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Three years after Alitalia's international fleet was shifted south to Rome, the Milan area airport tries to remake itself.

Malpensa (ComunicaTi)


MILAN - It did not become a desert as some had feared, but Malpensa is simply no longer a major airport. Still, three years after Rome's Fiumicino was re-designated as Alitalia's global hub, and Malpensa dropped overnight from 1238 to 163 weekly flights, the airport northwest of Milan is beginning to grow again. One flight at a time.

Here are the numbers for 2010, according to the Italian airports association: 18.7 million passengers (a 7.9% increase from 2009) passed through Malpensa. But compared with 2007 estimates, the last season before the de-hubbing of Alitalia occurred, the outlook is quite different. Back then, Malpensa had 23.8 million passengers, while Fiumicino had 32.9 million. Today, the Roman airport and headquarter of Alitalia, serviced 35 million passengers (a 7.5% increase over 2009) while the northern airport fewer than 19 million.

Recovery plan

In these two years, the management team, led by Giuseppe Bonomi has made effective moves: He has overseen an increase in the number of airlines flying out of Malpensa from 77 to 110, helping to plug the hole left by Alitalia's departure. Much of that gap was made up by the boom in low-cost carriers (Easyjet had a record 5.1 million passengers) bringing the total number of destinations covered by the airport to its' 2007 levels (168). Malpensa has also taken advantage of the new routes opened up by Lufthansa Italia (2.2 million take-offs in 2010), restored a regular flight to New Delhi and increased service to Dubai and the United Arab Emirates. New accommodations in the area have also been built, including the Sheraton Milan Malpensa, which opens this week.

Furthermore, by the end of March, Gulf Air will activate its Malpensa — Bahrain flight; and in June, Air China will inaugurate its Malpensa —Beijing leg. Cathay Pacific will offer daily flights to Hong Kong, and Ethiad Airways will increase the frequency of its flights to Abu Dhabi. The goal is to surpass 170 possible destinations in 2011.

Interests to protect

Malpensa managers' ambitions risk bumping up against the government, which continues to protect the interests of the new Alitalia. Renegotiating several bilateral agreements with foreign governments will be necessary to opening new international routes to Malpensa. The rescue of Alitalia has also brought about the suspension of the antitrust rules that govern the Linate (Milan) to Fiumicino (Rome) route — a cash cow if there ever was one — which the Italian carrier has a monopoly over.

The government also recently blocked a request by Singapore Airlines to continue its Singapore-Milan-New York route via Malpensa. That would have guaranteed a supply of the wealthy travelers coming from the Far East, a first step in returning Malpensa as a real airport hub.

No one would like to see that return to Malpensa's hub status happen more than Lufthansa, which in April 2008 entered into a partnership with the Milanese operator. Since January 2009, the Germans have based nine Airbus A319 at Malpensa. They are activating 15 Italian and European destinations and leasing, through Lufthansa Technik, an aircraft maintenance hangar.

The aim of the Frankfurt giant is to become within 3-4 years the new hub carrier of the wealthy in Northern Italy, part of its multi-hub strategy (which includes Frankfurt, Munich, Zurich, Brussels and Vienna). The partnership will only work if the agreement can ensure "free competition among all airlines," said Heike Birlenbach, vice president of Lufthansa's Italian division. He has warned against political interference, and insisted on satisfactory ground transportation options to and from Malpensa.

"At Malpensa, we want to fill the gaps that were left by Alitalia." That is the real reason for the Lufthansa's investment. In short: if the government continues to protect Alitalia's monopoly at Linate, how do the Germans build out their Italian network, to revive the Milanese hub airport? Indeed, Lufthansa has started to look elsewhere, including its recent interest in buying Scandinavian SAS airline.

Deadweight Loss

According to Professor Roberto Zucchetti of Milan's Bocconi University, when it comes to international accessibility, Malpensa has dropped 8 points in direct connectivity since 2005. The international traffic has dropped 27% since 2007, despite the growing links to Asia. Meanwhile, Alitalia is expected to cash in from the 1.5 million business passengers going from Northern Italy to Paris.

To travel today from Italy to Los Angeles, Washington or Buenos Aires, the quickest way is to travel through France. And so for now that 20% drop in daily air traffic appears here to stay. Malpensa has reemerged as a good second-tier airport, far from the hub that Northern Italians envisioned more than two decades ago.

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