Lufthansa subsidiary Lufthansa Italia launched multiple daily flights between Heathrow and Milan Malpensa this week, establishing a base to challenge troubled Alitalia in northern Italy.

The service will operate six times a day with connections to Rome, Naples and Bari as well as Bucharest and Budapest and five other European cities. But it is the lucrative Milan-Heathrow traffic that Lufthansa Italia sees as key.

Lufthansa Italia chief executive in waiting Heike Birlenbach said: “It is the first time Lufthansa has set up a new airline outside Germany. It is a strategic market and our share in northern Italy is already high, but the home carrier is struggling a bit and we will look to increase our presence.

“We could increase the frequency on routes and serve new destinations, international and domestic.”

Birlenbach said almost half the Heathrow-Milan seats available in April are sold, two-thirds of them in Italy. Lufthansa previously flew from Malpensa only to Germany.

She did not rule out transatlantic flights from Milan, but said no plans for long haul are in place.

Lufthansa Italia launched in February, announced Italian domestic flights in March and began flying from Heathrow on Sunday.

It operates nine aircraft, including one leased from BMI. German parent Lufthansa is in the process of negotiating a takeover of BMI now expected to go through in June.

The Italian subsidiary remains under the control of Lufthansa, but expects to gain an Italian air operator’s licence later this year, from when it will operate as independently with an Italian crew and Birlenbach as chief executive.

The onboard service will be Italian, with Birlenbach insisting: “Lufthansa Italia will combine the brand values of Lufthansa with Italian taste.”

Italian flag carrier Alitalia is in the process of emerging from bankruptcy protection in the hands of an Italian-led consortium including domestic carrier Air One and with Air France-KLM taking a 25% stake.