taxes and fees round trip between Milan and Boston] and it’s not fair to raise the price. This is a promotional fare for economy class. If fuel continues to grow and reach $200, we’ll have to take action.
What can airports do to help airlines remain profitable?
Become more efficient. In terms of security in cargo and passenger, you have different approaches in different airports. We must devise friendly approaches to customers without any compromise, but we have to think to the future. A transparent structure of costs at an airport is extremely important. In Europe, we have extremely high landing fees at some airports or expensive updates of facilities that aren’t really required.
What’s been the hardest part about launching service to Boston?
Our brand awareness in the States is low, of course. This is the tougher thing. Also to make clear our commitment to quality and service.
What are you doing to build name-recognition in the United States?
Our website was devised for the Italian market. We are completely redoing it for the US market. From June 23 to mid-August we are giving away 101 free tickets in each market online. And radio station WBZ is giving away two tickets a day starting June 23 for one week. We are trying to get buzz on Twitter and blogs.