Boeing 777-200ER and its new routes are creating buzz among employees, passengers
BY MAUREEN JENKINS
There are a lot of airlines that transport passengers across continents. But what sets carriers apart on these long flights are the details. Passenger comfort. The latest in-flight technology. Plentiful and easily accessible storage. A smooth, quiet ride that almost makes fliers forget that they're in the air for eight hours or more. But for an airline, no detail is more important than the airplane itself.
Alitalia considers in-flight service with distinctive style its trademark. And that's what the Italian state carrier—which introduced a state-of-the-art 777-200ER to its New York City-Rome route in November—is counting on to distinguish its long-haul service from its competitors'. The new 777s' flight attendants are among the carrier's most experienced, helping ensure top-notch service throughout the airplane's two cabins. The airplanes are "veritable lounges in the clouds," an Alitalia brochure claims.
The airline introduced its first 777-200ER, named "Taormina," to employees at Rome's Fiumicino Leonardo da Vinci airport during a Nov. 8 ceremony that the employees still mention months later with genuine enthusiasm.
Just as the 777 generated excitement among the employee ranks—and especially among the flight attendants who service the New York City- and Tokyo-Rome flights—it also has become a cornerstone of Alitalia's long-haul business strategy. Purchased to eventually replace the McDonnell Douglas-built MD-11s and Boeing 747-200s on transcontinental passenger routes, Alitalia management views the 777 as a key piece of the airline's revitalized fleet.
"The company has not been involved in any new type of airplane for a long time," said Agostino Cassaro, Alitalia vice president of Fleet Development and Asset Management. "We worked with Boeing on the ‘Working Together' concept. We were able to define an airplane best for us with the support of the Boeing team.
"At the end of the story, what has been selected is the best of what was on the market."
For Alitalia, the 777 makes good business sense. The new staple in the airline's long-range network, the twin-engine airplane is energy efficient. It features technologically advanced design and passenger comfort and convenience. With a range of 7,730 nautical miles (14,316 km) and a seat count of 291, it allows the airline to transport passengers to key destinations efficiently while helping Alitalia reduce the types of aircraft it uses on intercontinental routes. And it also makes the carrier a more valuable partner within the Sky Team Alliance, which includes Delta Air Lines, Air France, Aeromexico and Korean Air. Both Delta and Air France operate 777s.
"We have an integrated network with our Sky Team partners," said Andrea Zannoni, Alitalia manager of Foreign Press and Corporate issues. "And the 777 is the way we manage to invest in that market."
Alitalia's 777 purchase, adds Jim Frank, Boeing Commercial Airplanes Sales Director, Europe, "was a chance to re-launch the airline in terms of having a premier product for long-haul operations."
This first Alitalia 777 delivery—and first commercial flight from Rome to New York in November—also has been a source of pride for those at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, which has been a partner with its Italian client from the start.
Witnessing his customer's excitement about its new 777 made an indelible impression on John Monroe, 777 program management director, who attended last fall's delivery celebration in Rome.
"We've delivered 400-and-some-odd of these airplanes," Monroe said, "but this was an employee event. They're very proud of their airline, proud of their heritage."
At the event, Monroe remembered hearing "how this airplane is the beginning of the new Alitalia. I think statements like that are very important."
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At Alitalia, distinctive style is a hallmark of the airline's service, said Chief Purser Romolo Ansuini. Perhaps as a subconscious tribute to Italy's reputation as an international center of moda, or fashion, the flight attendants gracefully glide down the 777's twin aisles—the men in black, tuxedo-like suits, the women in scarf-tucked white blouses and Alitalia's trademark green blazers.
"Alitalia is a synonym for elegance and style," Ansuini told Boeing Frontiers during a recent Flight 611 from New York to Rome. He recounted an anecdote about an affluent Italian couple that recently chose to fly his airline's new 777, rather than the Concorde, on the 4,270-mile flight to Rome.
"They knew that this was a good plane," he said. "They know the furniture is not the same on all 777s, but they knew Alitalia would do something special."
So did the crew.
"Most of us are very happy about this plane and the way it's made," Ansuini said. Alitalia is so proud of its newest acquisition that it included an editorial and feature story in the November issue of Ulisse, its onboard magazine, in order to share the 777's story—and its technological advances —with passengers.
Boeing Commercial Airplanes worked with its Alitalia customers to make the airplane as crew- and passenger-friendly as possible.
"They have had such a significant amount of employee involvement in defining the airplane itself, from the cockpit, cabin layout, what they wanted the galley to look like," said Monroe. "They went into an incredible amount of detail, and it came from the [employee] floor."
In fact, Alitalia passengers never will see some of the 777's behind-the-scenes customized features, but many of these make a tangible difference in the crews' work—and ultimately, in passengers' inflight experience.
"We love the trash compactor. We love it," said cabin attendant Daniela Cuttitta about the machine now stowed within the Economy Class rear galley. The compactor's addition means the attendants have less rubbish to handle during the flight, and its use provides them with more working space.
Monroe said prior to the airplanes' construction, attendants suggested that the Alitalia 777 galleys include improved lighting, more counter space and enough room in both the Economy and Magnifica Class galleys so that multiple attendants can work, walk, and stand inside them at the same time.
"It was obvious they spent a lot of time speaking to flight attendants and people who were going to work in there," he said. "Part of what the 777 allows them to do is to have real flexibility in what you can do with the cabin."
As is true at Alitalia and other carriers, "The interior of the airplane is what sets them apart from the other guys. That's where they strike their competitive advantage."
