Alitalia, last call | Economy

Passengers next to an Alitalia plane, at Ciampino airport, around 1964.
Passengers next to an Alitalia plane, at Ciampino airport, around 1964.Getty

The history of Alitalia, its takeoff, turbulence, ups and downs and emergency landings is also that of the Italy of the last 75 years. The trajectory of its aircraft could perfectly draw the graph of the economy of the democratic era. Also of the state of mind of a country that took flight at the same time as its commercial aircraft and conquered the world with its capacity for innovation and aesthetic sense of business, but that succumbed to paralysis, strategic errors and the decline of its infrastructures. A story that ends today after a disastrous decade in which the company, a giant with feet of clay unable to compete in the new times, has cost about 20,000 million euros. On Thursday at 11:20 p.m., with the landing of flight AZ1586 from Cagliari, Commander Andrea Gioia, 55 years old and 15,000 hours of flight, will put an end to this adventure and to a lush chapter in modern Italy.

Alitalia was founded in Rome on September 16, 1946 under the name Alitali-Aerolinee Italiane Internazionali. Its first flight (Turin-Rome-Catania) crossed the sky on May 5, 1947, the same year that Italy signed the peace treaty with the allied powers and approved its democratic Constitution. Two months later he also made the first international trip, from Rome to Oslo and, in March of the following year, the first intercontinental trip was inaugurated, a 36-hour odyssey that connected Milan and Buenos Aires with intermediate stops in Rome, Dakar, Rio. de Janeiro and São Paulo. It was the beginning of the golden years, with the hiring of the first hostesses and the magic of hot food at 15,000 feet. In 1957, it merged with the other flag company of the country (Linee Aeree Italiane) and began its expansion in full boom economic. A period known as the Italian miracle, with some lines comparable to the moment the country is experiencing today thanks to the recovery funds of the European Union. Alitalia, however, is no longer saved by another miracle.

The company lived through years of enormous bonanza and exported to the world the famous made in Italy through its iconic logo. A design that today will remain in limbo – there is no agreement so that ITA, the new company, can incorporate it because Alitalia is asking for 290 million euros – and that marks a step change cooked in the last 30 years, when the transport market was liberalized aerial. The problem arose the day the Italian state privatized it. Despite losing money at the end of the 1990s, it was a well-positioned airline in a long-haul market and had a fleet of 175 airplanes carrying 30 million passengers a year. All the major public airlines passed into private hands in that period, but Alitalia failed in all its attempts until its market share diminished.

Alitalia workers protests about the company's new hires on September 28.
Alitalia workers protests about the company’s new hires on September 28.MAXIMUM PERCOSSI (EFE)

Since then, the company has tried several mergers – the most notorious with KLM, which ended in failure and a millionaire fine for the Dutch company – but never managed to form a large group, like its competitors. It kept staff, lost flights and passengers – in 2020 it had 6.6 million, compared to 52.2 for Ryanair or 36.4 for the Lufthansa group – and market share. Today, it is not even capable of competing on internal Italian flights or those departing from Italy: Ryanair has 23.2% share, Easyjet 12.3%, Lufthansa 9.2% and Alitalia 7.8%.

In 2017, the company began to have a public administrator and the State has had to inject about 500 million each year since then. The new plan involves a new investment of 1,350 million for the transformation of the company: it will go from having more than 100 aircraft to 52 and will reduce its workforce to around 2,800 people. The idea, of course, is to make it more manageable and adapt it to your income to be able to sell it. “The state will now put another 1,350 million euros. They say that they will try to minimize public spending, which has skyrocketed in recent years. Giuseppe Conte [el anterior primer ministro] it has already put in 3,000 million euros ”, recalls Andrea Giuricin, professor of Transport Economics at the Bicocca University of Milan and an expert in air transport. The plan is now clear. “[Mario] Draghi will now try to sell it to one of the big groups. But it will not be easy, because everyone has problems due to the impact of covid-19. This situation was reached because the policy did not have the courage to leave Alitalia at the mercy of the market. Lufthansa made an offer in 2017, but the workers did not agree, ”he recalls.

The bloodletting among the workers will be remarkable. Starting this Friday, 7,000 employees will stay at home. A figure that is multiplied by three if all the companies that live on Alitalia in the Lazio region are taken into account. Commander Danilo Baratti is one of them. He is 63 years old and had been with the company for 35 years. “The feeling is horrible. Now he will start a new dwarf company that will leave a lot of people at home spending a lot of money. With that amount an investment could be made. The idea that is always circulating is that Alitalia is a hole of money wasted. But that is exactly what they are going to do with ITA, waste those millions, “he says. The layoffs have been random, and many mothers, like 54-year-old flight attendant Marina Cecere, will lose their jobs. “I was close to retirement. About four and a half years. I will have to find work, but if young people with a master’s degree cannot, imagine me, ”he laments.

The problem with Alitalia is that it has had the expenses of a traditional company and the income and flights of a low cost. The new company, a kind of start-up public, should reverse that equation and will start flying on Friday with a Milan (Linate) -Bari route. At the moment the idea is to fly low, take ITA only to 16 Italian airports (not even Florence will be there); 20 more among those in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East; and two intercontinentals (New York and Tokyo). But there is no trust. The first flight has already been canceled due to lack of reservations. And it is not clear if the post-pandemic will allow meeting the deadlines of the industrial plan set by the Executive, which plans to double the fleet and personnel until 2025 (from 52 to 105 aircraft, and from 2,800 employees to 5,700). The new company, who knows, may also be able to accompany the rebirth of Italy after the crisis.