How Italy’s high-speed trains killed Alitalia

(CNN) — Over a decade ago, when Francesco Galietti had to travel from his native Rome to Milan for work, he used to fly the nearly 400-mile route. Today, he takes the train.

Galietti — CEO of Rome-based political risk consultancy Policy Sonar — is not alone. Figures released in 2019 by Italy state railway company Ferrovie dello Stato show that the number of passengers taking the train on the country’s main business route, between Rome and Milan, has almost quadrupled in a decade, from 1 million in 2008 to 3.6 million by 2018.

Over two thirds of people traveling between the two cities now takes the train. It’s a remarkable endorsement of Italy’s high-speed rail network, which debuted in 2008.

Traveling those near-400 miles between Milan and Rome takes as little as 2 hours and 59 minutes. And, of course, the train stations are in the city center, and there’s no need to turn up long before your train — the doors close two minutes before departure.

Contrast that to a minimum half-hour drive to Rome’s Fiumicino, checking in 90 minutes before departure, an hour in the air and then landing outside Milan — Linate airport, the closest, is about 20 minutes’ drive into town — and it’s obvious why people are opting for the train.

Which leads you to wonder, as Italy’s national airline prepares to shut down on October 15 — did the high-speed railways kill Alitalia?

Galietti thinks so.

“Alitalia was a bird with its wings very much clipped from the start — for an international carrier, it was very much focused on the domestic market,” he says.

Italy's high-speed stations, like Porta Susa in Turin, are destinations in themselves.

Italy’s high-speed stations, like Porta Susa in Turin, are destinations in themselves.

Enrico Spanu/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Of course, in one way that makes sense — Italians mostly vacation in Italy, and visitors want to tick off sights the length and breadth of the country. Flying into Milan, and then onwards to Naples or Rome, is a natural step for people coming from countries such as the US, where air travel is common.

But, says Galietti, that domestic focus meant that Alitalia was susceptible to competition when the low-cost flight revolution started — and then from the high-speed trains.

“It was a nasty cocktail,” he says. “On that [domestic] market they had massive competition from low-cost airlines and trains. Myself, if I have to go to Milan, Turin or Venice, I take the train, like many others. The Frecciarossa (one of the high-speed trains) goes from city center to city center, you don’t land 20 miles outside the suburbs — it’s a terrible competition [for Alitalia].”

Tourists feel the same way. Cristina Taylor, a frequent visitor to Italy from the UK, says she finds taking the train “easier.”

“You leave and arrive from city centers, there’s no airport check-in or transits between airports to the cities. Also they’ve gotten better over the years in terms of accommodating international passengers in the sense that there are proper places to put your suitcases.

“I do think it’s good value — you save time and money.”

The new dolce vita

Trenitalia's Frecce trains blast through the countryside at 224mph.

Trenitalia’s Frecce trains blast through the countryside at 224mph.

Alessia Pierdomenico/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Today’s high-speed system is a far cry from the railway network of Italy’s past, in which trains were slow, outdated and usually late.

There are even two high-speed companies to choose from. Trenitalia, the state operator, has its Frecce (“Arrows”) trains, the Frecciarossa, Frecciabianca and Frecciargento (Red, White and Silver Arrows), each covering a section of Italy, roughly in a T shape along the northern part of the country, and then straight down the Italian peninsula. The fastest Frecciarossa trains can run at 360kmph (224mph).

Meanwhile, Nuovo Trasporto Viaggiatori, a private company, launched its Italo trains in 2012, covering 54 cities a day. Italy is the only country in the world to have two high-speed train operators. It’s also home to the world’s first high-speed freight service, running between Bologna and Maddaloni, in Campania, in just three and a half hours.

Prices are relatively modest — regional (though not high-speed) rail travel is subsidized — Galietti calls the fares “not much” compared to France, Germany and Switzerland. And onboard, the experience is not unlike that of an airline. Every passenger must have a reserved seat to board — nobody is allowed to just hop on and hope to find a spot. Passengers can pick their seat when buying a ticket, and can accrue points that win them status. Both Trenitalia and Italo have lounges at their main stations for top-tier travelers.

Leading by example

Italy's rise in high-speed train passengers has coincided with a decline in domestic flights.

Italy’s rise in high-speed train passengers has coincided with a decline in domestic flights.

Massimo Insabato/Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images

Carlo Barbante is one of them. The director of the Institute of Polar Sciences at Venice’s Ca’ Foscari university, he travels regularly to Rome, and takes the Frecciarossa train.

“It’s more convenient for everything,” he says. “I like the carbon footprint first and foremost, but I like that I can check in a few minutes before departure, can walk around easily, and feel very safe and comfortable.”

As a climate scientist, Barbante has always taken the train — “If we’re trying to convince people to reduce their carbon footprint in any way, we have to give the example — be in the first row showing that we’re using public transport,” he says. “I feel it as a duty — the train is one of the most reliable ways to reduce your carbon footprint.”

