Published in March 2016 issue

Leonardo da Vinci International Airport, better known as Rome Fiumicino (FCO), is the eighth largest aviation hub in Europe. It boasts four terminals, 355 check-in desks, 83 boarding gates, and three runways capable of 90 movements per hour. Almost 100 airlines fly in and out of this bustling airport, the main hub for Alitalia (AZ) and a secondary hub for the Spanish low-cost carrier Vueling (VY).

By Matteo Legnani

In 2014, it recorded its best year ever: over 38 million passengers, 6.5% more than 2013. But, during the three months between May and July 2015, the airport experienced the most difficult period in its entire history, since opening in the summer of 1960.

It all started with a spark.

A few minutes after midnight on May 7, an electrical flicker inside a wine bar in Terminal 3 (T3) ignited a fire. At that late hour, the small fire went unnoticed for several minutes. When airport personnel alerted the firefighters, it was too late: the quickly spreading fire destroyed 18,000sq ft (6,000m2) of shops, corridors and waiting areas, filling the entire terminal with a thick, black smoke.

From the outside (both landside and airside), the scene was dramatic: 30ft (10m) flames illuminated the night as if it were daytime.

Not until 06:00 were the firefighting squads able to extinguish the flames completely. The dawn light revealed a spectral T3, reduced to a pile of blackened metal and concrete.

The entire airport was closed, as was the road and rail traffic from Rome. Not a single aircraft landed or took off until 14:00, when an Iberia (IB) flight departed for Madrid (MAD).

All incoming flights were canceled or diverted to other airports. Inside, the terminal complex was in complete chaos, with thousands of departing passengers stranded.

T3 is the main international terminal at FCO. With some 70 airlines (including home carrier AZ for long-haul flights), it usually handles about half of all the airport’s traffic.

Now, the security control area and 30 gates were unserviceable. The Pier D gates were inaccessible because the fire had erupted right in the middle of the building.

For a few days, operations had to be moved to Terminal 1 (T1)—where Alitalia domestic, Schengen flights, and Skyteam carriers are based—and Terminal 2 (T2)—home to low-cost carriers (LCCs) like easyJet and Ryanair. Around half of the 800 regular daily flights had to be  canceled as the airport was unable to cope with its usual flow of traffic.

The Civitavecchia District Attorney’s office started an investigation to establish how the fire had started and why it had spread so quickly. Suspicions fell on the insulating material used in the air conditioning and ceiling.

ENAC (Ente Nazionale per l’Aviazione Civile) and AdR (Aeroporti di Roma—the organization that manages both FCO and Ciampino [CIA] airports) worked together round the clock to restart T3 operations as soon as possible. All the areas not directly affected by the fire were cleaned, seven provisional security desks were set up, and a shuttle bus service for passengers was introduced between the Schengen (passport-free travel within Europe) and non-Schengen parts of the terminal. The building was reopened on May 18.

However, just a few days later, on May 26, Pier D had to be shut down again after the health authorities detected hazardous substances in the air. The District Attorney’s office ordered a further inspection. The unaffected sections of T3 remained active, with ground staff provided with anti-pollution masks and working hours cut by half. Nevertheless, the labor unions rebelled against what they called ‘a crime towards the workers’ and, over the following days, the airport’s activity was affected by strike actions.

“The problem is that, in the days following the fire, the operators had no clear information about the actual air quality inside the terminal and that caused the labor unions to protest,” Alberto Nanni, president of the Comitato Utenti Fiumicino (Fiumicino Users Committee), which represents 55 airlines at FCO, told Airways. “In such a confusing situation, we have to give credit to all the workers, whose responsible behavior enabled to limit passengers inconvenience as much as possible.”

Just 23 days later, on July 19—after working hard to bring the air pollution levels back within legal limits—the pier finally reopened, bringing the airport back to almost normal operation. But that state of affairs was short-lived. On the afternoon of July 29, a new fire erupted in a pine tree forest near the village of Focene, outside FCO’s borders but only a few yards from the airport’s western fence. At 14:00, high columns of smoke were reducing visibility, a situation that was made worse by strong winds. Runway 16R/34L had to be closed and operations slowed down.

Ten teams of airport firefighters prevented the flames from breaching FCO’s boundaries, but the fire was too big for them to put out. Finally, an hour and a half later, a Protezione Civile (Civil Protection) Canadair arrived and extinguished the fire. FCO had shut down for two hours, causing delays and canceled flights for the rest of the day and well into the night.

The Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, described the situation at FCO as “incredible and unacceptable”. Nevertheless, the government is partly responsible for what happened on July 29. In November 2013, the Ministry of the Interior had decided to close down a number of firefighter stations throughout the country, including the district of Fiumicino one. That left one of the largest municipalities in Italy, with a surface of 82sq miles (213km2)—an area larger than Milan or Florence—a population of 80,000, and an international airport, without firefighting capability. Although the airport has its own fire department, it is intended to operate only on airport grounds. Should they need to fight a fire outside the airport boundaries, they would have to assign limited forces to the task, so not to leave the airport unattended (which would force operations to stop). In any case, even a small fire can evolve into a catastrophe if the winds are particularly strong, as they were on July 29.

