Airport Operator Atlantia, Delta Picked to Help Reboot Alitalia

 - July 15, 2019, 3:32 PM
An Alitalia Boeing 777 taxis at Toronto Pearson International Airport in 2012. (Photo: Flickr: Creative Commons (BY-SA) by BriYYZ)

Following months of delay and persistent changes to various deadlines—including the deadline to repay a government-backed €900 million bridge loan—the re-launch of Alitalia appears within reach as a second private investor group has won the right to participate in the rescue operation of Italy’s perennially loss-making national airline.

“Yesterday we received four expressions of interest regarding a possible participation in Alitalia,” a spokesman for state-owned railway operator Ferrovie dello Stato Italiano (FS), which leads efforts to find new shareholders and devise a business plan for the “New Alitalia,” told AIN. The board of directors considered the four proposals at its meeting on Monday, he said. 

In a statement released Monday evening, FS said the board had identified Italian motorway and airport infrastructure group Atlantia as a partner alongside Delta Air Lines and the ministry of economy and finance on the Alitalia rescue operation. It will start working with the chosen partners “as soon as possible” to share the business plan and the other elements of the possible binding offer.

FS received expressions of interest from Atlantia, Italian construction company Toto Holding, and Claudio Lotito, owner and chairman of Rome soccer club S.S. Lazio. A fourth proposal came from Avianca majority shareholder German Efromovich, who—unsuccessfully—tried to participate in the privatization of TAP Air Portugal a couple of years ago. Until recently Efromovich served as chairman of the Latin-American Star Alliance airline, but in May the board forced him out. 

The participation of Atlantia in the initial bidding remained uncertain and highly political owing to the company’s connection to the Morandi bridge disaster in Genoa August last year, but last week it confirmed it would submit a proposal, citing the “interest of its subsidiary Aeroporti di Roma for a competitive flag carrier generating traffic for the Rome airport system.” Controlled by the Benetton family, Atlantia manages Fiumicino and Ciampino airports in Rome and the three airports of Nice, Cannes-Mandelieu, and Saint Tropez in France.

Italian deputy prime minister and interior minister Matteo Salvini considers Atlantia a “natural partner” for Alitalia, though deputy prime minister and minister of economic development Luigi Di Maio is in charge of the dossier. In a Facebook post Sunday evening, Di Maio said hoped the most ambitious proposals would win. “We need a new Alitalia to contribute to tourism in the country, taking tourists from all over the world on long-range routes and bringing them into the world’s most beautiful country—Italy,” he wrote.  

Details of the business plan for the New Alitalia has not yet gone public; completion of the plan and a formal signature of the new shareholder arrangement will most likely take a couple of months, according to a person familiar with the talks. 

The shareholder plan for now calls for the state to hold the majority of the capital, with the treasury owning an initial 15 percent stake and FS 35 percent. Delta Air Lines would own a 10 to 15 percent stake. The Atlanta-based carrier stands as the only airline still willing to invest in Alitalia. All European airlines, including EasyJet, which initially indicated an interest in participating in the Italian flag carrier’s re-launch, have pulled out.

“We can be pretty certain that Delta will not have to empty out its piggy bank to make this investment,” ICF Aviation global managing director Samuel Engel told AIN. Delta now earns nearly $4 billion per year and just increased its dividend by 15 percent.

Delta, he noted, has methodically advanced a plan to become the first “global” airline. However, Engel noted that Delta’s plan differs from some earlier cross-border airline strategies, such as those of Swissair and  Etihad—which held a 49 percent stake when Alitalia filed for bankruptcy in 2017—in that it seeks to ensure each element fills a strategic need in the Atlanta-based airline’s network. “Despite Alitalia’s struggles, Italy remains an important European market, one you would prefer not to be in the hands of your competitors,” said Engel. “Having the heft to ‘own’ the major corporate contracts in a region has benefits that accrue to Delta, Air France-KLM, and all the other members of the growing Delta system.”   

From the perspective of the state and the investment consortium, Delta provides credible airline managers and systems that will ease efforts to improve Alitalia’s efficiency,  he added. “It doesn’t stop the LCCs barking at Alitalia’s door, but it does show that Alitalia has the wherewithal to hold the line against new entrants,” he concluded.