Alitalia protests continue, govt eyes legal options

ROME Thu Nov 13, 2008 7:27am EST

ROME Nov 13 (Reuters) - Protests by Alitalia employees opposed to a takeover by Italian businessmen stretched into a fourth day on Thursday, cancelling more than 20 flights and prompting authorities to mull legal options to end disruptions.

A group of Alitalia AZPIa.MI workers held an impromptu 24-hour strike on Monday and have since been following a strict "work-to-rule" protest that has caused delays, cancelled nearly 300 flights and heaped misery on travellers across Italy.

Alitalia's pilot and cabin crew unions have been up in arms over the planned introduction of new work contracts after the takeover by the CAI investor group, but they too have distanced themselves from the latest protests, blaming them on a small group of renegade workers.

Italy's centre-right government, which backs the CAI takeover, has struggled to get the protesters back to work, and the labour minister urged public prosecutors to intervene as Italian television played images of frustrated travellers.

Local media reports said the dead body of a woman, due to be flown to Albania, was still languishing in Rome's Fiumicino airport due to the protests, while Monday's strike cancelled a flight carrying 10 billion euros for the Bank of Italy.

The precious cargo later took off on a government aircraft.

"At this point it's a question of public order, because from my point of view there has been illegal behaviour," said Labour Minister Maurizio Sacconi. "The work-to-rule protest should be looked at carefully by prosecutors because the law is not to be followed just to the letter."

An Italian commissioner overseeing strikes said the "work-to-rule" protests were just as illegal as Monday's wildcat strike.

Italy's civil aviation agency Enac also fined Alitalia 250,000 euros over the lack of assistance provided to passengers during the disruption this week, and is mulling other penalties against the airline, Enac spokeswoman Loredana Rosati said.

The CAI group of top Italian businessmen is proceeding with the takeover -- which foresees it cherry-picking Alitalia's best assets, while leaving the rest to the Italian state -- despite the resistance, and won EU approval for the deal on Wednesday.

CAI has offered 275 million euros ($343.5 million) for Alitalia's core flight operations, 100 million euros in a mix of cash and debt for its various units, and will take on additional debt of 625 million euros.

Once the deal is wrapped up, CAI is expected to choose either Air France-KLM (AIRF.PA) or Lufthansa (LHAG.DE) as a foreign partner to enter the group with a 20 percent stake.

Italian daily MF on Thursday, in an unsourced report, said CAI had chosen Air France-KLM (AIRF.PA) and already informed the Italian government, although an official announcement will not be made until Dec. 2, after Alitalia's relaunch.

Air France-KLM, which faces its own four-day pilot strike from Friday, declined to comment. A CAI spokesman was not immediately available to respond. (Editing by Simon Jessop)