MIAMI – Today, flag-carrier Alitalia (AZ) takes to the skies one last time before handing over the reins to ITA, Italy’s new national carrier, which begins service tomorrow. Flight AZ1586 departs Cagliari, Sardinia (CAG), to land for the last time in Rome (FCO).
After COVID-19 drove the final nail in the coffin for the long-struggling carrier, the Pope’s airline makes its final journey, bringing a 74-year relationship between Italy and the once-jet-setting flag carrier to a close. The airline symbolized Italy’s postwar boom and “la dolce vita.”
Since 2017, the carrier, which was Europe’s third-largest in the late 1960s after British Airways (BA) and Air France (AF), has been in an Italian version of bankruptcy protection. It has not made a profit in over two decades, owing to fierce competition from low-cost carriers and its own high-cost, strike-prone crew. As a sour ending, a strike this week resulted in the cancellation of almost 100 flights.
As for successor Italia Trasporto Aereo (ITA), the European Commission asked that the new airline be a significant departure from AZ, the latter which has benefited from a succession of state bailouts, in order to give the green light to the Italian government’s €1.35bn capital investment for the founding of ITA.
Regarding the Alitalia brand, following the extraordinary administration’s acceptance of the bid presented for a value of €90m, ITA took over the Alitalia moniker and associated web domains today in a long-awaited decision.
The newco will be able to continue to manage Alitalia’s websites, brand, livery, uniforms, and other associated identifications as a result of this transaction but only to keep the history of the defunct airline alive.
The Tale of Alitalia
Alitalia was founded on September 16, 1946, a year after WWII, as Aerolinee Italiane Internazionali, with funding from the Italian government and British European Airways (BEA) in a 60/40 split.
On May 5, 1947, the airline began operations with a trip from Turin to Catania and Rome on a three-engine Fiat G-12C Alcione bearing registration I-DALH carrying 18 persons including the crew. AZ quickly expanded throughout Europe, with its first intercontinental flight between Milan and South America taking place in 1948.
Alitalia combined with Linee Aeree Italiane on October 31, 1957, and became Alitalia – Linee Aeree Italiane. It was, however, known by its popular name, which was a mix of the Italian words for wings and Italy (“ali” and “Italia”). The first Alitalia logo included the “Winged Arrow” as a symbol of speed and remains a part of the Company heritage.
And so, AZ was set for the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, as well as the newly opened Fiumicino airport (FCO), where it had a base. It carried one million passengers by 1960, making it the first European airline to completely embrace the jet age. With its luxury and exclusivity, the Italian jet-setting airline hired the architect and designer Ignazio Gardella to restyle its DC-8 aircraft, creating a lush, club atmosphere in the cabin.
Alitalia would become the unofficial carrier of a newly emergent jet-set between the US and Europe, flying Italian and American movie stars between Hollywood and Italian film sets. The romanticization of Rome’s “sweet life” in films like Federico Fellini’s 1960 “La Dolce Vita” coincided with AZ’s zenith. Illustrious flier Sophia Loren was previously a part of the airline’s advertising campaign.
The airline grew in popularity. The stylized “A” with the colors of the Italian flag and the shape that perfectly fits AZ’s aircraft tails would come in 1969.
30 years later, with Giorgio Armani’s green, white, and red uniforms, AZ had elegantly grown from serving 10,000 passengers in 1947 to serving 25 million passengers in 2012 per year, 17% of the Italian market.
Alitalia was also the first airline in the world to fly a pope, with Shepherd One, a papal aircraft. The airline’s distinctive green and red tail-fin colors would serve as a backdrop for papal airport arrivals around the world for a succession of popes. Last month, Pope Francis flew AZ from Rome to Budapest, Hungary, and then to Slovakia.
However, the airline would become famous for both its high-style offerings and low managerial outcomes.
The Fall of Alitalia
According to industry archivists, AZ never adjusted to the major aviation industry deregulation during the 1970s, which resulted in legacy carrier consolidation and the advent of low-cost carriers. The airline’s lucrative domestic business was also being eroded by quicker and faster trains.
As a result, the state-owned airline struggled to make a profit, but the government was always willing to bail it out. When the European Union put a stop to the practice in 2006, the airline found itself in financial trouble.
Still, according to Andrea Giuricin, an economics professor at Milan’s Bicocca University and the CEO of TRA Consulting, the Italian government has invested more than €10bn in AZ since 2008, a figure unconfirmed by the carrier.
Alitalia went through a series of failed investment partnerships over the years as it struggled to slash expenses in the face of impending insolvency and union strikes.
In 2016, Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways (EY), which was once a major AZ stakeholder, launched training to help flight attendants be more courteous in a bid to turn the carrier around. The airline updated its airport lounges with new coffee blends and pizza ovens, as well as new uniforms, but these efforts would not suffice.
Alas, the final blow came in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down air traffic worldwide. Amid the groundings, Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi resisted requests for the government to intervene again in the airline’s rescue, sealing the airline’s fate.
Alitalia ceased selling tickets on 25 August 2021, pending the launch of ITA on 15 October. The final A320 AZ flight, set to depart from Cagliari, Sardinia at 10:05 pm, is scheduled to arrive n Rome at 11.00 p.m. CEST on Thursday, according to flightaware.com. The pope has yet to say whether ITA will be his preferred airline.
The Successor: ITA – Italia Trasporto Aereo
ITA, which is wholly owned by the Italian government, will begin operations with a fleet of 52 planes, increasing to 105 by the end of 2025. Only a portion of AZ’s flight slots will be inherited by the new flag carrier, with 85% of AZ’s slots at Milan’s Linate airport (LIN) and 43% at FCO.
ITA’s aviation unit will employ 2,800 AZ personnel this year, with the number growing to 5,750 in 2025 if the company wins the tender for AZ’s ground handling and maintenance divisions.
It is a sad day for Alitalia employees, the majority of whom will not be rehired by ITA when the airline resumes operations on Friday.
Many Italians see the airline and its iconic ‘A’ tail-wing insignia as a symbol of national pride. Today is an emotional date for them, and for many commercial aviation enthusiasts around the world.
Tomorrow, the new Italian flag carrier will take to the skies for the first time. When it launches, it will serve 44 destinations, with that number expected to grow to 74 by 2025.