Protests at Italy's Alitalia Continue; Airline Faced with Cancellations

Italy's Alitalia faced cancellations or delays for as many as 250 flights Tuesday as wildcat protests by the airline's workers continued ahead of a key meeting between unions and government representatives.

The workers have been protesting since Thursday, causing travel chaos and hundreds of cancellations of national and international flights. On Monday alone, the Italian carrier, which is partly owned by the government, was forced to scrap 250 flights.

Workers are protesting restructuring plans at the loss-making airline, including cutting jobs and spinning off the airline's flight unit from its less profitable ground services business.

Some hope the restructuring plan will eventually lead to privatization. But Premier Silvio Berlusconi said Tuesday that would not be the solution.

"I don't think that the problem would be solved through a privatization of Alitalia because wildcat strikes would continue," Berlusconi said on state-run radio.

The premier criticized the unions, saying that "they do not take into account the needs of the citizens." He described the situation as "complex" and said his government "is doing all it can so that the situation can go back to normal."

Government representatives and unions meet for talks on Wednesday.

Labor Minister Roberto Maroni said this week that the protests could lead Alitalia to bankruptcy and warned the government will not bail out the troubled airline.

Uncertainty over the company's future caused Alitalia shares to drop sharply on the Milan stock exchange Monday, closing down 8.8 percent at euro1.04 (US$1.28).

Financial daily Il Sole 24 Ore reported Tuesday that Alitalia has postponed the sale of its ground operations, Alitalia Servizi, to state-owned Fintecna. Alitalia scheduled the sale at the end of 2005 but because of the ongoing discussions with Italian unions decided to postpone it to 2006, the newspaper said.

Alitalia said it had no immediate comment on the report.

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