Alitalia was the airline the income, image, and reputation of which were damaged the most. In spring 2015, the Italian carrier had successfully completed a long partnering process with Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways (Airways, November 2015). That had led the Emirati carrier to become Alitalia’s most important stakeholder, with 49% of the stock. The losses from the fire at T3 were estimated at €80 million (US$91 million)—a major setback for the airline’s ambitions of developing an efficient Rome hub together with its new ally.

Alitalia’s Silvano Cassano was the first to speak out. The CEO threatened to leave FCO if reliable airport operations were not guaranteed. “If Fiumicino will continue to rely on low-cost carriers offering mediocre services to airlines and passengers,” he said, “Alitalia will be forced to relocate its growth elsewhere.”

Ryanair fired back, saying that it was ready to add planes and low-fare flights to and from Rome should AZ effectively decide to pull out of FCO. “Instead of putting the blame on airports like FCO, which are working hard to increase tourism and occupation in Italy,” sniped FR’s Head of Communications Robin Kiely, “Alitalia should try to reduce the frequent strikes by its pilots and cabin crews that damage travelers and the country’s economy.”

A few days later, James Hogan, CEO of Etihad and vice-president of AZ, issued his own warning. “Incidents like the ones that we experienced at Fiumicino in the last two months have serious consequences on the passengers’ trust and might have an impact on our will to invest in the Italian market,” Hogan said. “At the beginning of the year, we decided to rely strongly on FCO as our main base of operations in Europe, but now it is time for AdR to sustain our faith.”

On September 18, Cassano resigned, citing personal reasons, but some observers in Italy said that his criticism of FCO had sealed his fate. One local paper published an article titled ‘Who touches Fiumicino dies’, in reference to Cassano’s sudden resignation.

AdR is controlled through a holding company called Atlantia—a property of the Benetton family, one of the most powerful industrial dynasties in Italy, with interests in fashion, finance, and strategic infrastructures. Atlantia also has a participation in Alitalia, holding 7.44% of the airline. The Benetton group took control of FCO in 2007, seven years after the privatization of the airport.

For 40 years from its inauguration in 1960, when Rome hosted the Olympic Games, Fiumicino’s ownership remained public; the Italian government controlled FCO through IRI, the Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale (Institute for Industrial Reconstruction). In 2000, the airport was privatized, being adjudicated to the Gemina Group for €2.3 billion ($2.6 billion). The original plans were to invest at least €100 million ($109 million) per year to enable the airport to expand and grow. However, one year later, debts had scaled to €1.7 billion ($1.85 billion) and investments were of €56 million ($60.9 million) which barely covered the maintenance budget. The next few years saw little improvement. AdR only invested an average of €2.9 ($3.15) per passenger per year, four times less than other major European hubs and 20% less than Milan’s Linate (LIN) and Malpensa (MXP).

It is undeniable that major development took place at FCO when the airport was under public control: domestic Pier A, with 12 gates, opened in 1991; followed by international Pier B, with 10 gates, in 1995; and international Satellite C, with 11 gates and an automated people mover connected to the main terminal, in 1999 (Pier A, hosting A and B gates, was later renamed Terminal 1; Pier B, hosting D gates, and Satellite C, hosting G and H gates, were renamed Terminal 3; and the C gates area became Terminal 2).

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After privatization, the only major upgrade was the 2008 opening of Terminal 5, dedicated to check-in operations for American carriers and El Al, Israel’s national airline, and serving approximately 950,000 passengers per year. Pier C (E and F gates), the construction of which started back in 2007, has not yet been completed. AdR does not expect it to open sooner than late 2016.

During the 2000s, FCO experienced an impressive year-on-year increase of traffic, boosted by Alitalia’s decision to relocate its main hub there from MXP, where it had been located since 1998. At the end of 2008, the first year since the relocation, the move had brought FCO an additional 2.3 million passengers, an increase of 6.9% from 2007. That exceptional flow of aircraft and passengers was not matched by an adequate flow of money: until 2012, the annual investments averaged around €50 million. Only during 2013 did things change, with the government increasing airport taxes from €16 ($18) to €26.5 ($29) per passenger. As AdR CEO Lorenzo Lo Presti told the Italian Parliament in 2015: “We invested €130 million ($141.3 million) in 2013, €170 million ($184.8 million) in 2014, and €310 million ($337 million) during the current year, while we plan to put in €360 million ($391.4 million) for 2016.”

Well into the autumn of 2015, six months after the fire, the situation at T3 had not yet been resolved.

