Will the Benettons use Alitalia to fly in from the cold?
* Government desperate to find investors for flagship
* Rome threatened Atlantia to revoke its motorway concession
* Atlantia could mend relations with Rome if joins rescue
* Benetton-controlled group says not in talks over Alitalia
By Giselda Vagnoni, Francesca Landini and Stefano Bernabei
MILAN/ROME, April 19 (Reuters) - Italian transport group
Atlantia could join a rescue of loss-making flag
carrier Alitalia to try to win favour with the government and
secure the future of its own domestic business following a
deadly bridge collapse last year, sources said.
Atlantia, controlled by the Benetton family, faces the loss
of its entire national motorway concession in a bitter dispute
with the government, which erupted after last year's disaster on
its toll network killed 43 people.
The government blamed Atlantia for the tragedy, saying it
had failed to adequately maintain the ageing bridge, and vowed
to revoke the concession, worth 58 percent of group revenue.
However, sources familiar with the matter said Atlantia
could mend relations with the government by joining a rescue of
Alitalia, which Rome is desperate to save, and possibly be
rewarded with a reprieve on its motorway concession.
Atlantia has publicly scoffed at the idea, but sources say
it stands ready if Rome signals a quid pro quo is possible. The
government has not given such a signal but a political source
says it may do if it sees Atlantia as key to saving Alitalia.
Atlantia, which also runs Alitalia's main airport hub in
Rome, has denied it is in talks to join a rescue consortium,
saying its hands are already full with complex business
challenges, including the fate of its motorway concession.
However, a source familiar with the flag-carrier's thinking
said Alitalia expected Atlantia to sign up to a rescue as early
as this month. The source did not elaborate.
Atlantia declined to comment for this article.
Another potential investor in the rescue bid, state-owned
rail group Ferrovie dello Stato, which has had initial talks
with Atlantia, also believes the Benetton-controlled group could
yet be tempted to join, said a source familiar with those talks.
"Atlantia's door is not closed ... it is now up to the
government to take the lead in the talks," said a second source
familiar with Alitalia's thinking.
Alitalia, put into special administration in 2017 after
workers rejected a previous rescue plan, needs to find investors
ready to inject fresh funds by the end of April, in advance of
an end-June repayment deadline for a state bridging loan of 900
million euros. That loan, however, may be rolled over, daily Il
Sole 24 Ore said.
The government, formed by the right-wing League party and
the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, is keen to save the
airline because it wants to avoid mass layoffs at Alitalia,
which has around 11,600 employees.
However, political sources said it was still unclear whether
the ruling coalition, especially the 5-Star party, would be
ready to make such a peace with Atlantia. The party was the most
critical of Atlantia after the bridge collapse.
"For 5-Star even the hypothesis of freezing the procedure
for revoking the concession is not politically sustainable,"
said a senior 5-Star source.
The prime minister's office did not reply to a request for
Ferrovie and Delta Air Lines are looking to invest
in Alitalia but they still need to find other investors to stump
up another 400 million euros for a rescue worth a total of
around 1 billion euros, sources close to the talks said.
Ferrovie and its adviser, investment bank Mediobanca, have
discreetly sounded out Atlantia after being turned down by a
string of other companies.
Reuters was unable to immediately reach a Delta spokeswoman.
Atlantia has been burnt by Alitalia once before, having lost
190 million euros when it participated in a rescue in 2008.
"We have many open fronts, we can't afford to open a
further, particularly complex one," Atlantia CEO Giovanni
Castellucci said on Thursday, speaking to shareholders.
In addition to the bridge disaster, Castellucci said he was
also dealing with the government over its lengthy approvals
process which was blocking 4.9 billion euros in group projects.
Some financial analysts say a quid pro quo would make sense.
"We reckon a possible agreement over Alitalia would be
positive for Atlantia, because it would lead to a rapprochement
with the government," broker Equita said in a note this week.
For now, Ferrovie is ready to take a 30 percent stake in
Alitalia, Delta Air Lines would invest 100 million euros for a
stake of 10-15 percent and another 15 percent would probably go
to the Italian treasury, sources familiar with the matter say.
But there is still a question mark over who would take the
remaining 40-45 percent of the carrier.
British budget airline easyJet walked away from
talks with Ferrovie last month, state-controlled defence group
Leonardo and postal operator Poste Italiane
said they were not interested in the deal.
If Ferrovie and Delta cannot find co-investors, Rome would
face its least favoured option: a takeover by German carrier
Lufthansa which has said it would only rescue Alitalia
if the government were first to carry out major job cuts.
(Additional reporting by Giuseppe Fonte; editing by Mark
Bendeich and David Evans)
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