updated 1/26/2006 12:36:15 PM ET 2006-01-26T17:36:15

Workers at Italian airline Alitalia on Thursday ended a week of wildcat pickets that have forced the airline to cancel hundreds of flights and put the company’s future in question.

The employees agreed to an appeal from labor unions to stop the protests after the government, which owns a 49.9 percent stake in the airline, called a meeting with unions and Alitalia’s management for Feb. 1., said Mauro Rossi, an official with Filt-Cgil transport union.

“The workers fully share the decision by the unions,” said Rossi, speaking from the Leonardo da Vinci airport, Rome’s main airport. “They are gradually coming back in” from the pickets, Rossi said.

He said, however, that it could be several days before workers catch up on maintenance work on the Alitalia fleet, raising the possibility of further disruptions.

The airline said in a statement that with the end of the pickets “all the activities that allow for the full operation of the planes have been reactivated in full.”

“In the coming hours the flight program on the entire network will return to normal, though there could light disruptions” Thursday.

Alitalia said earlier that the tail end of the protests could put 170 of its flights at risk Thursday.

Workers have been protesting Alitalia’s restructuring efforts, which include cutting jobs and spinning off the airline’s flight unit from its less profitable ground services business.

The strikes have forced Alitalia to cancel hundreds of flights over the last week, with 175 canceled on Wednesday.

Financial newspaper Il Sole-24 Ore reported Thursday that the protests were costing Alitalia 10 million euros ($12 million) a day.

The strikes have raised questions over Alitalia’s ability to push through its restructuring, seen as key for its longer term survival.

Speaking on a television talk show Thursday, Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti warned that “the turnaround plan must be respected or else Alitalia will collapse.” But Tremonti also said that Alitalia was “a good company with good prospects.”

Alitalia Chairman and Chief Executive Giancarlo Cimoli wants the state-run holding company Fintecna SpA to take a majority stake in the company’s ground services branch, AZ Service, in order to give the flight company AZ Fly greater flexibility and a slimmer payroll.

Unions, which have already accepted nearly 3,700 job cuts to reduce Alitalia’s total staff to just under 20,000, oppose separating AZ Service from the rest of the company because they fear it will reduce their negotiating clout with management and the government.

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