Because Alitalia's Magnifica cabin reflects a combination of traditional Business and First Class amenities, the airline decided to place 42 dove-gray leather seats up front in two-seat configurations. Its Economy cabin includes 249 seats, arranged in groups of three. These seat layouts contribute to the Alitalia 777's feeling of elbow room even in the lower-priced seats, which feature a 31-inch (79 cm) pitch, or available reclining space. Magnifica seats have a 60-inch pitch (about 1 1/2 meters) and offer "Take Off" and "Sleep" buttons that allow passengers to adjust their backs accordingly.
In addition to serving Magnifica fliers multi-course meals in true Italian culinary tradition, Alitalia also treats them to an "Open Bar" in the middle of the cabin. Here, passengers can not only stretch their legs, but also help themselves to fine chocolates, cheeses, and assorted beverages anytime the seat belt sign is turned off. Even in Economy, fliers can obtain their choice of drinks from a rear cabin cart.
"Sometimes [passengers] like to stand," said Ansuini, "but on other planes, there was no space they could sit and talk, to have a drink." But now, he said, "They can feel at home.
"It's a new generation, so it's good that we [have] something new, something different that another company doesn't have."
Transcontinental flights can be taxing, but Alitalia hopes to make the hours fly by for its customers—and its In-Flight-Entertainment system is the tool. Available in both classes of service, IFE—the latest version Matsushita Avionics Systems has presented—offers plug-in electric ports at each seat. Using a remote control, a passenger can while away the minutes, pointing at and clicking on movies, news, sports and games, including Nintendo Game Boy and the TV-inspired "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." Eventually, Internet access will be available. Alitalia hopes to use these services—which Cuttitta says are an especially big hit with kids—to a marketing advantage, to further distinguish itself from its long-haul competitors.
And when the airplane's 12 attendants and four pilots take their breaks, they're able to relax in customized rest areas located within the crown, or ceiling, of the 777. Late into the airplane-building process, Alitalia requested the addition of these areas, which a third-party supplier retrofitted. Boeing now offers overhead crew and flight attendant rests in its 777-200ER, 777-200LR and 777-300ER models in production. The designers relocated some ceiling-area air conditioning systems in order to accommodate these spaces, which have been a huge hit with crews. Boeing's John Monroe said the above-storage rest areas—even in retrofit mode—are a customization that Airbus's long-range jumbo jet, the A340, cannot offer.
A narrow, enclosed stairway located near the flight deck leads up to the pilots' rest area, which includes two sleeping berths, a private lavatory, small shelf desks, video screens, and two leather seats similar to Magnifica's. The flight attendants' rest area, housed near the airplane's center, features eight sleeping berths—with closable curtains in front of each for privacy—and two chairs for reading or just relaxing.
In addition to these upper-deck rooms, the areas in front of the 777's emergency doors also contain small pull-down desks and attendant seats that allow crewmembers to take a brief respite—again, with curtains that can be drawn for privacy—during the flight.
The 777 design period was the first time, said Ansuini, that anyone had asked Alitalia attendants for their suggestions on airplane layouts. And it's a move that those who spend their working hours aboard this aircraft have much appreciated.
With the 777 purchases and leases, "Alitalia has invested a lot," Andrea Zannoni said. "We've got nine new aircraft arriving. And to employees, it's a message that Alitalia is investing in long-haul."
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Alitalia's initial acquisition of the 777 happened fortuitously. The airline was under contract with Boeing for five 747-400s, a purchase designed to complement Alitalia's then-alliance with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. However, that partnership dissolved—and Alitalia's board decided to concentrate on point-to-point long-haul service. But by then, Boeing had already begun production on the ordered 747s.
"In our network, the 400-seater—considering we were out of the [KLM] alliance—was too big in terms of size," Cassaro said—a reason his airline is uninterested in purchasing the super-jumbo Airbus A380 jet. But Boeing and Alitalia worked out a deal in 2000 where a second carrier picked up the larger planes, with Alitalia deciding that the 777 was just the vehicle it needed as the cornerstone of its long-haul strategy.
Given the long lead times in the aerospace industry, and the practice for each airline to customize its product, making a three-way deal come together in just over one month "was nothing short of a miracle," said Commercial Airplanes' Jim Frank.
"Part of the reason for the 777's success is the airplane's unique range and payload capabilities," Frank explained.
The 777's efficient economics were a deciding factor in Alitalia's purchase. Cassaro said the combination of operating and capital costs and potential revenue generation "was a good answer to our expectations." And cargo revenue—which he said accounts for between 15 percent and 20 percent on the 777—also will keep the long-range jet a moneymaker for his airline.
"Thanks to the approach Boeing was using," he said, "we were able to achieve the best possible product."
By November, when Alitalia will take delivery of three 777s leased from GE Capital Aviation Services, the airline will be phasing out its MD-11s. It will either convert these airplanes to freighters or transfer them to other carriers.
Although Alitalia had not yet joined the Sky Team Alliance at the time it decided to purchase the 777, the airplane has become a key element of its partnership with its fellow carriers.
"It has been a real lucky connection of different companies interested in the same airplane," said Cassaro.
In fact, he said, Sky Team partners will meet in March for the first meeting dedicated to fleet issues. He believes that standardized airplanes—with some room left for aesthetic customization—will mean long-term cost savings for manufacturers and, by extension, their airline customers.
"In terms of long-haul, our goal is to stay with two types of airplanes, [including] the 777. And the next step will be in 2004, [when] the Boeing position will be clear on product development" for the company's recently announced middle-market commercial airplane. Cassaro said Alitalia could be a launching customer for such a product, as a 200- to 300-seat vehicle would complement its revamped strategy. But for now, the Italian airline is still reveling in its latest delivery.
"The 777 created within the company great expectation," said Cassaro. "It's been a long time [since we received] a new airplane, so the reception has been huge. It's up to us to make the right exploitation of this huge investment."
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