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FlyerTalk 101

Everything You Need to Know About Airline Alliances

Everything You Need to Know About Airline Alliances
Taylor Rains

Welcome to FlyerTalk 101, a guide to traveling like an expert from the experts. For more guides like this, check out our FlyerTalk 101 tag or head to the forum links in this article to have any of your questions answered.

We all know the airline industry is a very competitive market, with carriers always trying to one-up the other in fares, amenities, and routes. However, starting in the 1990s, many airlines saw the benefit of partnering with each other to make connecting travelers to international destinations much easier and more cost-effective. Global Alliances have expanded to nearly every major carrier in the world and connect passengers to every corner of the globe. Today, the biggest alliances are Oneworld, StarAlliance, and SkyTeam.

What is an Airline Alliance?

An airline alliance is an agreement between carriers to work together and cooperate with each other in the international market to give them an advantage over their competitors. Alliances allow for a wider network of international routes, creating convenient connections for passengers and offering more destinations. The three main alliances in today’s industry are StarAlliance, SkyTeam, and Oneworld. StarAlliance is the largest with 26 members, while SkyTeam has 19, and Oneworld has 13.

Who are the Big Three?

The big three airline alliances came to fruition starting in the 1990s.

StarAlliance: The world’s first alliance, Star Alliance, was founded in 1997 by powerhouse legacy carriers United, Scandinavian, Thai, Air Canada, and Lufthansa. The alliance’s goal was to “take passengers to every major city on earth,” which it has now nearly accomplished, serving 193 countries and operating over 18,000 flights a day. The alliance has stitched its network together by bringing in South African Airways and Ethiopian for expansion into Africa, Air New Zealand for Oceania, and Copa Airlines for South America.

StarAlliance member airlines are: Aegean, Air Canada, Air China, Air India, Air New Zealand, ANA, Asiana Airlines, Austrian, Avianca, Brussels Airlines, Copa Airlines, Croatia Airlines, Egypt Air, Ethiopian, Eva Air, LOT, Lufthansa, SAS, Shenzhen Airlines, Singapore Airlines, South African Airways, Swiss, TAP Air Portugal, Thai, Turkish Airlines, and United.

Oneworld: Oneworld joined the industry in 1999 and was started by industry giants American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Qantas, and Canadian Airlines (which is now merged with Air Canada and is no longer a part of the alliance). Oneworld has a foot in many major regions around the world. It was the first alliance to bring in a Middle-Eastern carrier—Royal Jordanian—and its acquisition of Japan Airlines and Malaysia Airlines has created an extensive network in Asia. The partnership intended to “forge relationships with frequent international travelers,” focusing heavily on business and corporate travel. Although Oneworld is the smallest and does not have the network that its rival alliances have, it still serves 155 countries worldwide.

Oneworld member airlines are: American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Iberia, Japan Airlines, LATAM, Malaysia Airlines, Qantas, Qatar, Royal Jordanian, S7 Airlines, and SriLankan Airlines.

SkyTeam: SkyTeam is the youngest of the alliances, but has built itself up to be the second largest in the world, serving 177 countries. The alliance was founded in 2000 by industry respected carriers, Delta Air Lines, Korean Air, Air France, and Aeromexico. At its birth, the alliance strategically covered several corners of the globe with its four initial members, propelling a rapid expansion. The alliance has successfully brought in diverse carriers to strengthen its network, such as Garuda Indonesia, KLM, Saudi Airlines, and Kenya Airways.

SkyTeam member airlines are: Aeroflot, Aerolineas Argentinas, Aeromexico, AirEuropa, Air France, Alitalia, China Airlines, China Eastern, Czech Airlines, Delta, Garuda Indonesia, Kenya Airways, KLM, Korean Air, MEA, Saudia, Tarom, Vietnam Airlines, and Xiamen Air.

The Benefit of Alliances for Airlines

For airlines, this coalition has financial benefits. They reduce overlapping routes in competitive markets, lower their overall operating costs, and feed passengers to partners rather than their competitors. Aligned airlines can save money by sharing certain expenses as well, such as airport lounges, ground handling, and check-in.

Furthermore, alliances have streamlined codeshare agreements, a strategy in which airlines sell tickets under their own flight number, but the flight itself is operated by one of their partners. Although this may seem confusing, it is a simple marketing strategy. Airlines can offer “service” to destinations that they do not fly to, but still, have a market presence in that location through their codeshare. For example, British Airways and Malaysia, two Oneworld partners, just announced a new codeshare agreement that will expand each airline’s routes between Great Britain and the Asian Pacific. British Airways can now connect their passengers from London to Kuala Lumpur to other destinations in Asia, such as Cambodia and Indonesia, via Malaysia Airlines, but sell the ticket under their name and flight number. Malaysia Airlines will be able to do the same, connecting its passengers to other destinations in the UK via London.

The Benefit of Alliances for Passengers

Alliances provide benefits to customers as well. One of the biggest advantages of flying on a partnered airline is the bail-out for delayed or canceled flights. Weather and mechanical delays are unpredictable, so it is not guaranteed that the airline you book on will be able to get you to your final destination on time. When things go wrong, don’t immediately accept the rebooking option that the original airline offers you – open Google and start researching that airline’s alliance members. Many alliance partners will offer re-ticketing on one of their flights to help get you to your destination as quickly as possible. Knowing your options may save you a night’s hotel stay or lost hours with family or friends.

Frequent Flyer Benefits

Another great benefit of alliances is the flexibility of frequent flyer programs. Because airlines are shuttling passengers around on behalf of each other, loyalty programs can overlap, meaning frequent flyer rewards earned on one airline can be redeemed on another in the same network. For example, Air China’s StarAlliance partner, United Airlines, offers its MileagePlus members the opportunity to receive miles for Air China flights booked through United’s website, their call center, or a representative at the airport. These United customers will also receive additional benefits when flying Air China, such as Star Alliance Gold or Silver status recognition and access to United Club lounges.

Generally speaking, partner airlines offer benefits for frequent flyer members across their alliance network, but there are caveats and restrictions, so be sure to check each airline’s rewards program details before booking.

Alliances Are Not for Everyone

Not all airlines choose to join an alliance because to do so can be relatively expensive. Airlines must meet specific safety standards and operational requirements, meaning they may have to modify their routes to fit into the alliance’s network. Due to the hefty price tag, some airlines have chosen to fly solo and focus on their own niche, independent brand, or low-cost business structure. For example, Hawaiian Airlines has the strongest presence in Hawaii and is one of the few U.S carriers to operate between the islands. Because of this niche, passengers are fed to them by dozens of other airlines without them having to front the cost of joining an alliance.

Low-cost carriers such as Ryanair, Frontier, and Spirit have chosen to stay out of alliances not due to their safety record or efficiency, but due to their low-cost business model. Additionally, strong brands, such as Etihad and Emirates, have also stayed out of the mix.

View Comments (2)

2 Comments

  1. uanj

    October 10, 2019 at 7:59 am

    Hawaiian is the only US carrier to operate between the islands? What about Southwest and Mokulele?

  2. Taylor Rains

    October 10, 2019 at 12:14 pm

    uank, I forgot that Southwest started those flights. And I’m aware of Mokulele – I was referencing major carriers when I mentioned Hawaiian. I’ll update the article, thanks for your input!

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