Edited by: Michael Y. Park
& Keri Stooksbury
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Airline: ITA Airways
Aircraft: Airbus A330-900neo
Flight #: AZ679
Route: São Paulo-Guarulhos (GRU) to Rome (FCO)
Date: August 10, 2023
Duration: 11hr 45min
Cabin and Layout: ITA Airways premium economy; 24 seats in a 2-3-2 configuration
Cost: $624 + $247 upgrade bid
A month ago, I’d never flown premium economy. Now, I’ve flown it twice. Spoiler alert: This time was even better than my Air France premium economy flight, though I enjoyed both experiences.
I had a tight window of when I could leave South America and when I needed to be in Europe, which didn’t lead to any options for using my points and miles. Thus, I bought an economy flight at a time that worked and looked forward to flying ITA Airways for the first time. However, the airline offered me a chance to bid for an upgrade, and mine was accepted — even after I put in a bid for the lowest possible amount.
The cabin was extremely chic, the service was good, and I loved the modern amenities during the flight. However, I’m struggling to get any frequent flyer miles from this paid flight, so I’ll end with a few tips on what you should do if you have a similar experience on ITA Airways.
I needed to get from Bolivia to Istanbul and do so within a narrow band of dates. In the end, my best option was buying a cash fare at a time that worked. That included this ITA Airways flight from Brazil’s São Paulo-Guarulhos International Airport (GRU) to Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport (FCO). I paid $624 for the flight, which lasted 11 hours and 45 minutes.
A week prior to departure, I received an email telling me I could bid for upgrades to business class or premium economy. The minimum bid to move to premium economy was €229 (~$250).
The minimum bid to move up to business class was €829 (~$895). While that was overall a good deal for a transatlantic business-class ticket, it was more than I wanted to spend.
I consulted ExpertFlyer and saw that the flight had numerous seats available in premium economy, so I bid the minimum amount and hoped to get lucky. 48 hours before departure, I received an email saying my upgrade was approved and that I could choose a seat in the premium economy cabin.
In total, I paid $869 for a flight that typically costs $2,785 in premium economy.
I booked an itinerary with split tickets on GOL and ITA Airways, arriving from Bolivia. Even though these were separate tickets, I was able to check in online with the ITA Airways mobile app (iOS, Android) and get a boarding pass.
Using this method, I was able to transfer from Terminal 2 to Terminal 3 airside, not needing to go through passport control or go upstairs to check in. This was despite the fact I had a one-way ticket only with ITA Airways (meaning I didn’t show anyone proof I was leaving the EU), so I recommend you save time doing this if you have carry-on bags only.
With a premium economy ticket, I didn’t have lounge privileges at GRU. However, I’ve visited most lounges at the airport and will recommend 2 that many readers will have access to in Terminal 3 (which serves nearly all international departures).
The Centurion Lounge is available for those with The Platinum Card® from American Express or The Business Platinum Card® from American Express. It offers abundant seating, a quiet space, and lots of outlets to charge your phones.
Espaço Banco Safra (formerly known as the Star Alliance Lounge) is available to those with a Priority Pass membership. It has a quiet room/sleeping room that’s quite nice, and while the buffet is better than that at the Centurion Lounge, the lounge overall is a bit noisier. Seating can be hard to find at busy times.
I love GRU. I’ve flown out of this airport countless times. That’s an important preface.
However, as is custom at this airport, boarding was a mess. Announcements were nearly unintelligible, so people loosely went to where they thought they should be, but it didn’t resemble lines by boarding groups or cabins.
At this point, staff called a few names, one of which was mine. Since I had checked in online and not shown my passport to anyone, I wasn’t surprised. They wanted to see proof I was leaving the EU at some point and scan my passport.
A few minutes later, an employee began yelling about boarding groups and indicating signs, but what you see in these photos was the result — not something I’d call “lines.” And once they began priority boarding (not priority by status but Brazil’s law of priority for elderly, families with young kids, disabled, etc.) people who had no idea what was happening just followed the crowd, which resulted in more yelling.
Boarding itself started about 20 minutes late. Eventually, we got priority and business-class passengers on board, then my turn came. We boarded from gates 301 and 302, which are the only gates to the left when you reach the main departures hall in GRU’s Terminal 3.
We boarded through the middle door into the galley between business class and premium economy. Despite boarding starting 20 minutes late, we only departed 5 minutes late. We made up time during boarding, which surprised me, given how it had started.
At the door to the plane, friendly flight attendants checked boarding passes and indicated which aisle people should use to access their seats. I had 21L, a window seat on the plane’s right side.
