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Originally published Tuesday, January 13, 2009 at 4:15 AM

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Alitalia starts new life as first flights take off

Alitalia began its new life as a privatized company on Tuesday, with its first flights taking off without delay despite worker protests seeking to mar the inauguration of the streamlined national carrier.

Associated Press Writers

ROME —

Alitalia began its new life as a privatized company on Tuesday, with its first flights taking off without delay despite worker protests seeking to mar the inauguration of the streamlined national carrier.

The first intercontinetal flight from Milan's Malpensa airport to Sao Paulo, Brazil - departed shortly after 6 a.m. (0500GMT) without incident, as did the first domestic flight from Palermo to Rome, which arrived at 7:25 a.m.

"I'm very excited to have kicked off - if only by chance - this new era in the country's civil aviation," Massimiliano Canterini, the captain of the Palermo-Rome flight, told the ANSA news agency.

But at Malpensa, workers unhappy with both the hiring regime and a deal to make Air France-KLM a minority partner held banners and marched inside the airport. Malpensa officials advised passengers that delays were possible.

Workers are concerned that the Air France-KLM partnership will further weaken traffic at Malpensa, which already has been demoted from a hub as part of measures to make the failing airline more efficient. The new Alitalia management pledged on Monday to make Malpensa an integral part of the network - and would even consider making it a hub again.

Alitalia's 62 years as a state-run company ended in bankruptcy. The new Alitalia is a private company owned by a group of Italian investors who have merged the old Alitalia's profitable assets with the much smaller Air One, which will retain its separate identity.

Air France-KLM, which withdrew an offer to buy the airline outright last year under union and political opposition, has agreed to pay euro322 million ($431.29 million) in cash and equity to become a minority partner with a 25 percent share in the new company.

The group of some 25 Italian investors - including the chiefs of scooter maker Piaggio, the Pirelli tire company and a highway construction company - bought the bankrupt airline from the Italian government in a euro1.052 billion deal. That includes euro625 million in Alitalia's debt, which in the meantime has ballooned to at least euro3.2 billion.

The new Alitalia is slimmer than its predecessor, with 148 aircraft from both airlines combined, compared with 173 in the old fleet, and about 12,500 employees, down from more than 23,500 between the two airlines.

There is nothing manifestly different about the new Alitalia. The logo remains the same, as do the green flight crew uniforms. The fleet will be newer after the incoming owners declined to take on older, less-efficient planes, and the flight plan is streamlined to serve 70 destinations, just 13 of those intercontinental.

But not everyone is welcoming the deal. Workers held a mock funeral for Alitalia on Monday, and more protests may be held Tuesday.

Sabelli said he didn't expect major protests by workers employed by the new Alitalia, but feared some anger by those who had been fired. The new airline has arranged for back-up pilots, baggage handlers and technicians to be available in case the protests prevent staff from reaching their jobs, he said.

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"I don't expect a perfect takeoff," he told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview. Italy's civil aviation authority ENAC marked the passage from the old Alitalia to the new with a signing ceremony Monday evening.

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Colleen Barry reported from Milan.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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