Italy's economics minister promised to discuss the future of Milan's Malpensa hub with local officials in an effort to defuse tensions over the expected downsizing of the airport if loss-making carrier Alitalia is sold to Air France-KLM.
Alitalia and the Franco-Dutch group are set to begin exclusive talks for the sale of the company. Air France-KLM has said that if it takes over Alitalia it will significantly scale down Malpensa, keeping Rome's Leonardo da Vinci as its sole international hub in Italy.
The plan has drawn fierce protests from officials in Lombardy, one of the country's business centers and the region that includes Milan.
"I think that the solution to the Alitalia situation must be accompanied by serious prospects for that airport," Economics Minister Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa told Corriere della Sera in an interview published Monday.
"We will deal with Malpensa's problems together" with local authorities, he said.
Padoa-Schioppa added, however, that "the problem with Malpensa is neither Alitalia nor Air France. It stems from insufficient access infrastructure and the proliferation of nearby airports."
Malpensa is 53 kilometers (33 miles) from downtown Milan, while the other city airport, Linate, is just 10 kilometers (six miles) away. Ever since its revamping and reopening as an international hub in 1998, Malpensa has been plagued by flight delays, logistical difficulties and a scandal years ago when some of its employees were caught allegedly stealing from passenger's luggage.
The Northern League _ a party with a strong regional identity _ has threatened strikes and blockades in opposition to the Air France-KLM bid. Party leader Umberto Bossi promised to organize a rally at Malpensa in January.
The government _ which has a 49.9 percent stake in the airline _ said Friday it was backing Air France-KLM's bid over a competing offer by Italian airline Air One SpA, paving the way for Alitalia's sale. Days earlier, Alitalia's board also chose the Franco-Dutch group as its preferred bidder.
The exclusive talks between Alitalia and Air France-KLM might start as early as this week and are expected to last eight weeks.