Alitalia, Carrier Of Popes, Is Born Again

January 13, 2009

Alitalia, the airline that has flown popes, princes and prima donnas, was reborn as a smaller, privately-owned carrier amid chaos on Tuesday as protests by disgruntled employees delayed or cancelled inaugural flights.

Once a symbol of Italy's post-war economic boom, Alitalia filed for bankruptcy last year, succumbing to union strife, high costs and mismanagement. A group of Italian investors bought its best parts, leaving the rest to the Italian state.

After months of haggling with unions and frenetic talks with politicians seeking to save local airports, Alitalia flight AZ 676 to Sao Paolo took off promptly at 0610 am from Milan on the carrier's first flight under a new network and new owners.

"We've done it. There's no turning back from the new Alitalia now and all the prophets of misfortune have been silenced," said Employment Minister Maurizio Sacconi, whose government had made saving Alitalia a top priority.

But the airline's first domestic flight took off 20 minutes late and 11 flights at Milan's Linate Airport were cancelled because all gates for planes were occupied.

In a reminder of the old challenges facing the reshaped carrier, Alitalia workers wary of the impact from a new alliance with Air France-KLM demonstrated at Milan's Malpensa Airport by chanting slogans and waving union banners, causing delays.

At Rome's Fiumicino Airport, delays of more than two hours were reported as workers marched outside.

Alitalia's unions have been bickering with its new owners for months, accusing them of not respecting prior agreements. Alitalia CEO Rocco Sabelli said the unions were mainly unhappy with their pick of a new cleaning service.

"I don't have any illusions," Sabelli, who earlier said Alitalia had drawn up an emergency plan for the protests, told La Stampa daily.

"There are problems to be resolved, and there will be plenty more to resolve."

The new Alitalia maintains the carrier's brand and livery, but its new owners have revamped its flight network, axed a third of the work force and partnered with larger rival Air France-KLM in a bid to return it to a profit.

With its operations merged with those of smaller rival Air One, Alitalia will fly to 47 foreign and 23 Italian destinations in the new network. It targets increasing its market share to 56 percent from 30 percent and results breaking even in two years.

The airline may re-list on the stock exchange in three years, but first needs to fend off growing competition on its home turf from a new high-speed train service and rivals such as Lufthansa. It takes off against a backdrop of falling passenger and cargo traffic that has triggered a severe industry crisis.

Italian newspapers published nostalgic pictures of Alitalia's flights during its 1950s-60s heyday, with movie stars like Sofia Loren waving from the landing stairs and stewardesses sporting prim Alitalia-branded hat boxes and designer uniforms.

The airline's stewardesses were dressed by famous Italian designers including the Fontana sisters and Giorgio Armani.

Alitalia first took to the skies on September 16, 1946, in the tumultuous post-war period and later became the preferred carrier of popes and movie stars.

Film diva Anita Ekberg landed in Rome in Federico Fellini's 1960 classic "La Dolce Vita" on an Alitalia DC-6B propeller plane, and Pope Paul VI began the tradition of papal trips on Alitalia by using it on the first flight by a pope in 1964.

But the state-controlled carrier soon became a vehicle for political favours, and its unionised staff, who enjoyed lavish perks, prevented efforts to restructure to meet the 21st century challenges of an aviation downturn and low-cost competition.

"Alitalia died of grandeur," Augusto Fantozzi, who ran it during its bankruptcy told L'Espresso magazine. "It paid triple for everything. To give you an example: it would send three cars to pick up cabin crew, in case the first got a flat tyre and the motor broke down in the second. It was a waste."

AirWise © Ascent Pacific 2009

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