February 25, 2013 8:21 pm

Alitalia chief executive in sudden exit

Alitalia’s chief executive has agreed to leave the struggling Italian national carrier by “mutual agreement” with the board, handing over the reins to its chairman and controlling shareholder.

The surprise exit of Andrea Ragnetti comes as speculation grows about whether the airline can remain independent as losses mount and it continues to lose share to low-cost carriers and Europe’s high-speed trains.

Alitalia said Mr Ragnetti had resigned from his position and “until a new chief executive is appointed the board had given the position in the interim to chairman Roberto Colaninno”.

The resignation came as the airline announced a €280m net loss, compared with a loss of €69m in 2011. Passenger numbers fell slightly to 24.3m.

Expectations of a shake-up at the airline have risen since the expiry of a lock-up of shares held by local investors, led by bank Intesa Sanpaolo in January. People familiar with the matter had said it was thought that Air France-KLM would seek to increase its stake. People close to Alitalia and Mr Ragnetti had denied any move by Air France-KLM was imminent.

Nonetheless, analysts did not rule out that the uncertain outcome of the Italian election on Monday had accelerated the exit of Mr Ragnetti. They said a political power vacuum at least temporarily removed government opposition to a sale of a greater stake in the airline to Air France-KLM or another competitor.

The French-Dutch group, which owns a quarter of Alitalia, was thwarted in its attempts to take over the Italian airline in 2008 after opposition from unions and the then-government of Silvio Berlusconi.

Air France-KLM bought its 25 per cent stake in the airline for €300m in 2009. Analysts had suggested that it was likely that some of the consortium of 21 Italian investors, which took over the bankrupt airline at the end of 2008, would sell part of their shareholdings to Air France-KLM after the lock-up period expired.

While not ruling out a potential move by the Franco-Dutch group to increase its stake, another person close to the situation said that it did not have the time or the resources to do so in the short term.

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