I read the headlines last week with a sinking heart: "Tough Times for Alitalia"..."Alitalia is Bankrupt Again." Concerned not just because it would mean the end of yet another historic carrier, but frankly because I was due to fly with them two days later. With a ticket purchased weeks ago.
Fast forward, and I am in Rome Airport, holding a trusty AZ boarding pass in my hand to Palermo in Sicily. So... how has the experience been?
Rome is a major airport of course with AZ as the largest airline presence. Check-in desks and automatic check-in kiosks were doing brisk business with individual and group travellers. But I couldn't help but ask a couple of employees how they felt about the situation.
Our very pleasant check-in agent told us that "Yes we are in a lot of trouble but we have new management and I don't think the EU will allow us to fail."
News coverage has included the fact that AZ has entered its second period of bankruptcy in a decade. It's struggling against Europe's cutthroat low cost carriers and employees have rejected a rescue plan which would have kept jobs but slashed wages. And it would appear that the love affair between Alitalia and Etihad Airways, its managing shareholder with a 49% stake in the business, has gone quite "aspro" (sour, according to my Italian dictionary).
My 65 minute flight between Rome and Palermo cost exactly $20 CAD (plus taxes and baggage fees). Is that enough to keep an airline aloft? Experts are saying that the busy summer season will keep the cash flowing, but question if there is enough confidence in the carrier to keep longer term bookings and group/tour operator business coming in.
Coincidentally, our flight was exactly on the 70th anniversary of AZ's inaugural flight on May 5, 1947. Another airline may have pulled out the bells and whistles, but there wasn't even a mention on the inflight announcement.
Other carriers have disappeared (Sabena, the iconic Pan Am) while others have morphed into a new version of themselves (one industry wag says Swiss is just an acronym for "So what, it's still Swissair"). In the current edition of its inflight magazine, CEO Cramer Ball writes, "Alitalia faces demanding challenges in the future but also great opportunities."
Our flight was full, uneventfully pleasant, on time and with a service of complimentary water and juice. As our gate agent in Rome reassured me, "Of course we are alright," she said with a smile. "For now."