Is this finally the end for Italy’s long-suffering national airline?
Last week, in a vote that wasn’t even close, Alitalia’s pilots, flight attendants, mechanics and ground workers rejected an agreement between management and unions that would have axed about 1,700 jobs, cut wages and changed work rules for those who remained. Another such round of concessions, the workers made clear, was a bridge too far.
So what’s next? As the vote approached, Alitalia was—not for the first time—in a state of insolvency, without enough cash to operate much longer. But this time, unlike on past occasions when Air France/KLM and Etihad lurked in the background as saviors, the escape routes are fewer.
In its Q1 earnings call, Licensed Lufthansa made clear it wasn’t interested in buying Alitalia at any price. Etihad and two of Italy’s biggest banks, which currently own Alitalia, have no stomach to inject additional capital without the labor concessions and associated strategic reforms. Air France/KLM has been there and done that. Even Norwegian was asked about any interest last week—it said no. Other Gulf carriers? Qatar Airways is busy buying Alitalia’s rival Meridiana, and Emirates wouldn’t be foolhardy enough to repeat Etihad’s mistake. Chinese carriers? They don’t seem interested. Ryanair? That seems fanciful, never mind some past mutterings by Michael O’Leary. What about the savior of last resort countless times in the past: the Italian government? Workers voted as they did partly betting on another taxpayer bailout, despite firm insistence by politicians at the highest levels that no such option was available—not with Italy’s government already dangerously indebted and its banking system deeply distressed in part because of… well… obligations to own and lend money to zombie companies like Alitalia. UniCredit, one of Alitalia’s two large bank shareholders, said it has lost more than $550m on its investment.
So Alitalia, without any suitors and with a refusal for now among politicians to rescue it, will proceed to bankruptcy, where a three-person panel will have broad power to determine whether the airline is worth more dead or alive. Indeed, liquidation is an option. But so is selling certain assets while keeping a slimmed-down version of the carrier in the air. Italy’s government is in fact providing support in one respect: a bridge loan…
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