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early Italian civil aviation

The September 1, 1934, cover from a schedule of the Societa Elerea Mediterranea, one of Italy's early airlines

As one of the major European powers in the 20th century, one might expect that Italy would have made an early start in commercial aviation. On the contrary, Italy was actually one of the last in Europe to begin civil aviation services, despite considerable experience in military and naval aviation before 1920. Political instability was one factor, but geography also played a part in Italy's late start since the Alps and the Apennines prevented regular civil air travel within Italy. Not until the mid-1920s, a good five years after the rest of the major European powers, did Italy become a major participant in European commercial aviation.

Like many other European nations did in their early phases of civil aviation, Italy initially formed several small companies that struggled to provide a modest level of passenger service. The first of these was the Aero Expresso Italiana (AEI), founded on December 12, 1923, which began offering services in August 1926. By 1930, there were five other Italian airlines, including the Società Italiana Servizi Aerei (SISA), the Società Area Navigazione Aerea (SANA), the Società Area Mediterranea (SAM), and the Società Area Avio-Linee Italiane (ALI).

Almost all of these early Italian air services were state-owned or state supported. The only major exception was the ALI, which was backed by the powerful Fiat industrial empire, a builder of automobiles. The three biggest airlines, SISA, SANA, and SAM, equally split the Italian civil aviation market, carrying about 10,000 passengers per year by 1930. If in 1925, it seemed like Italians hardly had a civil aviation sector, by 1930, they had made rapid progress. In fact, Italian commercial aviation in 1930 was third in terms of the number of passengers carried, after Germany and France, and ahead of Great Britain and the Netherlands. Most Italian routes were limited to locations geographically close to the country—flying to Germany, the Italian territories in north Africa (particularly Libya), Greece, Turkey, France, and Austria.

A 1933 schedule from Aero Expresso Italiana, which began service in 1926

The 1930s was a time of consolidation for the European aviation industry, and Italy was no exception. In August 1934, SAM, SANA, and SISA combined to form a single national carrier known as Ala Littoria, which was owned by the government. Ala Littoria's formation was largely motivated more by political changes in Europe than by commercial interests. Generalissimo Benito Mussolini's fascist party had gained power in Italy, and the new government was eager to display the Italian flag as a symbol of the country's new prestige. Mussolini's conquest of Albania and Ethiopia in Africa (called Abyssinia by some historians) was aided by the Ala Littoria airline, which helped maintain transportation routes between Rome and the hinterlands. One company, ALI, remained independent of government control and maintained its operations, mostly to Nazi Germany-an Italian allyᾹwith the strong support of the Fiat company.

Italy used planes much like those used by other European countries at the timeᾹa mix of mostly German (the Junkers G-24 and F.13 and Dornier's Wal and Super-Wal) and Dutch (Fokker F.7b) aircraft. The SAM company also used a fleet of Caproni and Savoia-Marchetti flying-boats. After nationalization of the Italian airlines and the formation of Ala Littoria, the Italians began to use planes designed and built by Italians. These were mostly bombers converted for civilian use such as the three-engine Savoia-Marchetti S.73 monoplane.

Ala Littoria's played an important role in controlling Italy's colonial empire in north and east Africa. But in establishing routes from Italy to Africa, Ala Littoria had to overcome many geographic obstacles. For example, airplanes of the 1930s had great difficulty reaching Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, which is located about 15,000 feet (4,572 meters) above sea level. One of the company's proudest achievements occurred in November 1935, when Ala Littoria began full passenger service between Rome and Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, on the east coast of Africa, thousands of miles from southern Europe.

The Dornier Super Wal was one plane used extensively in Italy before World War II

Like all other air services in Africa (including those offered by the Belgian airline Sabena), Ala Littoria shut down all its operations with the coming of World War II. The Italian company also had to eventually terminate services in Europe as the chaos of the war reached a peak by 1943. With the exception of sporadic operations of the independent ALI, which continued flights between the two Axis powers, Germany and Italy, for most of the war, there was no civilian Italian air service to mention.

When Italy resumed commercial aviation operations in the post-war era, there was a burst of civil activity as at least seven companies formed to carry passengers. None of the new companies, however, had any connection with pre-war companies such as Ala Littoria. Major British and American firms, such as Trans World Airlines (TWA) and British European Airways (BEA) contributed to the restoration of Italian commercial aviation by financing the establishment of two major Italian airlines, Aerolinee Italiane Internazionali (Alitalia) and Linee Aeree Italiane (LAI). These two companies served as the backbone of Italian civil air activity into the 1950s and eventually merged into a single airline known as Linee Aeree Italiane (Alitalia) in September 1957. Alitalia remains the airline most commonly associated with modern Italian commercial aviation.