When Italian rapper Fedez flew to Sicily to marry fashion “influencer” Chiara Ferragni last summer, bankrupt Alitalia provided a special plane, complete with tailor-made tickets, a dedicated departure gate and onboard gadgets.
The company’s largesse sparked protests in parliament and online—as well as demands from the government for an explanation. Alitalia said the flight from Milan’s Linate airport to Catania was “a normal commercial accord and part of the company’s advertising campaign.”
Now, Alitalia might be down to its last fashion stunt.
After years of scandals and abysmal management, the airline has been under special administration for more than two years and now faces either liquidation or de facto nationalization. A group of public and private investors must submit a binding offer by Monday but most details—including who will join the bid—are murky.
“Alitalia can’t afford to lose more time,” said Claudio Tarlazzi, head of transport union Uiltrasporti. “Talks about possible shareholders are just political solutions at this stage. But Alitalia needs an industrial plan and an investment strategy.”
The core of the plan involves setting up a new company that would retain old Alitalia’s assets while its billions of euros of debt would remain with the old company and be liquidated.
Two state bodies—railway operator Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane SpA and the Treasury—are in talks to take a combined stake of about 50% in the new Alitalia, according to the economic development ministry headed by Luigi Di Maio, who is also deputy premier. U.S. carrier Delta Air Lines Inc. would take between 10% and 15%.
The numbers still don’t add up, and that’s where the tensions within Rome’s fractious coalition come into play. According to months of speculation in Italian media, the ideal candidate to complete the bidding group is Atlantia SpA, the Benetton family’s industrial arm which operates some of the country’s biggest airports.
But the Benettons’ future role has become the latest sore spot between Di Maio of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, who’s overseeing the search for investors, and fellow Deputy Premier Matteo Salvini of the rightist League.
After the deadly collapse of a highway bridge in Genoa last August, Di Maio wants to strip Autostrade per l’Italia SpA, which Atlantia controls, of its license to operate toll roads. That would probably rule out any Atlantia investment in Alitalia.
But any decision from a politically weakened Di Maio needs Salvini’s stamp of approval, according to a League lawmaker who asked not to be named. The League has been in contact with Atlantia about Alitalia, the lawmaker said.
At a board meeting Thursday, the Benettons’ company will discuss a potential investment of about 300 million euros ($336 million) to buy a stake of about 30%, according to a person familiar with the situation. The decision hinges on the participation of the Treasury and Delta, as well as a detailed business plan, the person said. Atlantia declined to comment.
There may be other parties to the investors’ group, including U.S.-based businessman Riccardo Toto, Lazio soccer club chairman Claudio Lotito and German Efromovich, ousted chairman of Colombian airline Avianca.
Whatever the outcome of the talks, lining up the new stakeholders would be only a prelude to months of further negotiations. If stakeholders reach an accord by Monday, discussions with unions on a new industrial plan will likely take place beginning in September, according to an official who declined to be named.
Before it’s even been announced, the latest salvage plan has fueled doubts about the airline’s future.
“Di Maio is just prolonging Alitalia’s agony,’’ said Carlo Alberto Carnevale Maffe, a professor of business strategy at Milan’s Bocconi University. “He’s seeking an Italian-led solution but the only way to save Alitalia is to make the company part of a European hub.’’
Even with state backing, the success of the new Alitalia is far from guaranteed. The airline has been hit by competition from low-cost rivals and high-speed trains. A lack of aircraft and a paucity of international slots have also limited its market share, according to Carnevale Maffe.
Today, the airline is kept alive by a 900 million-euro bridge loan from the state. It loses about 700,000 euros a day, or 300 million euros a year, according to another person familiar with the situation, and it has less than half a billion euros in cash left.
Yet if Alitalia is going down, it seems determined to go in style. In 2017, the airline went through its second re-branding campaign in just two years, with one of Italy’s top stylists designing new uniforms for ground and flight staff.
And while Alitalia was quick to assure that this “design collaboration” cost nothing, sooner or later, Italian taxpayers may ultimately have to pick up the tab.