July 25, 2007 / 11:59 AM / 12 years ago

Work is hell at airline Italians love to hate

MILAN (Reuters) - Working for a failing airline many Italians love to hate is never easy, but some harassed Alitalia staff say a dud privatisation has pushed their working lives to a new low.

Alitalia and Air One airplanes are parked on the tarmac of Fiumicino's International Airport in Rome July 18, 2007. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

On top of the government talking tough about letting the money-losing state carrier go bust, Alitalia employees complain they are overworked, the butt of passenger ire and frustrated in a company that is bogged down in red tape run more like a government agency than a commercial enterprise.

“Working these days has been a real hell,” said one stewardess in Alitalia’s green-jacketed uniform as she rushed through Linate, Milan’s number-two airport, to reach a flight.

Italy scrapped its auction of Alitalia, Europe’s sixth largest carrier by market value, when remaining bidders pulled out last week. It was another slap in the face for a company which once stood for national pride.

The centre-left government faces dwindling options for Alitalia, which is losing more than a million euros a day and riven by strikes among its 20,000-strong workforce.

Without a buyer it may face liquidation, since the EU has banned the Italian government from injecting any more cash into the struggling airline.

Poor staff morale and the derision of some Italians — who joke Alitalia is an acronym for “Always Late In Takeoff Always Late In Arrival” — are a far cry from the glory days.

Alitalia, created after World War Two, was once a company many aspired to work for.

Sharp-suited pilots laden with gold braid strode purposefully across airport concourses the world over, confident their Alitalia badges marked them out as the “creme de la creme”.

No matter how smart the uniforms, cabin crew now see little glamour in long hours and telling passengers to “buckle up”.

“We work too much, over 11 hours per day, some of which are on the ground. But we get paid only for the flight hours,” said the stewardess on her way through Linate.

Other staff say crews that oversee boarding often race from one gate to another at a pace that threatens safety.

Local media have been quick to ridicule the airline’s extravagance. Alitalia acts a taxi service for some employees who work at its Rome base, flying them daily to work at the airline’s second hub in Milan.

EASY TARGET

But frontline staff feel they are an easy target.

“The press compares our salaries with what people earn working for low-cost airlines, but they don’t consider the services we, along with other flag carriers, provide,” one stewardess said.

Many Italians lay much of the blame for the airline’s failure to find a suitor on its staff. The National Consumers Union has said Alitalia workers often strike for no reason and the company “only eats taxpayers’ money”.

Italian Infrastructure Minister Antonio di Pietro has been blunter.

“When something is diseased, you need to amputate it,” he said after the auction fell through, adding the flag carrier should be sold off for one token euro.

Alitalia staff already complain the airline has been turning to short-term contracts to cut costs. The result is widespread job insecurity.

Diego Onza, a 34-year-old flight attendant, said he got his first permanent job last month after 16 temporary contracts in eight years.

But one way or another, change is inevitable.

Analysts believe Alitalia’s labour woes — and the government’s perceived reluctance to allow a buyer free rein to slash jobs — have been integral to the absence from the auction of major players like Air France and Lufthansa.

A spokeswoman for Alitalia declined to comment, but one flight attendant, who did not want to be named, had a clear view.

“They cannot cut jobs unless they decide to leave the airplanes on the ground,” she said.

The problem for her and other Alitalia staff is the government may decide to do just that.

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