Delta Air Lines could provide bankrupt Alitalia some "incremental support", says chief executive Ed Bastian without providing specifics.

Bastian discounts reports that the Atlanta-based carrier is preparing to make a significant investment in the struggling Italian carrier, saying the "numbers being thrown around out there are pretty large and not something we’d consider" but adds that they would consider some form of support.

"To the extent that we can help them stay in SkyTeam, and the transatlantic joint venture, and provide them some incremental support along the way, we can do that," he says of Alitalia at the JP Morgan aviation, transportation & industrials conference today.

Bastian does not comment on whether that support could come in the form of equity or debt. The airline has precedent providing both to its partners, including equity investments in Air France and Virgin Atlantic Airways and loan guarantees to Gol.

Delta has long been reported to be participating in the sale process of bankrupt Alitalia, always declining to comment on any interest. The first official confirmation of interest came in February when Italy's state railway operator Ferrovie dello Stato said it planned to begin negotiations with EasyJet and Delta over potential participation in the privatisation.

Alitalia and Delta are already partners. Both are members of the SkyTeam Alliance, and the Italian carrier has been part of Delta's immunised transatlantic joint venture with Air France and KLM since 2010.

However, Alitalia's recent financial difficulties prompted Air France, Delta and KLM to drop the carrier from an updated partnership including Virgin Atlantic in their application to US authorities in July 2018.

"Although the parties hope to implement metal-neutral cooperation with Alitalia in the future, Alitalia is currently undergoing restructuring through the Italian bankruptcy process, and its future ownership structure is uncertain," they said at the time.

Alitalia operated just 5.6% of the five carriers' combined transatlantic capacity in 2018, Cirium schedules data shows. Delta, by comparison, operated 45% of their combined capacity.

Speaking today, Bastian calls Italy an important destination for US travellers, citing cultural and tourist connections.

Alitalia is growing across the Atlantic, with new service to Washington Dulles from Rome planned from May.

Delta serves Milan from Atlanta and New York John F Kennedy; Rome from Atlanta, Detroit and JFK; and Venice from Atlanta and JFK, schedules show.

Source: Cirium Dashboard