Alitalia shareholder deal countdown amid rumours

Alitalia is back in the headlines once more as a deal with shareholders not to sell off their shares is set to expire and the fate of Italy's troubled flag carrier is debated on the electoral campaign trail.

Five years after it was rescued from bankruptcy by the Italian state and a consortium of Italian businessmen, Alitalia continues to struggle and once again finds itself in a financial mire.

According to Italian press reports, it is losing 630,000 euros ($832,000) a day, hurt by higher fuel prices and the European debt crisis, adding to the debt of 730 million euros under private ownership.

Though the company has forecast a return to operational profit in 2013, Alitalia risks being hit hard by the end of the shareholder deal, which runs out on January 12.

Italy's Messagero daily on Sunday said that Air France-KLM, which has owned 25 percent of Alitalia since 2009, is ready to snap up the rest of the ailing company and has charged the Lazard bank to prepare a bid, which is already in "an advanced stage."

Aside from Air France-KLM, Alitalia has around 20 main shareholders, including the Intesa Sanpaolo bank (8.9 percent), the Atlantia holding company (8.9 percent) and the Immsi group (7.1 percent).

Some of those shareholders are seen as wanting to exit Alitalia, which is not listed on the stock exchange, once the agreement not to sell expires.

Analysts see two likely scenarios: either Alitalia being re-nationalised or ceded in a cut-rate deal to Air France-KLM.

"Air France has no intention of letting its prey get away a second time," Il Messagero said in a reference to its 2008 take-over bid, in which it had offered 2.5 billion euros for the troubled airline, but was blocked by then incoming prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

On Monday, the Franco-Dutch airline denied the report that it was concluding talks to buy out Italian investors.

"There have been no negotiations concerning the purchase of all or part of the shares held by Italian investors," said a company spokesman.

Air France chief Alexandre de Juniac added: "Air France and KLM have very limited means which do not permit us to make these operations."

Air France-KLM said last month that it did not plan to increase its equity in the airline.

Holding group Immsi also refuted the reports of a buy-out on Monday, saying in a note that the holding group "denies there are any such negotiations in progress."

The uncertainty surrounding the company's fate has seen key political campaigners for Italy's general election wade in on the issue.

Berlusconi's opposition to the takeover bid by Air France-KLM was credited as one of the key moves which clinched his election victory in 2008 and on Sunday he said: "I would take the same decision again."

"I know the French well. If Alitalia had ended up in the hands of Air France, many tourists would have gone to see castles in the Loire Valley rather than our cities of art," he said.

Outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti limited himself to saying: "we must see what the other options and economic-financial perspectives are for Alitalia."

Antonio Divietri, head of Avia, a stewards association, called on billionaire Berlusconi for "concrete businessman action."

"Instead of fighting against a possible buy-out by Air France, he should declare himself willing to participate in recapitalising Alitalia," he said.

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