When inadequate long-haul IFE makes you grow sick of your phone

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Ah Rome, the eternal city. But flying back from Rome on Alitalia with what seemed like an ancient inflight entertainment (IFE) system felt like the eternal flight.

There are only a handful of airlines that operate non-stop flights from Rome to Los Angeles and Alitalia is one of them.

A non-stop flight back home was a priority for me, after 10 days of exhausting but exhilarating travel throughout the UK and southern Italy, (involving two easyJet flights, four different airports, five train rides, one ferry, two hired cars and six different hotels.) “One and done!,” I thought of this non-stop flight. Premium economy was not a priority as I’ve survived several long-haul flights in economy, but as an early birthday present to myself I figured it was justifiable. And did I mention I was already exhausted from traveling?

Since Alitalia had better-priced fares than its competitors (Air France, KLM, and Delta), I splurged and booked that premium economy flight from Rome to Los Angeles. The last time I flew Alitalia was 1999, coming home from a six-week summer program in Siena, and people could still smoke in the back rows of the airplane. So I was excited to see how the carrier’s 21st century product measured up.

A few days before the trip, Alitalia offers passengers the opportunity to upgrade their tickets. This is not uncommon of course. But Alitalia makes you bid on the upgrade. So you get to decide how much you want to pay to upgrade to the next class. Um. Ok? I submitted a bid of 500 Euros to upgrade from premium economy but it wasn’t accepted. Which didn’t surprise me. One thing to note: don’t check in for your flight until you hear about your bid. The moment you check-in, your bid becomes invalid.

Still, premium economy gets you entrance to a fast-track type of security screening and priority boarding. It is a long walk from the check-in at Fiumicino Airport (FCO) to the actual gate, made longer by duty-free designer shops that are open along the way. But boarding was remarkably calm and smooth (compared to the domestic flights in the US) and we took our seats in premium economy without much trouble.

My premium economy seat on Alitalia. Image: Juliana Shallcross

The Boeing 777 set-up of premium economy on this Alitalia flight was 2-4-2. I was seated in the aisle in the four-seat section. While the seat doesn’t have much of a recline (about 9 inches), it was comfortable enough and so I settled in for the 14-hour flight home.

Passengers are given blankets and pillows and a small amenity kit as well. But during the boarding process, I noticed my foot rest wouldn’t actually go all the way up. The man across the aisle from me had trouble with his foot rest too. So Alitalia called maintenance onto the plane to look at our seats. After about 10 minutes and three different maintenance men looking at my foot rest, they told me they couldn’t fix it and asked if I would I be ok with leaving it down the entire flight. Sure, I said. Just a minor inconvenience. And luckily, I’m a person who can actually sleep sitting up on airplanes.

Passengers are given simple amenity kits. Image: Juliana Shallcross

Once the first meal service was out of the way, (I chose a ravioli and it was your average airplane ravioli), I settled in with my book and then eventually dozed off. When I woke, there was some commotion behind me and an announcement came on asking for a doctor. A passenger had some sort of incident and was bleeding. He ended up being taken to the back galley and there was enough room for him to lay down for several hours there. Ultimately, he made it back to his seat and was fine.

But from then on, service was spotty. Drinks and snacks were self-serve in the back of the airplane, for both premium and economy passengers. Sandwiches were passed out mid-way through the flight and the cabin crew members were able to make a drink service as well.

By this time, I finished my book and decided to use the 10-inch seatback inflight entertainment system to watch a few movies. After all, there were about seven more hours to kill. Yet the lack of a touch screen surprised me. Instead, I pulled out the remote that was set into the armrest and fumbled around with the buttons to select a movie. Most of them were a few years old, although there were some new movie options available and plenty of Italian movies. I settled on some awful comedy about bird-spotting from 2011 with Jack Black, Owen Wilson and Steve Martin.

Once that was over, I just used my phone to listen to music and write in my journal. Yes, for about five hours. I didn’t notice any USB ports either. Oh, and I held a five-month old for an hour while chatting with his mom. About an hour and a half before landing, we were finally fed again (a calzone and some cheese and meat.) After all that was cleared away, we landed in Los Angeles, safe and sound, if just totally sick of looking at my phone.

Obviously, Alitalia is having some hard times, having filed for bankruptcy and with the Italian government unsure of how to solve this problem. So it feels wrong to bag on them for this.

Still, if there are improvements being made to the carrier’s crew’s uniforms, shouldn’t there be improvements for the IFE as well? For the record, I loved the flight attendant and gate check-in uniforms. The green and red combos are bold, but the crew looked bellissima.

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