Chris Jasper/LONDON


Alitalia has begun a feasibility study into the launch of a regional carrier serving southern Italy in a move which counters British Airways plans to establish a franchise airline based on Rome and Palermo.

The Italian flag carrier's study - which is to be completed by June - aims to evaluate demand for a new scheduled airline offering direct flights within the south of the country and to destinations in the Mediterranean.

Few details of the scheme have emerged, but according to airline sources, one proposal envisages a start-up fleet of three 50-seat ATR 42s (above), using aircraft due to be released from Alitalia Express as it takes delivery of larger ATR 72s this summer.

Alitalia could not set up a new airline until the end of the year, however, since it remains subject to restrictions imposed by the European Commission (EC) in the wake of state aid grants.

The study is therefore considering ways of bringing in private or business investors, possibly leaving the national carrier with a minority stake in the enterprise.

If Alitalia goes ahead with an airline launch it could find itself in a head to head battle with a rival scheme being pursued by BA.

The UK carrier's plans for the establishment of a franchised airline in Italy are thought to be continuing. Italian industry sources suggest one plan under consideration would involve starting with the wet-leasing of a Boeing 737-300 from Deutsche BA.

It is understood that no application for an air operator's certificate (AOC) has yet been made to the Italian civil aviation authority.

BA's original plans would have seen an Italian franchise airline launched by Australian regional carrier National Jet Systems, which planned to source an AOC through a tie-up with Ireland's CityJet - although this latter deal has fallen through.

A BA source says the UK flag-carrier views the Italian domestic market as one ill-served by Alitalia and with significant potential. The source confirms that an initial blueprint envisaged a launch in April this year using British Aerospace Avro RJ100s or BAe 146s, with the fleet rising to 12 aircraft by the 2002, of which up to eight were to be Airbus A320-family aircraft.

The initial route network was to be based on Rome and Palermo, with flights from the latter to Milan. Later developments would have included services to Turin and ultimately to London Gatwick, as well as other domestic destinations such as Genoa, Venice, Bari and Sardinia.

Source: Flight International