“A piece of flying Italy flying around the world”: the rise and fall of Alitalia

Silvia Marchetti, CNN

Ciao ciao, Alitalia.

The Italian national carrier has announced that it will no longer issue tickets, setting off a countdown of just a few weeks until its familiar red and green livery disappears from our skies for good.

The national airline is set to be replaced in October by ITA, a smaller company with a different logo, but the service that once carried Italian pride, style and cuisine – not to mention the Pope – to all corners of the planet will be gone. since a long time. .

While Alitalia’s disappearance may lead to a sense of loss for many Italians, it is unlikely to come as a surprise. The airline has spent the past few decades on the brink of collapse as authorities have struggled to forge vital alliances with investors and other global carriers.

“Each time he managed to be saved, but with the sole result of further prolonging his agony,” explains Giovanni Orsina, director of the School of Government at LUISS University in Rome.

Founded 74 years ago, Alitalia was once known to Italians as “freccia alata” – aka the “winged arrow” in honor of speed – will retire for good. The tails of its planes bore the popular logo of a capital “A” shaped like an airplane wing and colored like the Italian flag.

Besides its cuisine and car brands, it was perhaps one of the most recognized symbols of Italy abroad.

When Italian families returned from a distant trip and set foot on an Alitalia plane, the flight attendant finally greeted them with a warm “buongiorno” and served them steaming spaghetti with tomato sauce and at the cotoletta alla Milanese for lunch, it was like coming home. To kill time, passengers could read Italian national newspapers.

Papal blessing

Alitalia prided itself on Italian style and food. Flight attendants in the 1950s were dressed in elegant uniforms designed by the fashion house Sorelle Fontana. Over the past few years, an impressive roster including Delia Biagiotti, Alberto Fabiani, Renato Balestra and even Giorgio Armani have created stylish outfits and comfortable seating.

The hot Italian cuisine served on board has at times made the company a favorite with international travelers. The duty free sold luxury Italian perfumes, watches, scarves and ties. In less enlightened times, husbands returning from a long-haul flight would bring their wives the last boutique item.

The airline has also had the blessing of religious authorities. From 1964, it regularly served as the official airline of the Pope, with the size of the aircraft varying depending on the distance flown. The plane carrying the Pope is commonly referred to as “Shepherd One” – the papal equivalent of Air Force One – and carries the flight number AZ4000.

It wasn’t all glamor and prestige for Alitalia. Over the past 30 years, the Italian government has injected billions of euros into the airline in an attempt to save it from extinction and keep its employees at work.

But, says Orsina, the airline simply couldn’t face global competition and adapt to changes in the aviation industry.

“The fall of Alitalia is the ultimate symbol of Italy’s historic and innate difficulty in dealing with globalization and increasing competition,” he told CNN. “The travel industry has undergone a revolution as Alitalia was stuck in an impasse, suffocated by companies, lobbies, unions and political pressure to keep it afloat despite its woes and the reality of a growing sector. evolution.”

Alitalia has shown little resilience, says Orsina. It just couldn’t keep up with the arrival of efficient low-cost carriers, operating with smaller crews and offering more competitive fares, newer aircraft and a larger list of global destinations.

Although Italy has always been a popular tourist destination, Alitalia’s profits have been steadily declining due to increasing competition, debts accumulated and bankruptcy followed. The company went through extraordinary administration several times. Many rescue missions have been mounted without long term success.

“Reach the bottom”

The aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, which severely affected the aviation industry, struck Alitalia hard, but the deadly strike was likely the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The authorities kept resuscitating him, believing that Alitalia just couldn’t fail, but there are limits and we have hit rock bottom,” Orsina says. “It’s like curing a terminally ill patient. You can try to make her feel less pain for a while, but not forever. It is therapeutic obstinacy.

Alitalia’s golden age began in the 1950s, when reconstruction after WWII sparked an economic boom in Italy and families were finally able to afford to travel to distant places.

“Italy was a defeated country recovering from the wounds of WWII and Alitalia came to represent collective hope and national identity,” said aerospace industry expert Gregory Alegi. “It conveyed a sense of belonging.”

With the advent of the jet age, the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome helped spread Alitalia’s fame around the world. The company even created a poster showing a javelin thrower with an airplane flying over its head.

“Having a common carrier was a must for Italy, an icon of national pride and patriotism,” says Orsina. “Italy couldn’t afford not to have them, it was like having police and carabineers. Alitalia was an indispensable accessory of the State because it was like having a piece of Italy flying around the world, ”explains Orsina.

Alitalia’s problems began in the 1990s when European deregulation made air traffic more competitive and Italian railways were strengthened, according to aerospace expert Alegi.

Delays and cancellations

The situation worsened when the authorities attempted to privatize Alitalia, triggering an endless quest for transport partners and businessmen ready to help the state meet the challenges of a free market. All partnerships failed, while unions fought against layoff plans.

And while Alitalia was loved as a symbol, she was often hated by her passengers.

The never-ending crisis ultimately led to a decline in the quality of service, Orsina says, with staff strikes, delayed or canceled flights and fewer long-haul trips. The Italians started to get frustrated.

According to recent polls, the majority of them believe that the state should have stopped funding the business with taxpayer money a long time ago.

That didn’t cloud the nostalgia felt by retired pilots, captains and flight attendants for the good old days, when wages were high and work came with benefits and prestige.

Rosetta Scrugli, a former Alitalia passenger who regularly travels to Asia for work, complains that union protests have caused her to lose important meetings abroad.

“The flight was either late or often even canceled,” she says. “I spent hours waiting at the terminal and my luggage got lost several times. It’s good to fly with a national carrier if things go well, otherwise it can be hell. Patriotism has nothing to do with it, efficiency is the key ”.

Scrugli also complained that Alitalia was flying to Asia via Milan, with no direct flights from Rome.

While little is yet known about the airline’s anointed successor, according to Alegi, it is hoped that the ITA will succeed where Alitalia failed.

But since it will be owned by the state, at least in the short term, no one expects it to skyrocket just yet.

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