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Time running out for ailing Alitalia

  • Story Highlights
  • Alitalia board is set to decide on preferred bidder for sale of the Italian airline
  • Air France-KLM is frontrunner to take over company; Air One also interested
  • Government is delaying making a decision on final sale, Vinci says
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By CNN Rome Correspondent Alessio Vinci
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(CNN) -- Time is not on Alitalia's side. The ailing airline -- currently in the process of finding a buyer for the Italian government's stake in the business -- hasn't registered a profit since 2002.

It has debts of 1.2 billion euros ($1.7 billion) and is losing one million euros a day. The company has been through four management changes in as many years and its fleet is aging and inefficient.

Most of the bidders pulled out in July, blaming excess bureaucracy and political interference in the auction process.

So why would anyone want to buy Alitalia? When the airline was put up for sale last year one potential investor told me it was Alitalia that should pay him to bail the company out.

The company's market value today is even lower, yet there are still people who believe the airline is worth taking a look at.

The Franco-Dutch Giant Air France-KLM is the frontrunner to eventually take over the company. It has the backing of Alitalia's top management, and reportedly enjoys the support of Italy's Prime Minister Romano Prodi.

Air France-KLM, which is the world's largest airline by revenues, proposes to inject 750 million euros ($1 billion) through a capital increase open to all shareholders, and plans to invest billions of euros by 2015 to buy new planes.

Gabriel Kahn, Rome correspondent for the Wall Street Journal says: "Alitalia serves a very lucrative market; even though the company is broke it does not mean that the Italian market is worthless.

"You've got lots of rich, wealthy businessmen in the north who need to travel abroad, and you've got a huge inbound tourist market into cities like Florence and Rome -- so if you have a company that is efficient and works well you can make a lot of money."

The Italian government, which owns Alitalia, has the final say over the airline's future. But it has again delayed making a decision on the best buyer until mid-January, avoiding the prospect of strikes over the Christmas holidays by angry unions who favor an all-Italian bid for Alitalia put forward by the country's second largest airline, Air One.

The Italian government itself is split between those who think the Air France-KLM bid makes financial sense, and those who want to avoid at any cost allowing the airline to fall into the hands of a foreign investor.

There is always a lot of nationalism involved in running companies such as airlines and that, to an extent, has been Alitalia's problem all along.

There has been too much political interference, and although the company is running on fumes it appears that the government is having a hard time making a decision, preferring instead to delay it, once more, until after the holidays.

Alitalia is certainly proving to be an all-Italian company, keeping Italy's best business traditions alive. Yes, a decision will be taken, but "domani" -- tomorrow. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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