I smiled as soon as I saw it. The cabin was really chic. I loved the color palette and design of the seats in the premium economy cabin.
The cabin had 24 seats in a 2-3-2 layout, meaning not every seat had aisle access. Headrests had support to prevent your head from flopping around while sleeping, and while the fabric looked a bit rough, it was smooth to the touch.
Each headrest also had the ITA Airways logo, and the seats looked extremely clean, given how new the airline and its cabins were.
The seats had good spacing: 40 inches of pitch.
The cabin had a staggered layout from the middle section to the seats along the window. Many seats in the premium economy cabin were empty on this flight. Of the 24 seats, only 11 had passengers. This likely helped my upgrade bid get approved.
Overhead bins were available in the center section and along the windows, and many went unused.
Cabin lighting rotated among green, blue, and red during the flight. This provided sufficient light for meal service and going to the bathroom without the brightness of white lights that can make it hard to sleep.
Upon arrival at my seat, there was a plastic bag with a large pillow and blanket inside. The pillow had great support — definitely above average for airline pillows.
Between the seats, the navy-and-beige color scheme continued with the armrests and the small tray for drinks.
This molding also had universal outlets and USB-A and USB-C charging ports.
Inside the center armrest, I found the tray table.
The table had a nice wooden design, which I loved.
The table easily held my 13-inch laptop.
Next to the entertainment screen was a coat hook.
The back of the seat in front of me had a pocket that contained the safety information card. A space next to this could hold bottled water. Underneath was a footrest.
You could fold the footrest away when you weren’t using it.
Along the window, the outer armrest had 2 buttons for controlling the seat’s recline and legrest.
The legrest only lifted up part way; it didn’t go as far as a recliner chair you might have at home.
While the idea was nice, I found these a bit impractical. They extended enough to make it difficult for the person next to you to pass by and go to the bathroom.
But the legrests don’t go up enough to truly be comfortable, and using it in connection with the footrest was uncomfortable. With the leg rest extended all the way, it pushed my feet awkwardly into the bottom of the seat in front. I found that the best option was just using the footrest and not the legrest. For reference, I’m 5 feet 10 inches tall and wear size 11.5 shoes, so it wasn’t a height issue but could be a big-feet-in-a-small-space issue.
Given that premium economy was between economy and business class, the meal should have been something nicer than economy while not quite as good as what business class received.
How did ITA Airways strike this balance? Unlike my Air France premium economy experience, which had paper plates, ITA served the meal on real dishes with real silverware. The presentation was nice.
My meal options were chicken or pasta. When I told the flight attendant I’d requested a special meal, she sent someone to look for it. After 10 minutes, this member of the crew returned with a tray. Half of the contents met the criteria for my requested vegan meal, but considering this was catering at GRU, this was a win. The main meal was brown rice, polenta, and steamed veggies. The polenta was excellent and full of flavor, but the rest had little to savor.
An hour before landing, the crew handed out sandwiches and cereal bars. Again, the flight attendant seemed unsure whether they had anything on board for my special meal request. I eventually received this uninspiring bread roll with slices of zucchini and sun-dried tomatoes.
Other guests had choices of a sandwich with egg and cheese or ham, egg, and cheese. Given the facial expressions of other passengers while eating, these didn’t seem to have much flavor, either.
Each seat in premium economy had a 15.2-inch screen.
There was one feature I especially enjoyed on this new plane: Seats at the bulkhead had screens mounted on the wall rather than pulling out from inside the armrest. In the other rows, screens were on the back of the seat in front. These were all touchscreen-enabled and worked really easily.
I really enjoyed the safety video. ITA leaned into the fact the Olympics were happening in Europe in 2024.
In that vein, previous Olympic medal winners provided demonstrations throughout the video.
There was a remote in the side of the center armrest. Even when stowed away, it showed the remaining flight time.
It popped out with a release button. The remote was lightweight, wasn’t a touchscreen, and had just a few buttons for functions like fast forward, home, volume, and calling a flight attendant.
The staff distributed headphones prior to takeoff. These were of good quality, though not noise-canceling.
The entertainment system didn’t require hunting for kids’ material. It was an option right on the home screen.
TV programming wasn’t available on the ground, however.
There were many movie options, with several ways to filter the search through the library, like by genre or subtitle languages.
I found the audio section disappointing. It was only themed playlists. You couldn’t listen to an album or a particular artist.
