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Air One says ready to make new Alitalia offer

The chairman of Italian airline Air One said in comments published on Saturday that his company was ready to make a new offer for Alitalia but needed three weeks to study the ailing airliner’s books.

Carlo Toto’s comments were published a day after former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi vowed that if he won power in next month’s elections he would veto Air France-KLM’s deal to buy Alitalia. Toto was quoted by Rome daily La Repubblica as saying Air One, together with Italian bank Intesa SanPaolo, had continued working on their project even after their initial offer for Alitalia was rejected by Italy’s outgoing government. “We had a great project for Alitalia and we still have one,” La Repubblica quoted him as saying. He said Air One needed about three weeks to study Alitalia’s books “and then we will present our binding offer”. Berlusconi said on Friday a consortium led by Air One would rescue Alitalia from the “arrogant and unacceptable” French offer by making a bid in three or four weeks.

But both Italy’s economy minister Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa, who is overseeing the sale, and Berlusconi’s main rival for the prime minister’s post, Walter Veltroni, have said any new offer had to be made in a matter of days and not weeks. “People keep dreaming there is more time, alternative buyers, alternative solutions. Alitalia has oxygen for a matter of weeks,” Padoa-Schioppa told the Financial Times. Veltroni has accused Berlusconi of bluffing to drum up nationalist sentiment ahead of the April 13-14 general election.

 
POLITICAL PRESSURE?

Il Sole, Italy’s leading business newspaper, weighed in on Saturday with a blunt front-page editorial that said Alitalia needed “real proposals and not bluffs”. The newspaper said any new offer for Alitalia could be positive as long as it “was not born of political pressure” and asked “why are the new pretenders only making their move now?” La Stampa of Turin reported that Germany’s Lufthansa was considering backing Air One’s bid but a spokesman said the airline did not comment on “media speculation”. The Air France-KLM’s deal already faces opposition from Alitalia unions and Milan’s airport operator and the Franco-Dutch carrier has said it will ditch the deal without support from Italy’s next government.

The Italian government holds a 49.9% stake in Alitalia, which has repeatedly warned it has only months left before its cash runs out and needs a new owner to pump in money by mid-year to keep flying. Berlusconi’s rivals in smaller parties from the centre and right also accused him of playing politics with Alitalia. Antonio Di Pietro, an ex anti-corruption magistrate, who now heads a small centrist party, accused Berlusconi of “insider trading” by trying to play politics with Alitalia’s future.

The European Union has barred further state aid to the airline, meaning the government can no longer bailout the carrier, as it has done in the past and many analysts believe Alitalia’s only alternative to Air France-KLM is bankruptcy. Alitalia’s unions, angry at plans to cut or exclude a third of the workforce, continue talks with the carriers on Tuesday. Air France-KLM has refused to extend a March 31 deadline to resolve all obstacles to the deal, including union disapproval. Several ministers in the outgoing government have warned that Alitalia is edging closer to bankruptcy and that the government may have to appoint a commissioner to run it if no deal for a sale is reached. (Reuters)