One of the reasons for its end is the success of the Rome-Milan train, the only dairy cow among the company’s routes
On Sunday evening the 10th, in a taxi in Rome, I decided to check in for my flight back to Zurich the next morning. Strangely, the Alitalia app did not show any upcoming reservations. Then I remembered a not especially urgent email from Alitalia from a couple of days before. Searching my inbox, I found it under the subject: “About your booking reference”.
Well, about that booking reference: it was a note confirming that my flight on Monday the 11th at 8:45 am would be leaving, um, on Sunday. Not the next day.
So forgive me for not shedding a tear on Thursday, when Alitalia flew its last route after 74 years, with a flight from Cagliari (Sardinia) to Rome. I am not alone in this feeling. There are too many Italians, patriots for the rest, who tell me that they want the company to disappear, to be replaced by a smaller one called Italia Trasporto Aereo (ITA). A former government authority called it a “national shame.” Another: “Can’t Lufthansa take care of them now?”
It has certainly been an embarrassing drag on taxpayers, creditors and the many international partners, such as Etihad Airways, Delta Air Lines and Air France-KLM, who invested in one of the company’s many bailouts. Only since 2017 the bill has risen to 8,000 million dollars (6,900 million euros), according to a study by the Bruno Leoni Institute, a think tank, released this year. The 3.5 billion euros that Rome threw at Alitalia in the pandemic – about 300,000 per employee – was double its support for Italian schools.
There is no single reason for Alitalia’s failure. On the list of self-inflicted damages are mismanagement and a generally toxic relationship with the workers, who in turn organize periodic strikes like the one on Monday, which led Alitalia to anticipate my flight one day. This also explains the degradation of the service level. How is it possible that Italy’s national airline, which is possibly home to the best cuisine in the world, serves inferior pasta than Cathay Pacific?
The silver lining, however, is that Alitalia’s demise reflects huge infrastructure success. The high-speed train ride between the political and financial capitals Rome and Milan now takes just three hours, rendering the air route, which was Alitalia’s only dairy cow, obsolete. There was no way I could fill the financial gap with flights to destinations further afield, such as Sardinia, Sicily or Trieste.
For international destinations such as Frankfurt and London, favorites of price-agnostic professionals, Alitalia faced fierce competition from more reliable rivals such as Deutsche Lufthansa and British Airways. Meanwhile, budget-conscious Italians looking for weekend or vacation getaways were opting for easyJet and Ryanair, which is now Italy’s largest airline.
The movement of passengers to the railroad can be celebrated as an unusual triumph of central planning. In addition to being more comfortable and generally cheaper, the trains are suitable for a low-carbon economy: a train trip from Milan to Rome produces 25 kilos of carbon, compared to 113 kilos for a flight, according to EcoPassenger. . Not surprisingly, one of the most cited reasons for the perennial political failure in accelerating Amtrak’s popular Boston-New York-Washington corridor is fierce pressure from airlines.
In that sense, it is positive that the government-owned Ferrovie dello Stato prevailed over the forces surrounding Alitalia, a company that was listed on the Stock Exchange a decade ago. Ironically, Ferrovie came close to taking a significant stake in the airline as part of a more recent restructuring of Alitalia, which was ultimately aborted.
A smaller, debt-free airline will emerge from the ashes of the company, which is expected to be better prepared for its goals. Its 50 aircraft will serve fewer destinations, 44, and will grow from there with demand. It will only occupy half of Alitalia’s slots in Rome-Fiumicino, and 85% in Milan-Linate. But there are some bad omens: flight attendants will continue to wear Alitalia uniforms, descendants of those once designed by Giorgio Armani. The maiden voyage was on Friday: from Rome to Milan, the route consumed by railways.
And my flight to Zurich? Well, the Alitalia operators didn’t get to pick up the phone. Not after an hour of waiting. Not even his US number. It could have tried again on Tuesday, after the airline – which canceled more than 100 flights on Monday – came off its strike. Try your luck with one last Alitalia trip? No. Swiss, one way, for nothing more and nothing less than 232 euros: the price of bad competition. Next time, I’ll take the train.