I’ve done a lot of airline travel over the years – accumulating over 1 million miles on two US airlines. That’s a lot of flying! Every once in a while I’ll calculate just how many hours of flight those numbers translate to – and that’s when I reflect on just how happy I am that those miles are behind me and not somewhere out there ahead! Over the last two years, I’ve done exactly one trip – thanks to Covid-19!
Over those many miles in the air, there is one airline experience that I’ll never forget – the one and only time I ever flew on Alitalia, the Italian airline that flew its last flight a while back. On that occasion, Christopher Buckley shared a satiric “remembrance” to Aliatalia in the New York Times. In his piece, Buckley noted the airline’s nickname: “the Pope’s airline.” That triggered my memory…
My memory of flying Alitalia begins in Sydney, Australia. I had spent a few days on business in Sydney – one of my favorite cities. I was on a multi-week business trip around Asia.
We were about to check out of our hotel in Sydney to catch a morning flight to Bangkok where we were going to meeting with a large group of clients the following day. As we were checking out of the hotel, the front desk manager asked: “Have we heard about the strike underway at the airport?” We replied: “No! Strike, what strike?”
Turns out there was a labor dispute that had flared up involving the airport baggage handlers who were refusing to work that morning. In sympathy, other union workers at the airport had also gone out on strike – including the aircraft refuelers. We decided we’d better call our airline (Qantas) before leaving the hotel to verify that our flight to Bangkok was still going to fly that morning. Qantas assured us that while all of their domestic Australia flights were being cancelled because of the strike that our flight to Bangkok wouldn’t be – our flight was the first leg of Qantas #1 to London and they assured us they were doing everything possible to avoid cancelling that flight. With that reassurance, we finished our hotel checkout and grabbed a taxi to the Sydney airport.
Our ride to the airport was uneventful – until we left our taxi with all of our bags and headed into the terminal building to check in for Qantas #1. Literally as we were walking into the terminal, the overhead display showing all of the flights began clicking away (I love those old clicking airport and railway terminal signs!) and the display for Qantas #1 changed from On Time to See Agent – not very encouraging! This was years before iPhones – so we didn’t have airline schedule information in the palm of our hands!
We lined up at the Qantas checkin counter and got the bad news – the flight had indeed been cancelled. No good alternatives were offered by Qantas – we were stuck. “See you tomorrow!” was the best they could offer but by then we would have missed the first day of our big meeting with clients in Bangkok! We were desperate for a better solution.
Fortunately for us, we happened to notice on the overhead display in the terminal that an Alitalia flight that was coming into Sydney from Bangkok and scheduled to arrive in about 90 minutes. We rushed over to the Alitalia check-in counter (fortunately there was no line!) and spoke with the Alitalia agent – asking him if this inbound plane might be heading back out to Bangkok on a return trip? Would the airport worker strike also result in the return flight also being cancelled?
I’ll never forget the agent’s reaction when he told us that he was going to do everything possible to keep this flight on schedule and to not have it impacted by the strike. He looked at us and said simply, with a strong Italian accent: “No one screws with the Pope’s airline!”
This guy was one serious, dedicated agent. When the flight arrived from Bangkok, he kept it parked out on the tarmac well away from the terminals – isolating it from the striking airport workers. We were escorted to buses (no union drivers apparently!) who bused us out to the plane (a 747-Combi – part airliner and part cargo plane).
As we waited in our bus to board, the agent told us to watch the unloading door on the side near the back of the plane. Slowly they unloaded two cars from the big door on side of 747 and lowered them to the ground. On our bus were the soon-to-be owners of those two cars – both Ferrari’s – who cheered as their cars were unloaded. After that bit of excitement, we left the bus and walked up the stairs to board at the front of the 747.
Once boarded we got the usual briefing and started taxiing for takeoff. As we turned the corner and starting rolling (not a lot of other air traffic that morning!) the big 747 picked up speed and started to lift off – with a big round of cheers and applause erupting in the cabin as we heading out of Sydney. Sort of like “escape from Saigon”! Only we weren’t headed back to Bangkok. We were on our way to Melbourne. Turns out that this was this flights regular route. Rome to Bangkok to Sydney to Melbourne back to Bangkok back to Rome. Our time in Melbourne was brief – we did pull up to the terminal, some passengers deplaned, others boarded, and we were off for Bangkok. Oh, one other thing – we also refueled in Melbourne after being kept from refueling in Sydney because of the striker airport workers!
We made it to Bangkok a few hours later than originally scheduled on Qantas #1 – but in time for our big meeting the next day. Alitalia saved us! My one and only flight on that now defunct airline.
There was one other time I encountered Alitalia. But this time it was from a distance. I had a layover for an hour or so at the airport in Denver. Turns out I was there waiting the same day that the Pope was flying in on one of his tours of the U.S. And, of course, he was flying “his” airline – Alitalia. I was able to see his plane land and taxi in just before I had to board my next flight.
Ciao Alitalia! The Pope’s airline indeed! Thanks for the very fond memories I have of your service!