Although it did not place its Embraer 170 commitments until the middle of last year, Alitalia Express has found itself launch customer for the new regional jet following the deferral of deliveries to the original first operator, Swiss International Air Lines.

The Rome Fiumicino-based regional arm of Alitalia has six 170LRs (Long Range) on firm order along with six options, which can be taken up as any member of the 170/190 family. Delivery of the firm orders will begin in August and conclude early next year. Service entry is slated for October.

Operating a fleet of 12 ATR 42/72 turboprops and 11 Embraer ERJ-145s, Alitalia Express had a requirement for a 70-seat jet for its "marketability on high-yield sectors," says the airline's chief executive, Massimo Chieli. The timing was also helped by the availability of "good prices due to the situation in the market after 11 September 2001".

Despite the airline's existing Embraer affiliation, Chieli says a detailed evaluation of all the 70-seaters then available was made before the 170 was selected - the Bombardier CRJ700 and the now-defunct Fairchild Dornier 728. "Against the CRJ700 was the fact that the 170 was conceived as a 'real' 70-seater, rather than a stretch," he says.

Like the 170, the 728 was an all-new 70-seat design, but featured a five- rather than four-abreast cabin. Chieli says the 728 was rejected because it was "too flexible - it was not strictly a regional aircraft as it was quickly transferable into a mainline aircraft. It was more a medium-range aircraft than a regional jet."

Chieli says that flexibility of the 170's extended family of 80-, 90- and 100-seat models appeals, and he is studying whether to take up the options as one of the larger models. "Six aircraft is not a fleet - we need a minimum of eight to get a critical mass. I hope that we will be an early customer for the larger model."

Although there is no scope clause agreement with Alitalia pilots limiting the size of aircraft operating with Alitalia Express, Chieli does not expect the regional arm to operate aircraft with more than 99 seats in the short term.

He warns it is not certain that the options will be exercised. "I am not the only one making the decision," he says, as Alitalia Express is included in the strategic plan now being finalised by the mainline airline, which is due to be completed in the coming months.

The 170's network is still being designed, says Chieli. It will be used to expand international services, with possible destinations including Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Germany (Frankfurt or Munich), Switzerland, and "maybe" Prague and Poland. "Some domestic services may flown during the introduction," he adds.

The 170 could be used to help out its parent on low-demand routes, says Chieli. "It could substitute for an MD-80 on routes with low load factors, to keep slots and market presence."

The 170s are equipped with a 72 seat/32in (81cm) pitch cabin, but a mobile cabin divider will allow the airline to offer a two-class service. The airline expects its 170s to be certificated for Category 3B all-weather operations one year after introduction.

In its new role as launch operator, Alitalia Express is participating in the 170's Maturity test programme in June. These tests, which are required for certification, will involve the first production 170 (number seven).

Source: Flight International