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With Italy’s national airline in dire financial straits, travel agents at U.S. military bases in Italy are advising travelers not to book flights on Alitalia.

"It’s a big headache," said Martha Voytko, travel counselor with Sato Travel at the Navy base in Naples.

Italian officials this week warned that Alitalia is on the verge of shutting down, possibly within days, after repeated buyout attempts have failed. Just last week, a business consortium withdrew a rescue bid because of repeated boycotts by union leaders representing the pilots and cabin crew.

For the most part, U.S. travelers living in Italy are steering clear of booking through Alitalia whenever possible, agents said. But the carrier is the only airline to service the Naples-Rome route, for example, prompting agents to recommend travelers find another way north.

"If some insist, they take the chance of facing whatever happens on that day out of Naples," Voytko said. "We tell them to drive or go the night before. Not so much the train, since the first train that arrives in Rome usually doesn’t arrive in time to connect with flights."

Agents for the most part can mitigate problems with future ticket buys by suggesting other airlines or modes of transportation, she said. What has agents worried are those passengers who already have purchased tickets or return flights on Alitalia.

If Alitalia fails, "we don’t know if those tickets will be honored by anyone else. We don’t have a lot of information," Voytko said. "We’re not in a very good position."

The Naples Information Tours & Travel office is monitoring the situation for about 30 to 40 customers who already bought Alitalia tickets, said Umberto Illiano, and staff are seeking alternatives for them in the event the airline folds.

"We are very reluctant [to book tickets on Alitalia]" said Tamy Tirovska, manager of Sato Travel’s branch in Vicenza. "Before we book Alitalia, we try everything else."

"We are not booking Alitalia at all," said Debora Baldacci, who manages the Sato Travel office at Aviano. "We are against that, unless people insist on having those tickets."

She said she knows of one customer who bought his own ticket on Alitalia to travel back from Athens and it worked out for him.

"At the moment, [Alitalia] is flying normal, but we’re not sure about the next few days," Baldacci said Tuesday.

Tirovska said her office would prefer to send customers to other airlines, even if it means directing them away from Marco Polo International Airport in Venice to smaller airports such as Verona and Bologna.

"There are always other alternatives," she said.

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.
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