London-Milan, Milan-London, London-Milan, Milan-Barcelona, Milan-New York, Stockholm-Milan … We might have our base in London but all roads end up leading back to Milan with monthly frequency for many of our staff. For reasons both editorial and commercial, Milan is a constant in our lives. The combination of fashion weeks for men and women, random trade fairs, the Salone del Mobile and the countless design firms scattered around the region make it one of the most visited cities on our calendar. It’s also one of the journeys we’re least fond of. Once we’re settled into a corner table at Santa Lucia or tucked up in bed at a favourite hotel, all is fine. It’s just the choice of transport options to get us there that’s the problem.
In January Alitalia relaunched with little sparkle in the media – and even less on board. It did manage to take to the air with a refreshed fleet but none of the features or service concepts I suggested on this page in issue 4. Few airlines boast the level of goodwill or high quality raw materials of Alitalia but the airline has not been able to convert this into a brand proposition that shows much chance of being sustainable. In the right hands the carrier could be one of the chicest, most admired service and transport brands in the world but as of press time (early February) this looks unlikely anytime in the near or even distant future.
Perhaps anticipating that things might end up this way Lufthansa seized the opportunity to offer its briskly efficient product with a bit of the tricolore sprinkled around a new brand it’s dubbed Lufthansa Italia. Not to be confused with Air Dolomiti, the tiny Verona-based feeder airline that Lufthansa also owns, the new carrier operates out of Milan’s Malpensa airport complete with shiny new Airbuses and German pilots at the controls. For the Piemonte, Lombardy and Veneto set, securing slots at Milan’s least loved airport was an inspired move as Germany’s national carrier has something of a cult following with northern Italian industrialists.
For the moment Lufthansa is only offering short-haul connections to other European cities and using Air Dolomiti to pull passengers up to Munich and connect them to their long-haul network. But there’s little doubt that Lufthansa’s senior management are plotting which long routes they could serve directly from northern Italy. New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Tokyo and Mumbai quickly come to mind.
Back here at HQ in London we’re hoping that Lufthansa will do the same at Heathrow as a second anniversary gift for us: with Lufthansa Italia set to start flights in March from Heathrow into Milan we’re thrilled that we’ll have a new alternative on our most heavily used route. But a truly wonderful birthday gift for our wandering editors and correspondents would be a complete overhaul of BMI (Lufthansa owns the majority of this lacklustre UK airline) that might start with more than just new seats and a fresh coat of paint.
Now is the time for a new airline to shake up the market and this opportunity isn’t just limited to Heathrow or European airspace. In North America weary travellers would love nothing more than to take their custom to an airline that focuses on offering a dignified travel experience regardless of how many airmiles they might have banked with their current airline of “choice”.
More than ever the passenger is now flying the plane and everyone from top managers through to the baggage handlers might want to remember this the next time they attempt to make unnecessary service cuts or cancel flights due to “weather” when it really has more to do with low load factors. As airlines need to do everything they can to maintain their premium customer base, this is the moment for a polite, but purposeful, revolution in the cabin.
As ever you can forward your tips and comments to me at email@example.com and also listen in on lively discussions and reports at The Monocle Weekly via our website or iTunes.
From all of us in London, Tokyo and New York, thank you for two years of affection, feedback and support.
For more from our editor-in-chief, read his column in the FT Weekend.