Alitalia’s Rescue Heads for a New Delay

 - October 16, 2019, 2:00 PM

Italian infrastructure group Atlantia and state-owned railway company Ferrovie dello Stato (FS) remain committed to the rescue of the country’s loss-making national airline, though they attached a string of conditions to their potential participation in a re-launch of Alitalia, including the involvement of an airline in the ownership and management of the new flag carrier. FS, which leads the effort to devise a rescue strategy for Alitalia, has engaged in talks with Delta Air Lines since the start of the rescue process, but discussions apparently have not yet led to a firm agreement.

In separate but similar statements, FS and Atlantia said their intention to take part in putting together a binding offer to acquire Alitalia and Alitalia CityLiner, Alitalia’s regional operator, would require the participation of a “leading airline” capable of contributing commercial, network, operational, technical, and management expertise. In addition, the industrial partner would need to take a “significant” share in the capital of what has been dubbed Alitalia Newco and must assume a “major role” in managing and implementing the business plan for the new airline. Reportedly, Delta Air Lines was willing to take a 10 percent stake.  

Plans from the former Italian coalition government—a new coalition has been in place since September—called for the state to maintain control of the airline and at least a 51 percent ownership. FS and Atlantia stressed they would own only minority shares in the relaunched Alitalia, while Atlantia insisted it will not be involved in Alitalia Newco’s day-to-day operations, to avoid potential conflicts of interest. The company owns close to a 100 percent interest in Aeroporti di Roma, the company that operates Rome’s airports—including Fiumicino, which serves as a main hub of Alitalia.

Another key condition involves obtaining clearance by the European Union’s antitrust regulator for “any financing” provided to Alitalia by the government. The European Commission in April last year opened an in-depth investigation to assess whether Italy's €900 million ($996 million) bridge loan to Alitalia constitutes state aid and whether it complies with EU rules for aid to companies in difficulty.

Other issues that need to find “suitable solutions” before putting together a binding offer, FS and Atlantia stated, include the need for government measures to enable the relaunched Alitalia to implement its business plan “under market conditions.” According to Corriere della Sera, the measures include curbing financial and marketing support by regional airports to low-cost carriers and a review of fifth-freedom traffic rights, which allow airlines from other countries to make direct links between Italy and a third country. The latter could be a demand from Delta, which objects to Emirates's daily fifth-freedom service from Dubai over Milan Malpensa to New York-JFK with an Airbus A380. Delta and Alitalia are members of the SkyTeam alliance.

The FS and Atlantia statements indicate that the Alitalia rescue operation faces yet another delay —the seventh since the process started. The economic development ministry had set October 15 as a deadline, the sixth, for FS to submit a long-term business plan and new shareholding structure for Alitalia Newco. Alitalia and its regional subsidiary Alitalia CityLiner were declared insolvent in May 2017 and the airlines were placed under extraordinary administration—a court and an administrative-directed procedure aimed at protecting a company’s assets, goodwill, and employees through the continuation, reactivation, or conversion of business activities.