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“We still have shuttle buses linking the Schengen and non-Schengen boarding areas, and it will take from four to six months to reopen the area affected by the fire,” Patrizia Terlizzi, director for ENAC at FCO, told Airways. “It is not a matter of transfer time, because it is faster for passengers to ride the bus rather than walk; since T3 is very long, should you need to reach the G gates, you would also have to use the automated people mover. But travelers don’t like to ride on buses, because they get the impression of losing control of their time between flights.”

Alitalia’s threat to leave the airport did not materialize—and probably never will. The alternative would be MXP (AZ has a big presence at LIN, but that airport has a short runway and the terminal is already operating beyond its capacity). The Società Esercizi Aeroportuali (SEA) has invested heavily in MXP during the last five years, adding a third pier to Terminal 1 and renovating a large part of the building ahead of Milan’s 2015 World Expo. These improvements helped MXP to be awarded the title of Best European Airport 2015, in the 10-25 million-passengers category, by Airports Council International (ACI).

During the 10 years in which it used MXP as a hub, AZ’s management had trouble with flight crews and their labor unions, which constantly refused Pilots Flight Athe relocation of pilots and flight attendants from Rome to Milan. This caused awkward, expensive daily commutes between the two cities. Sometimes, Alitalia’s early morning flights from FCO to MXP almost entirely carried AZ crews. The same went for the late-evening ones in the opposite direction.

Claudio Del Bianco, spokesperson at SEA, told Airways that “a return of AZ to MXP is currently unimaginable. Of course, we would have the capability to restart hub operations at MXP, since the airport is used at half of its potential. But that is currently not an issue for us.”

Although Alitalia’s threat proved empty, one LCC did decide to reduce its presence at FCO. Last June, easyJet announced the cessation of most of its Rome flights by the end of 2016. In the summer of 2015, the British LCC had eight Airbus A319s based at FCO and flew to 24 domestic and international destinations from there. These will be reduced to just eight. U2’s management cited “too high airport fares, too low quality of service” and “a poor passenger experience” as the reasons for its decision. The 300 pilots and flight attendants based in the Italian capital will be relocated to reinforce the carrier’s bases in MXP and Naples (NAP) (Airways, September 2014), and to open a new one in Venice (VCE).

Gregory Alegi, who teaches History of Aviation at the Italian Air Force Academy and Aviation Management at Luiss Business School in Rome, said that FCO’s present problems are the result of at least 15 years of wrong strategies.

“For many years, the revenue generated by airport operations was used to service the debt incurred by its parent companies to acquire AdR or other ventures,” he told Airways. From a passenger’s perspective, “access is difficult, with an infrequent rail service not directly linked to the city’s subway system,” he said. “Worse yet, the train terminal is connected only to the domestic and Schengen Terminal 1, while intercontinental passengers heading to Terminal 3 must go through an old-fashioned stair system with all their luggage. Also, the aging baggage handling system cannot cope with peak traffic, which, in a great tourist city like Rome, means about half the year. This means that baggage delivery times are longer than elsewhere.”

Inside the terminal, Alegi continued, “the new commercial areas offering great Italian brands cannot hide the overall aging of the infrastructure, something made dramatically evident during the May 2015 fire crisis. Aging is not confined to the date of manufacture alone, but to the concept itself. Domestic and intra-European passengers often use buses to reach or leave their aircraft parked on the remote outer stands, long walks in crowded corridors and hallways are the norm, and airport amenities, from restaurants to other services, are generally more limited and less attractive than in other comparable airports.”

Yet, ENAC’s president Vito Riggio exudes optimism. In an interview given on September 19 (the day after Cassano’s resignation from Alitalia), he declared, “Despite the fire of May 7, the airport has supported the 6% increase of traffic registered in the summer months. Of course, FCO needs new spaces and that is why, no later than December 2016, we will inaugurate the new 968,750sq ft (90,000m2) Pier C, which will be capable of serving 5 million passengers per year. A new second pier, for another 5 million passengers, is planned for the near future (2019), while longer term programs include an entirely new terminal, the so-called Fiumicino North, with a capacity of 50 million passengers per year.”

That project, announced in July 2012 and designed by Singapore Changi Airport and the Urs-Scott Wilson global engineering company, is expected to cost €12 billion ($13.6 billion). The heart of it will be a 7 million sq ft (650,000m2) H-shaped terminal and two more parallel runways, also on the 16/34 headings. A people mover will connect the existing terminals and the new facility, which will have its own subway railway station. The first step in the project will be the construction of a fourth runway, which will be built 2,400ft (800m) to the west of and parallel to runway 16L/34R. The Master Plan, approved by ENAC on October 21, 2015, sets the completion date for 2021 and splits the opening of the Fiumicino North terminal complex in two phases. The first, including the eastern half of the new building and the apron, is expected to take place in 2028. The second, comprising the completion of the terminal and all related premises, has been postponed to 2044—18 years later than originally announced. The total cost of the intervention has been calculated at €6.4 billion ($7 billion).