After a late-night session at the Italian Chamber of Deputies, the onorevole, or member of parliament, is eager to get back to Milan where he hopes to get some sleep before attending an important late-morning meeting. He reserves a seat on an Alitalia Rome-Milan night flight, scheduled to depart at 2:35 a.m. The plane takes off at 7 a.m.
After a sleepless night at Rome's Fiumicino (Leonardo da Vinci) Airport, the onorevole has time only to leave his attache case at home, grab a quick cup of espresso, and pick up some important papers at his downtown law office. He arrives at the meeting a half hour late.
A Rome-based journalist learns on short notice that she must leave for Turin. All of Alitalia's flights are booked solid, so she breaks precedent and asks the Alitalia press office for a favor, which they willingly oblige. The flight, scheduled for 6:50 p.m., is called in time - that is, within the internationally accepted 15-minute margin.
Once boarded, however the plane does not take off. The pilot, who claims taht four passengers who have checked in have failed to show, says the passengers must disembark and identify their luggage. After an hour, Fiumicino Airport's only "emergency" baggage squad arrives, removes the bags from the plane's hole and disappears. It takes another 40 minutes before a "normal" baggage squad can be found to replace the luggage, and the journalist arrives in Turin two hours late for an interview with a top city politician who, of course, has gone off to dinner.
A Milan businessman has a series of morning appointments in Rome and decides to get the night flight from Malpensa, Milan's international airport. While waiting there he overhears an airport official say that the plane arriving from Rome - on which he is scheduled to depart - will,instead, be landing at Linate Airport, 50 minutes away.
After checking the information, the businessman jumps into his car and speeds over to the city's smaller airport. When he gets there he learns that a second change has been made. The plane has, in fact, landed at Malpensa. The businessman has missed his flight and is forced to wait several hours at Linate before being able to depart.He arrives at 5 a.m.
A scheduled flight from Cagliari in Sardinia to Rome is delayed when the pilot unexpectedly orders a luggage check for, he says, security reasons. After the exercise, one angry woman passenger lets fly an insulting remark. The pilot (now under judicial investigation) refuses to take off with the woman aboard.
The passengers get so angry that the local police are called in. The Sardinian Commissioner of Transport, also a passenger, attempts to mediate, but the plane does not leave until two hours later when the woman, her resistance wore down, finally agrees to take another flight.
All the above-mentioned incidents, which demonstrate the degree to which air travel in Italy has become uncertain, chaotic and frankly aggravating, occurred during the current bout of labor agitation waged by "ANPAC," the principal Italian pilots' union to which over 80 percent of this country's civil airline pilots belong.
Dubbed "wild mosquito strikes" by the imaginative Italian press, the attack on Italy's national airline, Alitalia, is designed to win the already well-paid pilots giant pay increases (which the company claims would almost double its personnel costs), revised flying-time bonuses and reorganized work shifts.
In addition, the pilots claim that Alitalia, which ran a profit in 1977 for the first time in years, is "disastrously managed" and, what's more, "authoritarian." They want a new and better contract. And some have apparently decided that the best way to get it is to systematically annoy Alitalia's passengers.
Labor unrest - among pilots, ground crews, cabin personnel and airport employees - has made air travel in Italy a frustrating venture for some time now. But whereas the strikes of 1975 and 1976 led to the cancellation of hundreds of flights, and millions in lost ticket revenues, the "wild mosquito" measures of tlhe last few weeks cause more problems for the traveler than for the boss, or padrone .
The name of the game is "delay," and, in fact, at present there is an average one-hour lag for all scheduled short-range and medium-range flights. One day recently a new record was achieved: Out of 200 Atitalia European flights, only five were on time. At whim, the pilots have been calling for unprecedented luggage checks, as well as tire, life-vest, life-raft and light tests.
The normal rolling time from runaway landing to tarmac disembarkation has also been exasperatingly prolonged. In comparison with a normal rolling time of eight minutes, the pilots have been taking between 30 and 50 minutes to coax their crafts on to the tarmac. One result has been new orders from the Ministry of Transport forbidding runway obstruction. But the practice persists, much to the detriment of passengers' timetables and tempers.
The present period has presented would-be travelers here with a series of new, nerve-wracking hardships, but it would be misleading to give the impression that, even in "normal" times, flying in Italy is reliable, calm and relaxed.
Alitalia, 95 percent of which is owned by the Italian state, says that between January and August of last year the company was holding its own, in international terms, by seeing that between 75 to 80 percent of its national flights got off on time. Company spokesmen explain that the bad record of the last five months was set off by the British pilots strike, comlplicated by the expiration of the near-inclusive Italian air workers contract, and aggravated by the pilots' demands.
But going anywhere by plane in Italy any time has other risks. Like the hours often spent, particularly at Fiumicino, waiting for luggage to arrive at the baggage claim; like the long, uncomfortable and unexplained minutes invariably spent in the crowded, closed airport transport buses that replace the embarkation arms few Italian airports have; like the long waits on the runway, the inexplicably conceled flights, the inexplicably canceled flights, the lack of information, and the disorganized airports with no place to sit.
Alitalia points out - and rightly so - that not all this is the company's fault. Rapidly shifting banks of winter fog wreak havoc on the airline's busiest run, Rome-Milan-Rome. Traffic control creates other problems for airports that are, for the most part, largely out of date. And commercial considerations (unfilled planes or passenger connections) also account for other cancellations and delays.
In fact, air travel in Italy seems to be particularly sensitive to a widespread Italian malady, an underlying and perhaps unconscious conviction that chaos is somehow more human, democratic and endearing than the efficiency of some of Italy's neighbors to the north.
Recently, a leading spokesman for the small, economy-minded Republican Party suggested that Alitalia's almost unchallenged monopoly over the country's air routes ought perhaps to be revoked. But Alitalia is not alone the confusion it creates for its customers, their families and their friends.
Recently, while waiting in vain at Rome's Fiumicino Airport for a friend who was kept (by a strike, of course) from getting on an Alitalia flight from Milan, I discovered that Italy's small, private Itavia Airline company also has little to crow about.
By calling my office, my friend has managed to leave word he was taking an Itavia flight and wanted me to meet him at Ciampino, a smaller airport on the other side to Rome. It was raining hard, so before making the trek I wanted to make sure I could get there in time.
At he Itavia desk at Fiumicino, however, they told me there was no scheduled or nonscheduled flight from Milan. Undaunted, I called Ciampino directly, only to get similar response. After leaving word with my office, I set off, greatly puzzled, for home. About an later the phone rang. It was my friend. He was at Ciampino, having just arrived - on aregularly scheduled Itavia flight from Milan.