Alitalia in exploratory talks with Air France-KLM

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Air France-KLM chief executive Jean-Cyril Spinetta has confirmed it is currently evaluating the goals and likely success of Alitalia’s business strategy as it considers the Italian carrier’s overtures to join the merged operation.

Alitalia boss Giancarlo Cimoli was last month formally tasked by the board with studying its options for securing a strategic partner for the carrier and SkyTeam partner Air France-KLM has always been a likely candidate given its existing co-operation with the carrier.

Air France – which holds a small stake in Alitalia – already jointly operates Franco-Italian routes in combination with the airline and has always left the door open to Alitalia joining the merged company in future. This though has always been conditional on the loss-making Italian airline improving its financial performance.

Speaking during a press conference to announce its second quarter results today, Spinetta today said: “Since July 2001 the relationship between Air France and Alitalia has always factored in a long-term merger possibility.  That is what we repeated in 2003 [when Air France announced its merger with KLM].”

He says there has been very little change to the situation, but confirms Alitalia has approached the airline. “At the request of Alitalia from the chairman, who was representing the board, we started to have exploratory talks with Alitalia to check three specific issues.”

Spinetta says it is looking at Alitalia’s business strategy to see if it could reach equilibrium and to see if it shares the same future vision as Air France-KLM. He says: “We want to make sure the vision of the future is shared.”

He adds if these two conditions are met, it would then look at what synergies would come from an integrated operation.

Spinetta says it would only be if the company has “positive responses” to these three points that it would be in position to approach its board to discuss possible integration.

In a statement, Alitalia confirms it is holding exploratory talks with Air France-KLM, but stresses these are at the initial phase and are not exclusive.

The topic of closer integration between the two carriers is likely to discussed during talks tomorrow between Italian prime minister Romano Prodi and French president Jacques Chirca.

Prodi is closely involved in the latest efforts to restore Alitalia’s fortunes. His personal involvement helped broker a truce between Alitalia and its unions in September and he aims to develop a new plan for the carrier – with a strategic partner at its heart – by the end of January.