Atlantia, Italy’s motorway operator with global ambitions under scrutiny

Italian group Atlantia, whose operation of half of Italy's motorways is under risk following the collapse of a bridge in Genoa killing at least 39 people, is a major operator of toll roads and airports which is expanding rapidly internationally to become one of the world's leading operators of infrastructure.

Atlantia, Italy's motorway operator with global ambitions under scrutiny
Italian motorway operator Atlantia chief executive officer Giovanni Castellucci (L) and Spanish construction group ACS chairperson Florentino Perez. Photo: Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP.

Its prime asset is Autostrade per l'Italia, which according to information published by Atlantia manages 2,855 km of Italian toll highways directly and another 165 km through five subsidiaries with separate concessions, including the A10 highway where a segment of an overpass collapsed on Tuesday August 14th. 

Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio on Wednesday charged that the tragedy “could have been avoided” and that it was clear that Autostrade per l'Italia was at fault for not carrying out maintenance.

READ ALSO: Five Star Movement founder reportedly mocked warnings of collapse of Morandi Bridge

The Italian government said it intended to fine the firm €150 million and cancel its concession.The transport ministry told AFP it will first look at whether it was justified to revoke the concession for the A10 motorway and then look at all the other concessions.

Atlantia said on its website that it has spent €11.4 billion to improve 923 km of Italian motorways, and was waiting for approval from authorities to build a bypass around Genoa.

Atlantia's history is intertwined with Autostrade per l'Italia, which was privatised in 1999 and acquired by investors including the Benetton group. In 2003 the motorway and other infrastructure assets were separated and the holding company, which eventually took the name Atlantia, was listed on the Milan stock exchange.

Atlantia owns 88 per cent of Autostrade per l'Italia, which accounted for just under two-thirds of its €5.97 billion in revenue last year. Atlantia earned a net profit of nearly €1.2 billion for the year.

Overall it operates more than 5,000 km of motorways in Brazil, Chile, India and Poland. It also operates the Mount Blanc tunnel and recently became the top shareholder in Getlink, which operates Channel Tunnel, buying a 15.5 per cent stake that controls over a quarter of voting rights for nearly €1.1 billion. 

Atlantia stands to soon gain more motorways. It recently teamed up with the German-Spanish group Hochtief-ACS to buy for €18.2 billion the Spanish firm Abertis, which calls itself the world's top motorway operator with 8,600 kilometres of toll roads in 15 countries. Atlantia will own 50 per cent plus one share of the joint venture that will own Abertis.

The Italian group entered the airport management business in 2013 with contracts for Rome's two airports, Fiumicino and Ciampino. In 2016, Atlantia together with French electricity firm EDF bought 60 per cent stakes held by the French state in the airports in the Nice, Cannes and Saint-Tropez airports.

Atlantia's share price fell by more than 10 per cent at one point during trading on Tuesday, closing the day down 5.4 per cent at €23.54.

The Milan stock exchange was closed for a holiday on Wednesday August 15th.

READ MORE: Genoa bridge collapse: 38 confirmed dead, says interior minister

READ MORE: Genoa residents left shattered after collapse of Morandi Bridge



First cruise ship sets sail from Italy since coronavirus shutdown

The first major cruise ship to resume tours of the Mediterranean since the coronavirus pandemic hit Europe set sail from the Italian city of Genoa on Sunday, as the industry tries to regain ground after a bruising hiatus.

First cruise ship sets sail from Italy since coronavirus shutdown
A photographer watches the MSC Grandiosa depart on Sunday August 16th, 2020, after more than six months of inactivity. Photo: AFP

The departure of the MSC Grandiosa from the northwestern port city at 1930 local time represents a high-stakes test for the global sector in the key Mediterranean market and beyond.

The international cruise industry has been battered not only by the ongoing health crisis which in March forced the worldwide grounding of its ships, but accusations of a botched handling of the epidemic in its early stages.

Cruise lines are hoping that new, tighter protocols will allow them to control the still-lingering threat of coronavirus aboard its ships while still offering travellers a cruise experience that does not disappoint.

Arriving passengers preparing to check in before taking a required coronavirus blood test inside the terminal told AFP they were not concerned about the virus. Some said they believed cruises were now safer than other vacation options.

“I couldn't miss the first cruise after Covid,” cruise blogger Rosalba Scarrone, 64, told AFP.

READ ALSO: Venice anti-cruise ship activists cheer temporary victory as liners pull out

“I've taken 87 cruises, can you imagine how much I've suffered not setting off from February until now?”

The Grandiosa is part of the fleet of privately-owned MSC Cruises, founded in Naples but now based in Geneva. The ship will travel to the ports of Civitavecchia near Rome, Naples, Palermo and Valletta, Malta during the seven-day cruise.

Competitor Costa Cruises, owned by Carnival, has opted to delay the restart of its Mediterranean cruises until September, with departures from Trieste and Genoa for Italian-only clients. The company said the measure was designed to “guarantee the maximum security for guests, crew and local communities.”

Fewer passengers

Much is riding on the decision to restart cruises. Italy represents the bulk of Europe's cruise industry, reaping 14.5 billion euros of revenue per year and supporting nearly 53,000 jobs, according to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).

The group estimated a potential economic loss from suspended cruises throughout Europe could amount to about 25.5 billion euros.

“The voyage … represents a tangible sign of comeback for one of the fundamental economic industries of our city,” said Genoa Mayor Marco Bucci.

Over 2 million cruise passengers departed from the city last year.

Last week, Italy's government, which is striving to revive the country's moribund economy after a more than two-month lockdown, gave cruise operators the green light to begin operating again as of August 15. 

MSC authorities said approximately 2,500 passengers would be on its debut cruise, limited to about 70 percent of normal capacity.

All eyes in the industry will be on the Grandiosa after a smaller cruise operator, Norway's Hurtigruten, was forced earlier this month to suspend its newly restarted service after dozens of passengers and crew tested positive for COVID-19.

Global health authorities criticised the industry's slow response to the spread of the virus at the onset of the crisis earlier this year before ships were grounded in March, from lax monitoring of crew, to continued operation of self-service buffets and gyms, to lack of personal protective equipment.

Buffet is served

As of June 11, 3,047 people were infected and 73 people died aboard 48 cruise ships affiliated with trade group Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), according to Johns Hopkins University data, provided by CLIA.

Health authorities say close living and working spaces for crew, along with partially enclosed environments contributed to greater risk of infection on cruises than other venues.

MSC has suspended the rest of its Mediterranean cruises until October save for an August 29 cruise departing from the southern Italian port of Bari.

The company said its new security protocol exceeds national and industry standards, including daily temperatures taken and escorted trips in controlled groups for excursions.

Food from the buffet, a highlight of the cruise experience, will be served at passengers' tables.