Following political interference and poor management over a significant period of time, the Italian National Flag carrier Alitalia, was recently driven to the brink of bankruptcy. The Italian Government decided it must sell its near 50% stake. Following expressions of interest from other reputable European Airlines in acquiring this once great icon of European aviation, more political interference meant that Alitalia was instead 'restructured' and then acquired by a mixed bag of Italian investors, collectively called Compagnia Aerea Italiana SpA (CAI).
Most members of the CAI consortium have airline experience only as a passenger; the one exception being a small domestic start up (1995) airline; Air One. The Italian Government had ensured that the involvement of either the Air France or Lufthansa Groups was rejected.
Last month, Associazione Nazionale Piloti Aviazione Commerciale (ANPAC), the largest Italian Professional Pilots' Association and a member of ECA, called a press conference to highlight some of their concerns for the way this new owner is seeking to manage the staff and assets of Alitalia. ECA supported this event with a speech from the ECA President, Captain Martin Chalk (which can be found on our website) and the involvement of the ECA Secretary General, Philip von Schöppenthau.
In the speech, Captain Chalk highlighted the partnerships which have throughout the history of civil aviation been the foundation of the high levels of flight safety achieved. Despite operating at temperatures of -60°c, speeds of more than 1000km/h and altitudes of more than 11,000m – flying is still the safest way to travel. This is no accident (pardon the pun), but rather the result of partnerships of experts. A partnership:
- between IFALPA (pilots), IATA (airlines) and NAAs (authorities) at ICAO (global) level;
- between ECA (pilots), Airline Associations and the EU Institutions at European level;
- between professional pilot associations, airlines and authorities at National level;
- between airline management and pilot association representatives at company level.
The new Alitalia/CAI management has chosen to throw away this partnership approach. It is disregarding decades of joint learning and embarking on a potentially risky experiment. Rather than embracing the flight crew as integral to the strength of the safety chain, the last line of defence against tragedy, CAI is arrogantly ignoring them. Rather than engaging with flight crew representatives to deliver the painful changes needed to restore this iconic European airline to greatness, CAI is actively working against them.
Alitalia CAI is also experimenting with the number of flight crew employed per aircraft. If press reports are to be believed, Alitalia CAI management is intending to reduce crewing levels in a network airline to significantly below the best that the low fares model delivers; a model that is very different from the network model and requires fewer crews per aircraft. When combined with the reported management bullying of employees, this will cause unbearable pressures in the system, compromising safety and leading to miserable delays for Alitalia passengers.
Airlines have complex structures, using complex aircraft, airports and many interdependent staff groups. It is sad but, Alitalia CAI management is not yet displaying the understanding and competence necessary to deliver a successful airline, based on mature partnerships with its key employee groups.
The Italian regulator should watch this 'experiment' very carefully, to ensure it does not lead to tragedy. The Alitalia CAI management should quickly integrate the AF Group expertise as part of the recently agreed minority stake in the new company. Crucially, the new Alitalia Management should invite ANPAC Alitalia Pilot Representatives to immediately sit round a table, work on a new relationship and strive together to deliver a return to greatness for Alitalia.