The rise and fall of Alitalia, Italy’s historic airline

(CNN) — Goodbye, Alitalia.

The historic Italian airline has announced that it will stop issuing tickets, setting off a weeks countdown until its familiar distinctive red and green colors disappear from our skies for good.

The national airline will be replaced in October by ITA, a small company with a different logo, but the service that once brought Italian pride, style and cuisine, not to mention the pope, to every corner of the planet, it will disappear. .

Although Alitalia’s demise may be a loss for many Italians, it is unlikely to come as a surprise. The airline has spent the past few decades on the brink of collapse as authorities scrambled for vital alliances with investors and other global carriers.

“Each time she managed to be rescued, but with the only result of prolonging her agony even further,” says Giovanni Orsina, director of the Rome-based LUISS University School of Government.

Alitalia, founded 74 years ago, at the time known to Italians as “freccia alata” (winged arrow) in honor of speed, will retire definitively. The tail of their planes bore the popular logo of a capital “A” shaped like an airplane wing and colored like the Italian flag.

Besides its cuisine and car brands, it was perhaps one of the most recognized symbols of Italy abroad.

Cuando las familias italianas volvían a casa de un viaje lejano y ponían el pie en un avión de Alitalia, y la azafata les saludaba con un cálido “buongiorno” y les servía espaguetis humeantes con tomato salsa y cotoletta alla Milanese para comer, era como Return home. To kill time, passengers could read Italian national newspapers.

papal blessing

Popes have been regular Alitalia passengers since the 1960s.
Credit: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

Alitalia is proud of Italian style and cuisine. In the 1950s, flight attendants wore elegant uniforms designed by the fashion house Sorelle Fontana. Later, an impressive list including Delia Biagiotti, Alberto Fabiani, Renato Balestra and even Giorgio Armani created elegant suits and comfortable seats.

The tangy Italian cuisine served on board has at times made the company a favorite with international travellers. In the duty free luxury Italian perfumes, watches, handkerchiefs and ties were for sale. In less enlightened times, husbands returning from long-haul flights would bring their wives the latest boutique fashions.

The airline also had the blessing of religious authorities. From 1964 it was the Pope’s official airline and the size of the aircraft varied according to the distance flown. The plane carrying the pope was once called “Shepherd One”, the papal equivalent of Air Force One, and had flight number AZ4000.

All was not glamor and prestige for Alitalia. Over the past 30 years, the Italian government has invested billions of euros in the airline in an attempt to save it from extinction and keep its employees working.

But, according to Orsina, the airline was simply unable to keep up with global competition or adapt to changes in the aviation industry.

“The fall of Alitalia is the ultimate symbol of Italy’s historical and innate difficulty in coping with globalization and increasing competition,” he told CNN. “The travel industry has undergone a revolution as Alitalia has stagnated, suffocated by corporations, lobbies, unions and political pressure to keep it afloat despite its problems and the reality of an evolving industry.”

Alitalia showed little resilience, says Orsina. It couldn’t keep up with the rise of efficient low-cost carriers, which operate with smaller crews and offer more competitive fares, newer planes and a wider list of global destinations.

Although Italy has always been a popular tourist destination, Alitalia’s profits continued to decline due to increased competition, accumulated debts and subsequent bankruptcy. The company went to extraordinary administration several times. Many rescue missions were staged without long-term success.

“Hit Bottom”

Some of Italy’s top fashion designers have contributed to Alitalia’s cabin crew uniforms.
Riccardo De Luca/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, which hit the aviation industry hard, dealt a severe blow to Alitalia, but the fatal blow was probably the covid-19 pandemic.

“Authorities kept relaunching it, believing Alitalia couldn’t fail, but there are limits and we’ve hit rock bottom,” Orsina said. “It’s like treating a terminally ill patient. You can try to make them feel less pain for a while, but not forever. That’s therapeutic stubbornness.”

The rise and fall of Alitalia

Alitalia’s golden age began in the 1950s, when post-World War II reconstruction sparked an economic boom in Italy and families were finally able to afford to fly to distant destinations.

“Italy was a defeated country recovering from the wounds of World War II and Alitalia came to represent collective hope and national identity,” says aerospace industry expert Gregory Alegi. “It gave a sense of belonging.”

With the advent of the age of jet aircraft, the 1960 Rome Olympics helped spread Alitalia’s fame around the world: the company even created a poster showing a javelin thrower with a flying plane above.

“Having a public airline was a necessity for Italy, an icon of national pride and patriotism,” says Orsina. “Italy couldn’t afford not to have it, it was like having a police force and carabinieri. Alitalia was an essential accessory of the state because it was like having a piece of Italy flying around of the world,” explains Orsina.

Alitalia’s problems began in the 1990s, when European deregulation made air traffic more competitive and Italy’s railways were strengthened, according to aerospace expert Alegi.

delays and cancellations

Alitalia has been flying for 74 years. (Italian Touring Club/Marka/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

The situation worsened when the authorities attempted to privatize Alitalia, triggering an endless search for carrier partners and contractors willing to support the state in meeting the challenges of a free market. All the associations failed, while the unions fought against the social plans.

And if Alitalia was loved as a symbol, it was often hated by its passengers.

The unending crisis eventually led to a decline in service quality, Orsina says, with staff strikes, flight delays or cancellations and fewer long-distance trips. The Italians started to get frustrated.

According to recent polls, most of them believe that the state should have stopped financing the company with taxpayers’ money a long time ago.

It hasn’t dampened the nostalgia felt by retired pilots, captains and flight attendants for the old days, when wages were high and hard work brought perks and prestige.

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Rosetta Scrugli, a former Alitalia passenger who traveled regularly to Asia for work, complains that union protests caused her to miss important meetings abroad.

“The flight was late or often even canceled,” he says. “I spent hours waiting in the terminal, and my luggage got lost several times. It’s nice to fly with a national company if it goes well, otherwise it can be hell. Patriotism n has nothing to do with it, efficiency is the key”.

Scrugli also complained that Alitalia was flying to Asia via Milan, with no direct flights from Rome.

Although little is still known about the airline’s successor, according to Alegi, it is hoped that ITA will succeed where Alitalia failed.

But since it will be owned by the state, at least in the short term, no one expects it to be an immediate success.

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