After the resignation of his predecessor Francesco Mengozzi last month, Alitalia's new managing director Marco Zanichelli faces serious financial problems and a political argument over the fate of the troubled Italian flag carrier.

Former managing director Mengozzi resigned on 27 February after trying to enlist political backing for his rescue plan for the 62% state-owned airline. His plan would have cut 1,500 jobs and seen another 1,200 outsourced, with the aim of returning the carrier to profitability by 2005.

Mengozzi had also aimed to bring Alitalia closer to joining the merger between Air France and KLM, and privatise the airline as soon as possible.

Alitalia employee unions are united against Mengozzi's plan, opposing the job cuts and fearing that the privatisation will reduce Alitalia to the size of a regional carrier. But in a meeting between Zanichelli and union representatives last week, a compromise seemed possible after Zanichelli announced he would negotiate a new business plan. In return, unions agreed to call off a general strike organised for 4 March. The new plan could see Alitalia expand its long-haul Boeing 777 fleet, and use state social funds and early retirement to ease the impact of cutbacks. Alitalia will also ask for a cut in fuel taxes, currently double the European average.

But Zanichelli also faces political problems.Any recovery plan must attract support from the ruling Casa delle Libert… coalition, but the government is now divided, with prime minister Silvio Berlusconi unable to reach a consensus.

One coalition member, the Northern League, which supports Giuseppe Bonomi as Alitalia's president, is strongly opposed to any merger agreement with Air France, and favours a privatisation within Italy, ideally led by investors from its north-eastern heartland.

The extreme right-wing Alleanza Nazionale opposes the job losses that would result from Mengozzi's plan, and believes that partial state ownership is the best way to maintain Alitalia at its current size. Zanichelli is believed to agree.

Source: Flight International