Kevin O'Toole/LONDON

IN A COMPLEX SAGA, worthy of the politics of ancient Rome, yet another management team has been swept from power at Alitalia. This time, former managers have returned to take control of the airline.

The final act came, as chairman Roberto Riverso, handed in his notice on 8 March. In a letter of resignation, published in Italy's leading financial newspaper, he complains bitterly that parent state-holding company IRI failed to back the Alitalia board as it attempted to fight its corner in the airline's acrimonious and heavily politicised battle with the unions.

Even before Riverso fell on his sword, new chief executive Domenico Cempella had already embarked on a dramatic boardroom clear-out. Within days of being confirmed in his new post, he began dismantling the top management team put in place by Riverso and former chief executive Roberto Schisano.

Six of the airline's senior directors were told by Cempella on 4 March that they were being suspended from duties. In their place, he has brought in a team of industry insiders, who, like himself, had fallen from grace under the previous regime.

The sackings mark an abrupt end to the new era, which was heralded in two years ago with the appointment of Riverso and Schisano, both of whom came from outside the usual ranks, of Italian state-owned industry. Riverso had headed IBM Europe, while Schisano managed Texas Instruments Europe.

Their newly appointed team also, drew heavily on outsiders from other industries across Europe, including pharmaceuticals and data processing. Plans to restructure the ailing group along more commercial lines ultimately foundered, however, on union opposition.

Schisano was finally forced out in October amid accusations that he had attempted to end the labour disputes crippling the carrier by signing a "secret pact" with the pilots' union. Riverso then briefly took over executive control.

Cempella has now moved to shore up the management with old hands from the Italian aviation industry. Cempella himself had been at Alitalia, managing the airline's controlling interest in Aeroporti di Roma, until apparently falling out with the new management. In the interim, he has been running a series of other IRI businesses, including another spell at Aeroporti di Roma after Alitalia had sold its stake in 1995.

His new Alitalia board has been slimmed down, from 14 to only five directors, of whom four, are new Cempella appointments and former colleagues.

Commercial director Enzo Giuntoli and flight-operations director Giovanni Sebastiani both left for smaller airlines after the new management came in two years ago, while the new financial director Franco Raffaele and personnel director Claudio Carli were at Aeroporti di Roma. The airline's long-standing external-relations director Marco Zanichelli keeps his job.

Cempella argues that the previous management had lacked the experience to deal with aviation issues, or the politics of running an Italian state-owned company. In particular, they seem to have underestimated the power of the unions, and their political allies, to scuttle the airline's desperately needed restructuring.

The unions, having effectively ousted the bulk of the old management, appear ready to do business with the new team, but time is beginning to run out.

Debts are now at L3,500 billion ($2.25 billion) and losses have been mounting. The airline is expected to report a loss of L250 billion for 1995, and that figure could double this year.

IRI has agreed to take part in a L1,500 billion cash injection to bail out the group, which is perilously close to bankruptcy. The plan is for the airline to contribute one-third of the cash from private sources, to help avoid a state-aid ruling from the European Commission (EC). In fact, the money looks likely to come from the sale of the airline's Rome headquarters.

Whether the capitalisation goes ahead may depend upon the complexion of the new Italian Government after elections in April. IRI is itself heavily indebted and needs to sell off assets to raise funds. A privatisation of Italy's telephone company, held by IRI, is the most likely candidate, but only if the new Government agrees.

Even if the deal does go ahead, there is no guarantee that the EC will wave it through without demanding tough restructuring measures and restrictions on the airline's growth. Many financial analysts already believe that the airline may by now need closer to L2,500 billion to stay afloat.

Source: Flight International