MIAMI — Akbar Al Baker’s investment in Italy might be in jeopardy. Yesterday, Air Italy’s syndicates threatened to strike because of the airline’s decision to transfer from Olbia, Sardinia (OLB) to Milan-Malpensa (MXP), 51 ground staff to aid the carrier’s massive growth plans.
“The airline should stop the transfer of 51 working positions and instead, should promote a true industrial and development plan,” said the syndicate.
Only two months after the airline received its first of 20 Boeing 737 MAX 8s, the syndicates are cutting dry a short honeymoon period for Air Italy’s executives.
“Air Italy is making decisions unilaterally,” said William Zonca, Secretary at Uiltrasporti (Italian Flight Attendant Syndicate – Sardinia). “Breaking the established system of union relations will lead to new strike actions,” he said.
The syndicate’s leader declared that reducing by 16% the total workforce in Sardinia is nothing but a sign of further reductions with the airline’s planned growth in Milan, and not in Olbia.
AIR ITALY RESPONDS
“Should our company be constrained to operate in a hostile environment, the Air Italy project—an already challenging and difficult one to carry through—will be abandoned,” counters Marco Rigotti, the airline’s CEO.
Moreover, Rigotti said that Air Italy would open ten new working positions in Olbia at its maintenance center, which will perform all line and heavy maintenance on all its future 20 737 MAX 8s and 30 787-8s.
This announcement might calm things down in Sardinia, where the Region’s President, Francesco Pigliaru, had demanded that Air Italy’s growth plans must also boost the Sardinian airport.
“We ask that Sardinia be the protagonist of the airline’s growth. The conditions are all there; every other non-positive perspective would be not only unacceptable but also completely unjustified,” he said.
ITALY: A SYNDICATE-ORIENTED COUNTRY
“We are investing in the only Italian airline that has not gone through bankruptcy,” said Al Baker in February, when announcing that Qatar Airways was purchasing 49% of AQA Holding, the mother company of Sardinian leisure airline Meridiana (IG).
“We want to become the number-one airline brand in Italy,” he said. “And we have the resources to make it happen.”
But Al Baker and company might have underestimated the level of power Italian syndicates bear.
Alitalia, the country’s historic flag carrier, has been crippled because of endless syndicate troubles, including thousands of strikes that have paralyzed the airline’s ability to fly away from bankruptcy.
Meridiana, now Air Italy, is an airline that’s only 1/7th the size of Alitalia.
Al Baker, at the time, remarked that his plan would enable Air Italy to hire “more than 1,500 people.” And, in a country where unemployment is high, that was music to the ears of the Italian lawmakers.
However, Sardinian politicians and syndicates believe that a large chunk of these 1,500 positions will be based in Milan, and not in Olbia.
Last year alone, Meridiana had over 2,000 movements in and out of MXP. In 2019, these numbers are expected to quadruple with Air Italy’s ambitious growth plans, and will only grow further in the following years should the syndicates ease on their demands.
BIG MAINTENANCE OPERATION IN SARDINIA
Air Italy’s official headquarter will, in fact, remain in the Sardinian city of Olbia. However, the airline’s main operations will be in Milan-Malpensa, where the airline will actively position itself and compete against domestic and regional counterparts.
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“Milan and the Northern region of Italy are severely underserved,” Rigotti told Airways in June. “We see an opportunity. Milan is one of the most important cities in Europe. Northern Italians are forced to fly through other hubs, including Rome and, to them, that’s not convenient.”
But as far as Sardinia is concerned, the airline confirms it will be home its maintenance operation center.
Today, Meridiana Maintenance runs a solid business servicing A320/A330 family planes and Boeing 737/757/767s from other European operators.
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“We perform every maintenance program here. A, B, C-Checks, engines, landing gears, you name it,” Ivano Pippobello, the Maintenance Center’s President, told Airways. “We are ready to handle the 737 MAX, and we’re already organizing all the final courses for the 787’s integration,” he said.
On top of the maintenance center, Air Italy will also keep Olbia as a focus city—part of Prince Aga Khan’s development program which developed Costa Smeralda, one of the world’s most luxurious beach tourist destinations.
As things stand, Air Italy is set to grow strong through its growing hub in Milan-Malpensa.
However, should the airline’s syndicates continue moving forward with strike threats, the airline’s ambitious growth plan might be dramatically put to an end and follow the sad path that Alitalia has had to endure.