Berlusconi opens door a crack to Air France-KLM


Incoming Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi said he could allow Alitalia’s sale to Air France-KLM if the ailing Italian carrier were given equal footing in a deal, softening his previous stance opposing the takeover.

Berlusconi has attacked the French carrier’s planned takeover of Alitalia and wants Italian businesses to buy it instead. But analysts say he may be forced to bow to the deal for lack of other options as Alitalia nears bankruptcy. “There’s also another possibility: that of returning to the earlier solution ... the formation of a large international group with equal dignity between the three companies (Air France, Alitalia and KLM),” Berlusconi told a news conference. The comments came hours after he promised that a group of Italian businesses, including an air transport company, would make an offer for Alitalia within a month.

The outgoing center-left government agreed to sell the Italian state’s 49.9% stake in Alitalia to Air France-KLM, but the deal collapsed due to union opposition, though the administration hopes to revive it. Berlusconi’s victory was expected to land a final blow against any remaining hopes of pushing through the deal, but analysts say Alitalia’s deteriorating cash levels could change that. Further state aid is barred under European Union rules.

Alitalia in a statement on Wednesday evening reiterated, that it had cash just for the short term and that its chairman Aristide Police had met Italian stock market regulators to explain the airline’s financial situation. It also noted that the carrier’s unions, who met with management on Tuesday and are expected to meet representatives of the outgoing government later this week, were seeking more time for talks to revive the deal with Air France-KLM.

Air France-KLM had said it wants the blessing of Italy’s new government before concluding any deal. Berlusconi also said he had agreed to meet representatives of Italy’s outgoing government over the matter. Romano Prodi’s government has maintained that the only alternative to the Franco-Dutch buyer would be emergency administration, similar to US bankruptcy procedures. (Reuters)

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