Can Alitalia Cargo make a comeback?

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Alitalia Cargo’s fortunes are set to be revived with the acquisition of a 49 percent stake in Italy’s national carrier by Etihad Airways. And it turns out this is not the Gulf carrier’s first tryst with an Italian airline’s cargo business.

At its height, Alitalia Cargo was operating five MD-11 freighters, as well as filling the airline’s belly-holds. It was a real force to be reckoned with in Europe’s third richest cargo market.

But that was long ago. Alitalia Cargo is effectively no more. Any semblance of a self-sustaining cargo operation went out of the window when Air France-KLM Cargo took on the role of the carrier’s general sales agent in 2009, becoming responsible for all cargo sales.

The Franco-Dutch consortium at the time was Alitalia’s largest single shareholder with a 25 percent stake, and it was a last ditch attempt to breath some life back into the carrier’s cargo business. But it was becoming increasingly frustrated with its debt-laden sibling and apparent inability to redress its financial woes.

Not unexpectedly, Air France-KLM decided to offload its errant child and Alitalia was brought to market in late 2013. At first, there was active interest from the likes of Lufthansa, Aeroflot and Etihad Airways. The first two soon dropped out, unable to make a convincing case for incorporating the ailing Italian carrier into their long-term strategic plans.

Even Etihad appeared not to be over-enthusiastic about the prospect of overhauling and restructuring the airline, particularly in forcing through undoubted layoffs.

But a month ago, the deal was pushed through and Etihad now has a 49 percent stake in Alitalia, the maximum permitted under European regulations. It can add this latest investment to its existing portfolio of stakes in the other European carriers it now holds, Aer Lingus, AirBerlin and Darwin Airline, now renamed Etihad Regional.

Even prior to attempts by Air France-KLM Cargo to revive the fortunes of Alitalia’s cargo operation, the heart had already effectively been ripped out of the business.

Yes, the carrier was once a major freighter operator in its own right. But that came to a close when in 2008, Italy’s first private enterprise cargo airline, Cargoitalia, acquired the assets of Alitalia Cargo, along with a clutch of senior managers and a MD-11F with which to launch services.

Cargoitalia had in fact been established three years earlier by a group of leading Italian industrialists who persuaded the then boss of Alitalia Cargo, Massimo Panagia, to depart the national carrier and head-up the new start-up. The Milan-Malpensa-based operation began in June 2006 with a single owned DC-10-30F and two leased MD11-Fs operating to Asia.

The new carrier soon began to struggle and in August 2007, Panagia recruited industry veteran Stan Wraight to join the airline as chairman to try and turn things around. Wraight immediately sought to establish strategic partnerships with other carriers. The first and seemingly only one, prophetically perhaps, was with what was then Etihad Crystal Cargo, to allow an interchange to be established between Italy and the Gulf. It was shortly after this that the Italian cargo carrier acquired two B747-200Fs with which to launch services to the U.S.   

Wraight was to depart the airline less than a year later, soon after which it ceased operations. This provided an opportunity for a new consortium of Italian interests, under the banner of Alis Aerolinee Italiane, to take on the failed business with the sole intent of acquiring the carrier’s Italian air operator certificate.

The reborn Cargoitalia, having subsequently bought out the Alitalia Cargo business, re-launched in May 2009 with its single ex-Alitalia Cargo MD-11F, later joined by two further MD-11Fs to operate services out of Milan-Malpensa to Asia and the U.S.

Such was the ambition of the new carrier that it even placed firm orders for eight Airbus A330-200Fs. But all to no avail and once again Italy’s only private enterprise cargo airline stalled and finally ceased operations in December 2011.  

In many respects then, the now rebranded Etihad Cargo starts with a clean canvas in the Italian market with only the remnants of Alitalia’s former cargo business. But it has lost little time in signaling its intent to revive the Alitalia Cargo brand with the focus on creating a major cargo interchange over Milan.

Etihad Cargo has plenty of freighter capacity on hand with which to redress the situation and develop new freighter services out of the northern Italian citadel. The obvious first choice will be to provide direct freighter feed between Milan’s Malpensa Airport and Etihad’s Gulf hub in Abu Dhabi. This will be particularly effective for serving Asian markets.

But Etihad Cargo will no doubt already have its sights set on the rejuvenation of North Atlantic freighter services by way of code-sharing with Alitalia Cargo.

Even so, the Gulf carrier will be no means have the Italian air cargo market to itself. A long-time plundering ground for Europe’s other major carriers, the competition has always been tough, with a heavy flow of trucking services to more northerly European gateways.

Cargolux even took it upon itself to establish an Italian subsidiary, Cargolux Italia, with which to tap into this market. Since 2009, the Luxembourg-based cargo carrier has operated a single B747-400F on the Italian register to enable it to originate services out of Milan to Hong Kong and Japan. It also operates flights between Milan and points in the U.S. using aircraft from its Luxembourg-based fleet.

Now Cargolux says it will transfer a second B747-400F to the Cargolux Italia register, a move enabled by the addition of further new B747-8F capacity at its main Luxembourg hub.

Even Lufthansa Cargo, not content with an intensive trucking operation out of Milan to its Frankfurt hub in Germany, has in recent months started to provide direct freighter feed. Capacity in the form of MD-11F and B777F aircraft now call at Milan twice a week on return flights from Cairo, Egypt.

       

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