Before the high-speed revolution, however, Italian trains were too slow to make Venice to Rome (about 330 miles) a viable day trip. Instead, he used to take the night trains.

Until a couple of years ago, he says, there was a super-fast train that just stopped at Venice, Padova and Rome, which took just over three hours. Today, with extra stops at Ferrara, Bologna and Florence, it’s just under four. But that’s still faster door to door than it would be to fly.

Barbante has just come back from a trip to Geneva from Venice, all by train. “It was very comfortable — there was no reason to take a flight. You have all the time to work and relax,” he says.

“I think the high-speed trains are taking a good part of the domestic flight market. They’re faster and more comfortable.”

The stats bear him out.

Trenitalia commissioned a report in 2019 to look at how things had changed in the first decade of high-speed trains. It showed that the number of trains on the lines had doubled, and that passenger numbers on its high-speed trains had rocketed from 6.5 million in 2008 to 40 million in 2018 — and that’s not including those who use Italo.

The number of high-speed trains in the fleet had doubled to 144, and in 2018, 69% of all passengers going between Rome and Milan took the train — up 7.4% in just three years. Meanwhile air travel dipped almost 7% in the three years to 2018, with just 19.5% of the market.

Italy’s rail revolution

In a world first, Italo trains are the privately owned rivals to the state-owned Frecce trains.

In a world first, Italo trains are the privately owned rivals to the state-owned Frecce trains.

Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

There were clear knock-on effects, too. While real estate prices in Milan dipped 20.5% from 2008 to 2018, prices for offices around the high-speed stations of Rogoredo and Porta Garibaldi were up around 10%.

The number of tourists using the trains had rocketed from 1.8 million in 2008 to 7.3 million in 2018. Rome to Florence and Venice are the most popular tourist routes — the latter would, in the old days, have been a prime flight route.

In fact, the link between Italy’s trains and planes was made pretty clear in 2019, when a merger was mooted between the fast-sinking Alitalia and Trenitalia.

Former Ferrovie dello Stato Mauro Moretti had a real vision for a possible merger, says Galietti. It was: “Why would you cannibalize each other if we can integrate transport? He had a grand vision of some stretches on planes, some with trains and the final miles with buses. We owe the Frecciarossa revolution to him, and it sounded like a very enlightened proposal.”

However, without Moretti, Galietti calls the idea “fishy” and suggests that the fact that regional train travel is subsidized in Italy could have been a way for Alitalia to rescue itself, had it merged with Ferrovie dello Stato. It would, by that point, he says, have been “no longer visionary but opportunistic.”

Ultimately, Alitalia wasn’t opportunistic enough. “They had surprisingly few flights abroad and were not the masters of their own turf — others were,” says Galietti, who also says their cost structure allowed them to “bleed out.”

And as Alitalia flights take off for the last time on October 14, two of the new masters of its former turf — the Frecce and Italo trains — are going from strength to strength.

Top image credit: Alessandro Bremec/NurPhoto/AP

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Alitalia to take final flight

Former Italian flag carrier Alitalia is set to take its
final flight today after 74 years in operation, with new national airline
Italia Trasporto Aereo (ITA) launching services on 15 October.

Alitalia announced in August that it would cease operations
on 14 October, with passengers booked after this date told they could either switch to an earlier departure or receive a full refund for their ticket. The airline had been in financial difficulties since filing for
in 2017, with the Italian government propping it up to continue
operations with a view to selling the company. Bidders included Delta and
working in collaboration as well as Lufthansa, but the government could
not find suitable offers and renationalised the carrier at the start of the
Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 at a time when virtually all flights were grounded.

The carrier, which operated an extensive domestic network,
faced fierce competition from Italy’s high-speed rail network, with passengers increasingly
opting to travel by train for internal journeys. Figures from state railway
firm Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane show the number of passengers travelling by
train between Rome and Milan – one of Alitalia’s key routes – rose from 1
million in 2008, when the high-speed line launched, to 3.6 million in 2018.

Foreign low-cost airlines such as easyJet and Ryanair also
posed competition for Alitalia, which operated very few international flights.

New national airline ITA will begin operating both domestic
and international flights tomorrow using a fleet of 52 aircraft, including
seven wide bodies and 45 narrow bodies. The airline will offer economy and business class seats, and passengers in both cabins will be able to make free changes to their tickets as standard, according to the website.

To begin with, the carrier’s network
will focus on hubs at Rome Fiumicino and Milan Linate and will include flights
to Brindisi, Bologna, Bari, Catania, Genoa, Naples, Palermo, Pescara, Reggio
Calabria, Lamezia Terme, Trieste, Turin, Venice and Verona in Italy; Algeria,
Amsterdam, Athens, Barcelona, Brussels, Cairo, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Geneva,
London Heathrow, Madrid, Malta, Munich, Nice, Paris Charles De Gaulle, Paris
Orly, Tirana, Tel Aviv, Tunis, Zurich, Tokyo Haneda and New York.