The best feature, though, was being able to connect my own headphones via Bluetooth. Pairing was quick, accessed via the Bluetooth symbol at the top of the screen and then following the prompts.
I also enjoyed the “do not disturb” button to leave a clear message on the screen if you didn’t want flight attendants to wake you for meals.
Or you could choose “wake me for meals” and leave this symbol on the screen.
Wi-Fi was available throughout the flight. Messaging was free.
For $10, I purchased a “mailing & surfing” pass that could handle most activities. However, if you wanted to play games or stream online content, you needed the $25 package.
Though the sign-up screen advertised speeds of up to 250 Kbps, I got less than half of that. Speeds hovered around 0.63 Mbps download and 0.21 Mbps upload. While slow, it was stable and rarely disconnected, only going out for a minute or 2 once.
The lavatory for premium economy was at the front of the cabin, next to the galley separating us from business class. The lavatory was standard, matching what I might’ve found in economy.
We did not receive an amenity kit in premium economy on this flight.
Service was good. Flight attendants were present and smiling at boarding and deplaning, speaking cheerfully with passengers.
Before departure, they passed through the cabin offering bottled water and a welcome drink. We could choose from several types of juice served in paper cups.
Meal service was overall good. The crew cleared our tray tables soon after we’d finished eating, and I thought the flight attendants did a good job of both serving and collecting meals efficiently. They also were efficient and friendly when distributing the headsets.
The crew did a good job controlling the flow of traffic onto the steps as we deplaned from both the front and rear doors on arrival.
I’ll even call out the top-notch service from our bus driver who took us from the plane to the terminal on arrival. Though many airport employees ignored them, we saw several suitcases that had fallen off a luggage cart. But our driver stopped, went to the suitcases to see what flight they belonged to, and called in to report them. We waited at the scene until someone came to collect them and get them to the right plane.
ITA Airways is a new member of SkyTeam, but I’ve learned since my flight that it’s a member in name only in many respects. When checking in, I was able to add my Flying Blue account number to the ticket (which showed up on my boarding pass). Flying Blue, however, doesn’t issue miles or flight credits for ITA-marketed flights.
A week after the flight, when I found I still didn’t have any miles, I requested the missing flight credit. Air France sent me an email saying they didn’t offer miles for these flights and provided a link to an ITA Airways partnership page.
I struggled to find airlines to which I could credit a paid ITA Airways flight, finally settling on Virgin Atlantic Flying Club. But since my Flying Blue number was on the boarding pass, Flying Club has rejected my request twice. I am now waiting on Air France to send Virgin Atlantic a direct email saying I didn’t get credit before I can be issued Virgin Points.
Take note of these limited options for crediting ITA flights to other programs. Those are on top of the limited options for redeeming points and miles for ITA Airways flights at this time.
The service from the flight attendants didn’t rise to the wow factor, but it was good. The hard product on the flight was superior to the soft product, and I would definitely fly ITA Airways again. The cabin interior looked amazing, everything felt new and clean, and I treasured the ability to use my own headphones via Bluetooth.
As ITA is a young airline with new paint jobs and renovated cabin interiors, much of this should be expected. But I’m interested to see how these beige color palettes stand the test of time once passengers have started spilling grape juice on them. For now, I loved the light colors of the seats and the modern touches throughout the cabin.
ITA Airways has 2 plane types with premium economy seating: Airbus A330-200 and Airbus A330-900neo. The A330-200 aircraft has 17 premium economy seats, while the A330-900neo has 24 seats. Both use a 2-3-2 layout in premium economy.
ITA (Italia Transporto Aero) is a state-backed airline that took over Alitalia’s operations in October 2021. Through complicated negotiations, ITA is free from Alitalia’s debt. It’s more than a name change, but ITA has picked up where Alitalia left off.
On May 25, 2023, Lufthansa Group agreed to acquire a 41% stake in ITA Airways by the mid-2020s. ITA Airways will become part of the Lufthansa Group, which includes airlines like SWISS, Brussels Airlines, and Austrian Airlines. This means ITA Airways will likely leave SkyTeam at some point in the future as Lufthansa Group airlines are part of Star Alliance.
In premium economy, you have more space — both at your elbows and your knees. The chairs are more comfortable and recline further, too. Other aspects include more choices of alcohol, nicer meal service, and/or better headphones.
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Ryan has been on a quest to visit every country in the world and plans to hit his final country in 2023. Over the years, he’s written about award travel for publications including AwardWallet, The Points Guy, USA Today Blueprint, CNBC Select, Tripadvisor, and Forbes Advisor.
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