Italian-Led Group Wants To Buy Alitalia

August 13, 2007

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A largely Italian consortium of financiers and entrepreneurs has expressed interest in buying ailing Italian airline Alitalia, which is struggling to find a buyer, the group's lawyer said on Friday.

The previously unknown group joins a handful of companies who say they could consider buying the loss-making airline, though the Italian government's attempt to sell it through an auction failed last month when all bidders pulled out.

Rome, which has a 49.9 percent stake in the airline, says it still wants to shed the stake but has handed responsibility for finding a buyer to Alitalia's management -- and it is unclear who, if anyone, is in the lead to buy it this time around.

The new group has more than five Italian and foreign members that represent both financial and corporate interests, said its lawyer Antonio Baldassarre, a former chairman of Italy's constitutional court.

He declined to identify the members, but said none of them had participated in the auction that collapsed.

"Financing is not a problem," Baldassarre said, adding that banks had stakes in the group's financial participants.

But the group's emergence on the scene failed to prevent shares in Alitalia, worth about USD$1.5 billion on the market, from dipping 0.7 percent amid a broadly lower market.

The group has presented its interest to the Italian Treasury, but has yet to do so directly with the airline, he said.

It does not plan to cut jobs and would keep Alitalia's management Italian and widen its flight network, he said. That contrasts with the view of most industry analysts and experts, who say Alitalia needs a sharp restructuring with layoffs if it is to become profitable again.

Italy last month called off its seven month auction of the national airline after bidders pulled out citing restrictive conditions imposed on the sale, throwing the future of the airline into doubt.

Alitalia's newly appointed chairman Maurizio Prato is expected to meet representatives of rival airlines Lufthansa and Air France-KLM in coming days to discuss whether they are interested in buying the airline, Italian media say.

Air France-KLM, once considered the Italian carrier's most likely buyer, has repeatedly denied any interest in rescuing it now but on Thursday said it would listen if approached.

Lufthansa said last month it would be prepared to look at Alitalia if the conditions of a sale changed.

All the final contenders in the failed auction -- Russian airline Aeroflot, US private equity firms MatlinPatterson and TPG and smaller Italian carrier Air One -- say they would be interested again if Italy relaxed the terms of the sale.