The carrier will add flights to Florence, Luxembourg,
Stuttgart, Boston, Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo and Miami from March 2022, followed
by Malaga and Los Angeles in June 2022; Marseille and Valencia in July 2022; and
Belgrade and Sofia in August 2022.

ITA says its future route development plans will focus on
long-haul destinations to bridge “the connectivity gap of the country”.

ITA has plans to add more planes to its fleet in 2022, growing
to 13 wide-bodies and 65 narrow-bodies, and the carrier will also begin a fleet
renewal process to replace older aircraft with newer, more fuel-efficient
versions. The company will operate 105 aircraft by the end of 2025, with 70 per
cent of those being new-generation technology.

According to the airline’s website, the company’s industrial
strategy will focus on sustainability and digitisation, with the objective of
becoming “the greenest airline in Europe and a genderless and merit-based air

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Updated: Alitalia cancels all flights after October 15 as national airline closes for good

Italian airline Alitalia has announced that all flights from October 15, 2021 will be cancelled.

The airline is officially closing, so passengers with flights booked after October 15 should read on for what to do next.

Why is Alitalia closing?

Italy has struggled to find investors to save the bankrupt airline after it was put into state administration in 2017. The situation has been made worse by the pandemic which saw flights grounded around the world for months. Alitalia will now cease operations entirely later this year.

In 2019, before COVID-19 hit, the airline carried 21.3 million passengers to 81 different destinations with 3,600 flights every week. Until recently it employed more than 10,000 staff. So far it has been announced that Alitalia staff will be considered for the 2,800 staff the new airline ITA will need. More on them below.

What do I do if Alitalia has cancelled my flight?

The options for passengers with flights after October 15 are a little complicated. But it does seem that you will be able to fly, or get a refund.

Alitalia have said they want to “manage the situation in a clear and transparent way, safeguarding consumers.”

It’s important to note that you’ll have the most options available if you bought your Alitalia flights before August 24 2021, with a ticket number that starts with “055”. This is the first thing to check.

The good news is that the airline is getting government support- and this will be passed on to passengers. The Italian government has created a €100 million fund to reimburse customers of the airline. It comes after the country agreed a bailout deal with the EU to create a new debt-free company that would take over its assets.

Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera estimates that there are around 250,000 people who are due to fly with Alitalia after October 15.

The company says that these customers will have two options: replace their flights with an equivalent Alitalia flight before that date, or receive a full refund. Request a change here.

If replacing their ticket, passengers can either rebook or reroute their original journey. Rebooking involves changing your flight to one before October 15th but arriving at the same destination. This option is free.

It is also possible to change the destination to travel before this date or reroute your flight. But this might incur additional costs if the price of the flights is different. If the new flight is cheaper then there will be no reimbursement of the price difference and international flights cannot be changed for national ones or vice versa.

Alitalia announced on social media that it would send a “direct communication” to all customers with instructions. More information here.

What is Alitalia being replaced with?

Alitalia is being replaced by state-owned ITA (Italia Trasporto Aereo) which will start selling tickets from August 26th. The new airline will begin flying on October 15th after Italy’s civil authorities gave it the green light last week.

ITA will buy 52 of Alitalia’s aircraft alongside its airport slots and other assets. It plans to operate flights to destinations including New York, Boston, Miami, Tokyo and numerous European cities from airports in Rome and Milan. There are plans for the airline to slowly grow its fleet to 105 planes by 2025.

Bookings from Alitalia will not be valid for ITA and to fly with the new airline passengers will be required to book through the company’s new website (not yet operational), travel agencies or airport offices.

What if I have unused MilleMiglia air miles?

If you are due to fly on a MilleMiglia award ticket after October 15 you can rebook to take the whole journey before October 14 with Alitalia or a SkyTeam partner.

You can also change your destination.

With travel so complicated at the moment, many will not be able to do this, of course. In which case Alitalia says they will refund you the MilleMiglia air miles, including taxes and surcharges.

If you have unused MilleMiglia air miles, you’re not alone. It’s estimated customers have 5 million miles they haven’t been able to use yet. In short, it’s unclear what you’ll be able to do with unspent miles.

Under European Commission rules, the MilleMiglia loyalty programme can not be bought by ITA. It must be put out to tender. This means air miles could become loyalty points for a totally different type of reward, for instance supermarket loyalty points.

Eturbonews reports that once the programme has been bought, the new owner will decide, after October 15, how MilleMiglia miles will work.

How could Miles For Migrants help?

If you have unused air miles from any airline and you would like them to be put to life-saving use, Miles for Migrants could be the answer.

In its own words, the American charity “uses donated frequent flyer miles, credit card points, and cash to help people impacted by war, persecution, or disaster reunite with loved ones and start new beginnings in safe homes.”

It is currently appealing for donations to give people in Afghanistan safe passage out of the country, which recently fell under Taliban rule.

With travel so difficult at the moment, donating your air miles, cash or credit card points could be the perfect way to help someone in need, and feel good about yourself too.

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