Italian shipping magnate Aponte attempts daring move into aviation

Photo/ITA - Italia Trasporto Aereo

The Italian billionaire who turned a one-boat cargo operation into the world’s biggest shipping company thinks he can save an airline operation that’s landed a profit just once in 75 years of flying.

Gianluigi Aponte in 2016. Photographer: Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images

Gianluigi Aponte’s Mediterranean Shipping Co. is teaming up with Deutsche Lufthansa AG to bid for ITA, the successor to Alitalia, a one-time symbol of Italian glamour that’s cost the Italian state billions of euros in unrecovered bailouts and failed takeover attempts. Armed with MSC profits earned amid sky-high shipping rates, MSC founder Aponte, 81, is betting his firm can turn a profit in an Italian aviation market that’s a key battleground for low-cost carriers like Ryanair Plc and Wizz Air Holdings Plc.

“It’s a curious one,” said Peter Sand, chief analyst at Xeneta, a shipping data and analytics company. “You’d expect them to make acquisitions in the field of air cargo, not air passengers.”

MSC recently became the world’s largest container line after the coronavirus pandemic unleashed port disruption and unprecedented demand for consumer goods, pushing cargo rates to record highs. The Geneva-based company started out with one ship in 1970 and steadily bought vessels during the crisis, bringing its fleet to 638 boats, the largest in the world.

Belly freight

Shipping rivals A.P. Moller-Maersk A/S and CMA-CGM Group have recently expanded in airfreight to capture a bigger slice of the growing market and reposition themselves as end-to-end logistics providers. CMA is even establishing a fleet of wide-body freighters, but neither has gone so far as to buy a passenger airline.

By using the below-deck capacity of ITA passenger jets, MSC would also gain access to a higher-speed mode of transport and profit from long-haul routes from Europe to the U.S. and Asia, said Alfredo Altavilla, executive chairman of the state-owned Italian carrier.

“MSC could materially boost its business, making its cargo shipping interoperable worldwide through an owned airline like ITA,” Altavilla said in a telephone interview.

Acquiring ITA would also benefit MSC’s cruise-line business, enabling it to move its passengers to terminals, he said.

An MSC spokesman declined to comment.

With an industry reputation for shrewd business acumen and a secretive manner, the Aponte clan is one of Italy’s richest business dynasties. Gianluigi, who handed over day-to-day running of the company to his son Diego in 2014, remains executive chairman.

A resident in Switzerland, Gianluigi has a net worth of $10.3 billion, making him the 216th wealthiest person in the world, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Munich threat

Lufthansa, Europe’s largest airline by fleet size, would be MSC’s industrial partner in the proposed deal, but with a minority stake at most. The German airline flirted with Alitalia for years, but refused to invest until the loss-making company was restructured and bloated labor costs reduced.

Lufthansa’s longstanding interest centers on its desire to protect long-haul earnings, particularly at its Munich hub. Its executives have long feared a rival transatlantic operation from Milan could suck in passengers from Munich’s wealthy alpine catchment areas, denting Lufthansa profits.

A strategic plan for ITA would instead center on establishing a major Italian hub at Rome’s Fiumicino airport, a safe distance from Lufthansa’s lucrative German bases, according to people familiar with the matter. The companies would work together to optimize flight schedules and operations, allowing ITA to benefit from connecting flights with Lufthansa and its Swiss, Brussels Airlines and Austrian Airlines subsidiaries.

The Brussels unit, for example, which flies to central and western Africa, would complement ITA’s links into north Africa. ITA could also join Lufthansa’s Miles & More loyalty program, bringing more Italian customers into the fold.

For ITA, a partnership would likely prompt a switch to the Lufthansa-led Star Alliance and trans-Atlantic-revenue-sharing venture, away from Delta Air Lines Inc.’s Sky Team.

Since coming aboard last year, ITA’s Altavilla has made progress thinning down the predecessor’s payroll and set plans to modernize the fleet with a deal for 59 Airbus SE jets. Still, he has said the company is too small to survive alone.

Discount war

Turning ITA into a profitable business would be a formidable challenge. The new airline lost 170 million euros ($192 million) in its first three months of operation, eating into the 700 million euros the Italian government had given it to start flying again after the closure of Alitalia.

And Italy is set to become one of Europe’s most hotly contested battlegrounds as airlines recover from the coronavirus-induced slump. Ryanair, Wizz and EasyJet Plc are all expanding there, while major airlines in Europe and the U.S. dominate the profitable trans-Atlantic routes.

The “outlook for ITA Airways is challenging,” HSBC analyst Andrew Lobbenberg said in a research note, pointing to political and geographical challenges that haven’t changed despite the establishment of a new airline. “Italy is a decentralized economy that is very hard for a home-country airline to dominate.”

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