Cox: Arrivederci Alitalia, you won’t be missed

4 minute read

A departure board shows cancelled Alitalia flights at Rome–Fiumicino International Airport on Oct. 12, 2021. REUTERS/Rob Cox

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ROME, Oct 14 (Reuters Breakingviews) - In a taxi in Rome on Sunday night, I decided to check in for my flight back to Zurich the next morning. Weirdly, the Alitalia app showed no upcoming reservation. Then I remembered a not-particularly urgent email from Alitalia a couple of days earlier. Searching my inbox, I found it under the subject: “About your booking reference”.

Well, about that booking reference: It was a note confirming that my Monday 8:45 a.m. flight would be leaving, um, on Sunday. Not the following day.

So, forgive me for not shedding a tear as Alitalia flies its last route this evening after 74 years, with a flight from Cagliari in Sardinia to Rome. I am not alone in this sentiment. Otherwise-patriotic Italians who tell me they can’t wait for the carrier to disappear – to be replaced by a rebranded, smaller one called Italia Trasporto Aereo (ITA) – are too numerous to count. One former government official called it a “national shame”. Another: "Can't Lufthansa just take them over now?"

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It has certainly been a shameful drag on taxpayers, creditors, and the many international partners, including Etihad Airways, Delta Air Lines (DAL.N) and Air France-KLM (AIRF.PA) who invested in one of the company’s many bailouts. Just since 2017 the bill comes to $8 billion, according to a study by the Bruno Leoni Institute, a think tank, released this year. The 3.5 billion euros Rome threw at Alitalia in the pandemic – around 300,000 euros per employee - was twice its support for Italian schools.

There’s no single reason for Alitalia’s failure. Near the top of the list of self-inflicted harms are poor management and a generally toxic relationship with workers, who in turn staged regular strikes like the one on Monday that inspired Alitalia to anticipate my flight by a day. That also explains the declining levels of service. How could the national carrier of Italy, arguably home to the world’s best cuisine, serve pasta inferior to Cathay Pacific’s (0293.HK)?

On the bright side, though, Alitalia’s demise reflects a massive infrastructural success. The high-speed rail journey between the political and financial capitals of Rome and Milan is now just three hours, rendering the aerial route – Alitalia’s one-time cash cow – obsolete. There was no way Alitalia could fill the financial gap with flights to remoter destinations, like Sardinia, Sicily or Trieste.

For international destinations like Frankfurt and London favoured by price-agnostic professionals, Alitalia faced fierce competition from more reliable rivals like Deutsche Lufthansa (LHAG.DE) and British Airways. Meanwhile, budget-conscious Italians looking for weekend or holiday escapes opted for easyJet (EZJ.L) and Ryanair (RYA.I), now Italy’s largest carrier.

The passenger shift to rails is perhaps to be celebrated as an unusual triumph of central planning. In addition to being more comfortable and generally cheaper, trains are fit for a low-carbon economy – a rail journey from Milan to Rome produces 25 kilograms of carbon, compared to 113 kilograms for a flight, according to EcoPassenger. Unsurprisingly, one of the oft-cited reasons for the perennial political failure to speed up Amtrak’s popular Boston-New York-Washington corridor is fierce lobbying by airlines.

In that sense, it’s a positive that government-owned Ferrovie dello Stato won out over the forces surrounding Alitalia, a publicly traded corporation a decade ago. Ironically, Ferrovie almost walked away with a major stake in the airline as part of a more recent, and ultimately aborted, Alitalia restructuring.

A smaller, debt-free carrier will rise from Alitalia’s ashes, one hopefully fitter for purpose. Its 50-odd planes will serve fewer destinations, 44, and grow from there with demand. It will pick up just half of Alitalia’s Rome Fiumicino slots, and 85% at Milan’s Linate. But there are some bad omens: the flight attendants will continue to wear Alitalia uniforms, descendants of those once designed by Giorgio Armani. The maiden journey tomorrow: Rome to Milan, the route the railways gutted.

And my flight to Zürich? Well, Alitalia's operators never picked up the phone. Not after an hour's wait. Not even on its U.S. number. I could have tried again on Tuesday, after the airline - which cancelled more than 100 flights on Monday - emerged from its strike. Try my luck for one last Alitalia ride? Nah. Swiss, one way, for a rich 232 euros - the price of poor competition. Next time, I'll take the train.

Follow @rob1cox on Twitter

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Editing by Ed Cropley and Karen Kwok

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