ANALYSIS: Alitalia ownership reaches maturity

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The deal to relaunch Alitalia as a privately-owned carrier four years ago put an end to a tumultuous period for the airline. It lifted the carrier out of its then administration and took it off the political table where it had been a key issue in Silvio Berlusconi's 2008 prime ministerial campaign.

But the group of 21 Italian investors which rescued the carrier will be free to sell their shares after a four-year lock-in expires on 12 January. This in turn has set the speculation merry-go-round back in motion as Air France-KLM and Etihad have both been linked as potential buyers of the some of these smaller stakes.

Air France-KLM's original attempt to acquire Alitalia back in 2008 became wrapped up in Berlusconi's election-winning campaign, who pressed for the carrier to remain under Italian ownership. The Franco-Dutch carrier later dropped its takeover offer after failing to secure Italian union support, but ultimately took a 25% stake when the new owners sought a strategic partner.

Although the largest individual stakeholder in Alitalia and a joint-venture partner with the Italian operator, Air France-KLM has distanced itself from reports in Italy that it is set to buy the outstanding shares in the airline, offering Italian investors a 20% premium on what they paid in 2008. It stresses that it has no plans - nor arguably the funds - to raise its stake in 2013.

"There are no open negotiations as of today. Air France-KLM's resources are limited and do not allow us to go ahead with such a deal," says Air France chief executive Alexandre de Juniac, noting more immediate priorities means nothing is likely to happen before 2014.

And in an echo of four years ago, Berlusconi is back on the campaign trail ahead of Italian elections in February and is quoted in the country's media as saying he would make the same decision again if elected should there be a move for French control.

Meanwhile Gulf carrier Etihad, an active acquirer of airline stakes, has been tipped with interest in buying some of the smaller stakes should some of Alitalia's lesser Italian stakeholders look to sell. Etihad is itself a recent ally of Air France having agreed a wide-ranging three-way codeshare deal with the SkyTeam carrier, also involving Air Berlin - the struggling German carrier it acquired a year ago.

While Etihad is not short of airline investment opportunities - not least in India where it has been talking to Jet Airways and Kingfisher - the opportunity for a foothold in the fragmented Italian market may prove an attractive option.

"The market is there, the big question is who is best placed to take it," says Peter Morris, chief economist of Flightglobal consultancy Ascend. He points to the strong growth in recent years of low-cost carriers in the highly fragmented Italian market. "It's drifting away to groups like Ryanair and EasyJet and on the long-haul is drifting towards Air France, feeding through Charles de Gaulle," he says.

Then and now: Italy domestic market share 2008 and 2013

Airline

Jan 2013 share

Jan 2008 share

Alitalia 41.3% 37.5%
Ryanair 24.2% 3.8%
Meridiana 11.5% 11.9%
EasyJet 10.0% 3.8%
Air One* 9.9% 20.9%
Wind Jet** n/a 9.8%
Others 5.1% 12.3%
Notes: Air One was an independent carrier in 2008 and is now a brand of Alitalia. Wind Jet ceased operations in 2012. Based on January weekly schedules data from Innovata

Ryanair and EasyJet in particular have had success in building footholds in Italy, exploiting the opportunities as the country's carriers have struggled. Indeed, assuming a judicial review goes its way, EasyJet is even set to break into the much-prized Milan Linate-Rome Fiumicino business market, enjoyed as a monopoly by Alitalia under special competition dispensation since its merger with the previous operator Air One.

Then and now: Italy-Western Europe market share 2008 and 2013

Airline

Jan 2013 share

Jan 2008 share

Ryanair 25.0% 15%
Alitalia 21.3% 26.6%
EasyJet 12.0% 5.8%
Meridiana 5.1% 5.8%
Air One* 4.1% 8.9%
Lufthansa 3.6% 3.6%
Air France 3.5% 3.0%
British Airways 3.3% 2.5%
Turkish Airlines 2.6% 0.5%
Wind Jet** n/a 4.1%
Others 19.5% 24.2%
Notes: Air One was an independent carrier in 2008 and is now a brand of Alitalia. Wind Jet ceased operations in 2012. Based on January weekly schedules data from Innovata

Morris notes there is a fundamental strength in the Italian market, but the split between the different political and commercial centres of Rome and Milan, and within the airport system of the latter, has always made it complicated for Alitalia.

"By that time you have it that fragmented, its difficult to get your economies in place, and that opens the way for low-cost competitors on point-to-point routes," he says.

While the new Alitalia remains loss-making, it has at least staunched the bleeding in what has been a pretty tough environment given first the global financial crisis, then the challenges of Europe's debt crisis. Combined net and operating losses of $773 million and $530 million respectively between 2009-11, compare to net and operating losses of $2.7 billion and $2.0 billion in its last four years of state ownership.

Alitalia has racked up another $157 million in operating losses over the first nine months of the year, and has never previously recorded a profit in the seasonally-difficult fourth quarter.

Revenues, reduced as the merged Air One-Alitalia was forced to significantly cut the scope of the operation to secure EC approval of the restructuring, jumped back nearly $1 billion in the first three years of its private life to $4.8 billion. Passenger numbers have also returned and reached a historic high of 25.3 million in 2011.

The carrier has also done much to modernise an ageing fleet. The last of its elderly Boeing MD-80s was phased out in December as part of a renewal that has seen 55 aircraft - a mix of Embraer 175/190s, Airbus A319s, A320s and A330s - join the fleet over the last four years.

Additional reporting by Alex Thomas