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Ocean carrier MSC, Lufthansa in bid to buy Italian airline ITA

Container lines have made a series of investments in air cargo, logistics

Mediterranean Shipping Co. is looking to add an airline to its expansive transportation portfolio. (Photo: ITA Airways)

Another ocean shipping company wants to get into the airline business. Mediterranean Shipping Co. on Monday told the Italian government that it is interested in acquiring a majority stake in ITA Airways, the state-owned successor to Alitalia.

The world’s largest container vessel operator said German flag carrier Lufthansa is an investment partner, and ITA Airways said in a news release that both companies want the Italian government to maintain a minority stake in the company. Reuters reported that Lufthansa is negotiating a 40% share in ITA.

“MSC Group’s interest derives from the possibility of activating positive synergies for both companies in the cargo and passenger sectors where the MSC Group is a global leader,” the Switzerland-based carrier said in a statement.

It requested 90 business days to exclusively negotiate terms of a deal.

ITA, or Italia Trasporto Aereo, has about 45 narrowbody and seven widebody aircraft in its fleet, according to its website.

MSC’s maneuver to purchase an airline is the latest example of ocean carriers, flush with cash from two years of record profits, expanding to become integrated logistics companies and, in some cases, offer air cargo service. MSC is privately held and doesn’t report its finances, but using other carriers as a proxy would suggest that it has a very strong balance sheet it can deploy for investment purposes. Maersk, the second-largest carrier by container capacity, has indicated it expects full-year earnings to be $24 billion, and during the third quarter alone Hapag-Lloyd was in the black by $4.3 billion.

French shipping giant CMA CGM last year launched an all-cargo airline and now has five Airbus A330 widebody jets. In November it placed an order with Airbus for four A350 extra-large aircraft. The company, which achieved $5.6 billion in third-quarter earnings, also owns Ceva Logistics, one of the largest contract logistics providers in the world.

Maersk already operates a cargo airline, Star Air. Last year it leased three Boeing 767-300 converted freighters and ordered two 777 long-haul cargo jets from Boeing. It soon plans to close on a $644 million deal for Senator International, a German freight forwarder that specializes in airfreight.

Other ocean carriers with long-standing air cargo operations are Taiwan-based Evergreen, which owns EVA Air, and Tokyo-based NYK Line, the parent company of Nippon Cargo Airlines.

MSC, meanwhile, made a $6.7 billion offer last month for the Africa division of Bolloré Group, a France-based third-party logistics provider. One of the carrier’s existing divisions provides inland container distribution. 

MSC also owns a large cruise line, which gives it experience dealing with passengers and sets up a tie-in with ITA Airways to help bring tourists to its cruise ports. 

ITA Airways was born out of the financial rubble of Alitalia. After no private investors would bail out the company, the government stepped in to buy it and then allowed it to restructure under a new brand in November 2020. It started operations last October. 

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.


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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals and a Silver Medal from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government and trade coverage, and news analysis. He was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He won Environmental Journalist of the Year from the Seahorse Freight Association in 2014 and was the group's 2013 Supply Chain Journalist of the Year. In December 2022, Eric was voted runner up for Air Cargo Journalist by the Seahorse Freight Association. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. He has appeared on Marketplace, ABC News and National Public Radio to talk about logistics issues in the news. Eric is based in Vancouver, Washington. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]