When Pope Paul VI became the first pope to fly in a plane in 1964, he flew Alitalia. Pope John Paul kept up the tradition and an Alitalia plane was always in the background when he kissed tarmacs from Boston to Bangkok.
Alitalia, the airline of Popes, divas and immigrants that has been a part of Italy’s lifeblood for the past half century, now risks haemorrhaging to death. Alitalia accompanied Italians through the growing pains of the post-war period, when in the course of a single generation a devastated agricultural backwater became an economic powerhouse that was the envy of the world.
It is difficult to overestimate the significance Alitalia had on the national psyche. Immigrants who left for America by ship or for Germany by train returned to visit in fuselages flying the national colours to show others — and often even themselves — that they had struck success in their adopted countries.
In some countries, the Alitalia office was more of a hub for the local Italian community than an embassy or consulate. But now, government ministers are openly talking of possible bankruptcy as years of poor management, political interference and union hostility catch up with the state-controlled airline.
Alitalia was never really run like a company. It was a political football, a place to give friends jobs, a reservoir of votes and favours.
“Alitalia is, above all, a perfect but sad metaphor for the clumsy use of state money,” said Ferrucio de Bortoli, a leading Italian newspaper columnist.
“It was only a bedside carpet for those in power, often of the worst kind,” he wrote in Wednesday’s La Stampa. Alitalia has made an operating loss each of the last five years and executives have said they may have to cut thousands of jobs to pave the way for a return to profit.
Sergio Romano, an editorialist and former ambassador, told Reuters that Italy was getting used to corporate failures. “I am not going to shed tears for Alitalia but for a political class that could not fix the problem,” he said.
“Italians will just have to use other airlines, but it is a shame. We already lost a national presence in the chemical and computer sectors,” he said, referring to Montedison and Olivetti, two companies that withered away in the 1990s.
Cesare Romiti, who was managing director of Alitalia 30 years ago before taking a top job at carmaker Fiat, spoke of the national pride that would be hurt if the airline was grounded. “I feel my blood boil when I hear talk of Alitalia going out of business,” he said on television.
“The state cannot wake up only now that Alitalia is losing 50,000 euros ($60,840) an hour. So I ask myself: how did we get to this point?”
It was a question that many people, from Italy to Little Italys around the world, were also asking.