Etihad has said nothing about its 49 percent owned Italian flag carrier Alitalia returning to its happy hunting ground of North Carlton or Leichhardt, but as it surges toward profitability there are reasons why this is a possibility.
In short, Etihad has finite access to the Australian market under current arrangements. The only way it can maximise the slots it is allowed is to upsize the aircraft it uses, which is why for example, it turns one of its daily flights between Melbourne and Abu Dhabi into an A380 from June 1.
But as air traffic arrangements between Australia and the EU ‘evolve’ the continent’s flag carriers can be expected not just to qualify to share in the traffic allocations but to actually want to use them.
Especially if they are for arguments sake, half owned by a ME carrier that wants more action than it can get with its own traffic allocations.
This is the long game Etihad is pursuing, and with more intensity than ever with the recent formation of the Etihad Aviation Group.
Participating in the airline business on a global scale is the raison d’être of the Etihad strategy, which also makes it a 25.1 percent owner (as of this moment) in Virgin Australia Holdings. It has always cited lack of slots as the reason for investing in European carriers, including AirBerlin, and somewhat rattled the major US carriers by raising the potential of using such investments to indirectly participate in the uber lucrative Europe-USA market.
Alitalia, like Lufthansa, Air France and KLM, abandoned direct services to Australian cities in the 90s, in most cases before the first stirrings of the ME carriers. It was a period in which US deregulation caught out the European carriers, many of them then substantially government owned, by leaving them with uncompetitive cost structures, and that in turn forced them to reconsider under performing long haul routes like those to Sydney and Melbourne in those times.
In its hey-day in Australia, a time when shop front travel agents sold almost all overseas tickets and on-line distribution was undreamed of, Alitalia filled its jets with loyal customers from the inner suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney. Italy was an essential part of the travel plans of much of the Australian outbound market, which spent far less than it does today on holidays in an Asia where the rise of its middle class jetsetters hadn’t taken off.
It will take time, but there is no reason to believe Etihad doesn’t see the odd Alitalia jet (refuelling in Abu Dhabi of course) coming back to this part of its world wide vision.