Philip Hensher: Alitalia flies into the sunset, and not before time

Tuesday 16 September 2008 00:00

Alitalia, the hilarious national airline of Italy, is teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. The Italian government has been trying to find a buyer for the airline for two years now, without any success. Now it looks almost certain to go under. Following the collapse of Swissair, and the Belgian Sabena, Alitalia's situation makes one wonder why on earth any nation state wanted to own an airline in the first place. It just doesn't seem like a very good idea at all.

My goodness, the suffering we've all gone through at the hands of nationalised airlines. Knowing that nothing they can do, or fail to do, is going to lead to any kind of consequences, the traveller is the direct target for their merry japes. In its state-owned days, the Spanish airline Iberia was notoriously unpleasant. A desk clerk employed by them once threw my passport at my face – not as a result of any kind of argument, but because she was bored and wanted to amuse her colleagues.

Olympic Airways tossed my luggage away somewhere between Athens, Cairo and Khartoum, and then tried to deny that it was any responsibility of theirs. A steward on a quiet flight on one of these airlines once attempted to importune me for sexual favours – actually, rather a frightening experience to someone in his early twenties.

Those were all dramatic low points, but everyone remembers the constant low-level atrociousness of the nationalised airlines – the rudeness, the dirt, the revolting food, the lack of any kind of service ethos. Of course, the privatised airlines can deliver all of these in abundance – the oppression of travelling by Ryanair, for instance, is universally attested. The point is that all too often the nationalised airlines delivered a shocking level of service while continuing to demand as high a price as they could get away with.

No wonder they're all going bankrupt, and not a moment too soon. There goes Alitalia! Great! Remember to flush, please! Surely anybody can see that every airline that survives into private ownership is dramatically improved over time – Lufthansa, Air France-KLM, and, leading the way decades ago, British Airways, all a thousand times better than wretched Alitalia and the like. The same is true outside Europe – India's excellent Jet Airways is, to my mind, a hundred times better than Air India, or Kenya Airways.

It is frankly incredible that a country in western Europe, not recently run as a communist regime, still owns its own airline. What else does the Italian government think worth owning? Chains of pizzerias? Underwear manufacturers? Alitalia, which nobody wants to fly on, is 49 per cent owned by the state. Did nobody start to make some kind of connection before very recently?

And this is the bigger question. Why on earth did anyone think of connecting national pride to some airline company or other in the first place? If British Airways suddenly went bankrupt, there would be some other airline company to take its place. The most enthusiastic patriot would care about as much, on nationalistic grounds, as he would if Britain's Got Talent was suddenly cancelled by ITV. And that's the way it should be. Sell it off; close it down; or face the consequences. We're not living in 1977 any more.

A memorial to fading memories

I've noticed that when I say "Since the war..." to my students, as people of my generation tend naturally to do, they've started looking a little bit blank. "Which war? The Gulf? The Balkan? Vietnam? – ah, you mean the one with Hitler in it." They're no more ignorant than my generation; but time erodes the memory of what once seemed unique.

I first went to Berlin in the mid-1980s, and remember the appalling shock of seeing the Gedächtniskirche, pictured, just by Zoo station. It's the remains of a Wilhelmine church, left after British bombing, torn away in a savage manner and left as an ambiguous memorial. You can't see it and not think about the violence required in a righteous cause.

Now, however, it's collapsing, and the money to secure it has not been found, despite a major campaign for donations. In the end, I guess, the citizens of Berlin and the admirable mayor of this hard-up city will somehow secure the money, this time round. Sooner than we anticipate, however, even the people who, like me, talk about "the war", meaning the one which ended 20 years before we were born, will be old. Both memory and memorials will crumble, and we will move on, not even knowing that that is what we are doing.

Inflation? It's stinking hard cheese

Bloody hell. Cheese has gone up, according to some analyses, by 50 per cent in the past year. Even supermarket cheddar costs half as much again as it did this time last year. Gazing at the now unaffordable shelves of Stinking Bishop and Sharpham Rustic, we are just going to have to fall back on our memories, and turn what was an ordinary comfort into an occasional treat.

I don't think I've ever met a cheese I didn't like to some degree – Bernard Levin said that he drew the line only at that mad Norwegian toffee-like confection called Gjetost, but I even like that, I'm afraid. From the ones which taste of, and look like, soap, such as Sage Derby, to the ones which lead to voluntary but rapid evacuations of buses, such as a ripe Livarot, I would never say no.

Using cheese as an inflation indicator is an unusually sadistic way of explaining the degree to which the economy is off the rails. Surely, if we about to plunge into a recession, the one thing we could do with to comfort ourselves, huddling around a candle in our rags, is some cheese on toast. It seems altogether unfair that the burden of inflation has fallen so heavily on this most eccentric and lovable of all foods.

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