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Investors give Alitalia unions new ultimatum

Interview

A group of investors who have offered to rescue state-controlled Alitalia from bankruptcy said they were ready to withdraw their proposal on Thursday unless the ailing airline’s unions approve it.

After days of tense negotiations with workers, the head of CAI -- a group of Italian businessmen -- told unions he would propose pulling his offer at a shareholder meeting on Thursday if they do not come on board by then, a union source said.

Alitalia, a national symbol in Italy for more than six decades, risks being liquidated after years of political interference, labour disputes, mismanagement and, more recently, soaring fuel costs. It is losing more than €2 million a day and had €1.17 billion in debt at the end of July.

After two previous attempts to sell the state’s 49.9% stake in the airline failed, the new government led by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi persuaded a group of investors to present a rescue plan. But only three of Alitalia’s notoriously feisty nine unions, said on Wednesday they were ready to accept CAI’s offer. The others, particularly those representing pilots and cabin crews, have so far rejected the plan, which involves job losses, pay cuts and reduced benefits.

More than 3,000 of Alitalia’s 20,000 workers would be laid off under the bailout plan, which would see CAI buy only the profitable parts of Alitalia before relaunching it as a slimmed-down regional carrier. Roberto Colaninno, CAI’s chairman, said on Wednesday he had no further concessions to make and "there is nothing left to discuss". A close aide to Berlusconi, Gianni Letta, told unions at a meeting on Wednesday afternoon they had until 3.30 p.m. on Thursday to give their final position.

 
RUNNING OUT OF CASH, FUEL

Alitalia’s government-appointed special administrator has warned the airline is running out of cash for fuel and said all planes could be grounded if unions do not quickly back the buyout offer. Even as Alitalia teetered on the brink of collapse, a strike by a small union cancelled 50 flights on Wednesday. A spokesman said the company was still able to buy fuel. "This is the last slot for Alitalia’s takeoff," Labor Minister Maurizio Sacconi told reporters. Previous deadlines set by CAI and the government have come and gone but Sacconi insisted the very last moment for unions to sign on is Thursday.

An Alitalia collapse would be a huge political blow for Berlusconi, a business mogul who promised voters who elected him in April he would use his contacts to find it an Italian buyer. Berlusconi has offered special payouts to the estimated 3,250 workers who would lose their jobs under the rescue plan but warned the offer would be pulled if the airline collapses. Underscoring the problems in the sector, neighboring Greece said on Wednesday it would shut down its ailing state carrier Olympic Airlines and relaunch it under a new structure. (Reuters)

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