12 December 2022, etc.venues Monument, London
Business Travel Show Europe, presented by The BTN
21 November, London Hilton Metropole
Observing Alitalia over the past two or three years has been like watching an accident in slow motion with no power to stop it.With a saga that has had so many twists and turns, it would be foolhardy to predict it is nearly over. But there are signs that the endgame might at last be approaching.Certainly the convoluted statement for the directors after their last meeting on Tuesday (April 8) suggested the game might nearly be up. The directors, it seems, are reduced simply to playing for time until something turns up. This is not a sound business strategy.Alitalia has been a loss-making airline for years. But it has been buoyed up in the past successive Italian governments which with a 49.9% stake in the carrier were ready to bail it out when necessary.It is never easy to sell a loss-making operation and Air France KLM's offer to buy out the government's stake and take over the airline must have seemed like too good to be true to the then centre-left Italian government of Romano Prodi. But in a twist so typical of the whole sorry tale, no sooner had AF KLM's negotiators, led by chairman and ceo Jean-Cyril Spinetta, got their feet under the table than Mr Prodi's government fell.The negotiations were never going to be easy. The AF KLM plan envisaged the severe reductions of flights from Milan's Malpensa Airport and with it a loss of some 2,000 jobs. It would have taken a considerable amount of Mr Spinetta's ample skills to sell that to Italian unions which had set their face against redundancies. But what was worse was that there might be an alternative to this. A bid by a rival airline, the Italian-owned Air One had been rejected by the Prodi government. Its plans involved no great cuts at Malpensa, no great redundancies and - best of all - would have kept Alitalia in Italian hands. This was fertile ground for opportunistic politicians ready to play the “nationalist” card. All this has hung over the AF KLM talks like a spectre at the feast.What happens next appears to be down top fortune. Alitalia's coffers are nearly empty and the directors say they need "substantial financial support" just to keep going. At the end of the day there seems to be a vague hope that AF KLM might return to the fray although this is an extra-positive reading of it take it or leave statement.This clearly states that the talks are over, that six attempts at talks with the unions yielded little f anything and that while the offer was still on the table "It is now up to Alitalia, its employees and unions representing staff to say how they view the future of their airline."In other words, it will need a change of heart from the unions on their opposition to redundancies to persuade AF KLM back to the negotiations. Whether the unions will change their minds is one of the great unknowns. The second is what will happen in the Italian general election next week (April 13-14)? If the centre-left win, will the deal be back on? Very possibly as current ministers have said there is no real alternative.But if the right win, Silvio Berlusconi becomes prime minister, as the polls predict, what then?Me Berlusconi has said he would block the AF KLM deal and open the Alitalia books to Air One to let that airline prepare a new bid.But will Alitalia keep going during this period without financial support or will the director have to start bankruptcy proceedings? Time is on no one's side here.There can be no one who seriously believes that Alitalia can go on the way it is. Not the unions, not the politicians, not even the nationalists. It needs an urgent cash injection, followed swiftly by a realistic re-structuring plan which will give it a chance of becoming profitable. What it doesn't need is opportunistic posturing.Next week will show whether it will get them - but it does not look good.