With more and more airlines vying for membership and customers getting increasingly confused, Alex McWhirter asks… Are alliances becoming too complex?

When airline alliances first saw the light of day in the Nineties, nobody could have foreseen how they would change, and nowhere is this more the case than with Star Alliance, whose membership has quadrupled since 1997. Star’s founding members (Lufthansa, United, SAS, Air Canada and Thai) have been joined by a further 15, and many others will be added in the years ahead. At Star’s launch in 1997, it was made clear that both existing and future members would bring passengers world-class service and professional standards, no matter where in the world they were flying. But the recent crop of new entrants threatens to dilute that worthy claim.

Ravindra Bhagwanani, managing director of Toulouse-based consultancy Globalflight, said: “The more exotic alliance members become, the more difficult it will become ?to maintain a minimum level of service and quality. It’s important to remember that the very basic promise of all alliances is ‘seamless travel’. But just reflect on how far all of them are from delivering [this goal] in all areas, and with every new member this becomes more difficult, especially if cultural and communications problems arise.”

This is precisely what reader John Thornton experienced with new Star member Air China, when he booked a business class flight with the carrier from London to Beijing. Thornton’s bag wasn’t on the flight. With important meetings scheduled the next day, he had no option but to purchase a new set of business attire. Thankfully, the bag arrived within 24 hours, but why it had been delayed was a mystery and the attached note was in Chinese script.

The problems continued when Thornton asked Air China to issue him with the necessary paperwork to reclaim the cost of the clothing from his travel insurance company, the latter, understandably, not being willing to pay out until Air China confirmed it hadn’t already compensated Thornton for the items. Obtaining this paperwork has proved impossible, despite numerous attempts to contact Air China over a period of several months. Thornton said: “So I am left £500 out of pocket with a suit and a pair of shoes I don’t want.”

Reader Mark Guthrie had safety concerns with Turkish Airlines. Months before this carrier became an official Star member in April, Guthrie took a Turkish flight between Dushanbe (in the ex-Soviet republic of Tajikistan) and Istanbul. He said: “Cabin crew failed to enforce safety regulations by taking a very lax attitude towards passengers leaving their seats while the plane was taxiing soon after landing. This is the third time I’ve experienced this with Turkish.”

A spokesperson for the airline admitted: “Unfortunately there are certain routes where providing the same standards on every flight isn’t easy due to cultural differences. We are looking for solutions ?to this matter.”

Since Turkish became a fully-fledged Star member, hopefully a solution has now been found. Jaan Albrecht, CEO of Star Alliance, claimed: “Turkish was ‘mentored’ by Lufthansa during its 16-month joining period. Turkish is now fully committed and fully compliant to the high standards expected of alliance members.” (If this isn’t the case, perhaps readers will let us know.)

Frequent flyer programmes are another problem area. Star members seem unable to communicate effectively with one another. Many readers contact us about this. Gareth Rice is a gold member of Bmi’s Diamond Club and for many years has been flying Bmi within Europe and ANA to Japan, but he’s unable to get mileage credited for certain ANA domestic flights within Japan. He said: “The information on both the Bmi and Star websites is contradictory. It’s most frustrating when you buy into an FFP and find the small print isn’t honoured.”

Another gold card member, Peter Rejchrt, has problems getting points credited to his Lufthansa account when he books SAA and SAS. He said: “I am concerned that Star no longer appears to be a happy grouping. Earning miles with this alliance’s carriers seems problematic. Each airline blames the rules of the other’s programme for not crediting mileage.”

Hong Kong-based Nanik Bahrunani ?(a Lufthansa Senator status member) finds he can’t redeem his miles to sample first class on SIA’s A380 between Singapore ?and London. Why? Because cash-conscious SIA has a policy of not allowing members of Lufthansa’s Miles and More scheme to redeem miles for its new premium products. Globalflight’s Bhagwanani said: “I can understand SIA’s reasoning but I don’t back it. This restriction is hard to implement smoothly within an alliance.”

In theory, alliance members are the best of friends, but in reality this isn’t always the case. Where money is concerned the members will go their own way and ignore the spirit of the alliance. Bmi caused a stir when it refused to through-check passengers using separate tickets, scrapped business class on most short flights from Heathrow, and started charging for onboard drinks and food.

Singapore Airlines, which has a reputation for maximising the revenue for every seat it sells, has a habit of going its own way as well. As members of SIA’s PPS Club, Kelvin Bowkett and his wife wanted to use SIA as much as possible when booking two first class Star Circle Asia excursions, but SIA tried to steer them towards other carriers. Bowkett wrote: “For some reason SIA had no intention of ever issuing such tickets and to avoid this it began to invent extra rules.”

The latest wheeze from SIA is to get Star business class round-the-world passengers to cough up an extra US$500 per long-haul sector, should the service be equipped with its new seating. All the other 19 Star members impose no such surcharge.

The two other alliances, Oneworld and Skyteam, have far fewer members and seem better able to control who joins. A Oneworld spokesperson said: “Although we have not set a limit on the number of airlines we might have as members, we are very selective in whom we recruit. Our aim is to build a grouping of high-quality carriers that provides an extensive global network and delivers its service better than the competition delivers theirs. Oneworld prides itself on providing consistent standards across the whole network.”

Where Oneworld does attract complaints is in relation to member Iberia. Since joining the alliance, Iberia has closed its London office to save money, so travellers with queries and complaints must contact Madrid. A spokesperson said: “We’re trying our hardest to answer our phones promptly but there can be conflicts during public holidays. Sometimes a traveller calling from the UK doesn’t realise there’s a Spanish holiday on that day, so we won’t have a full complement of staff on duty.”

Star says it will not be putting any cap on future growth and plans to sign up members in Russia and Latin America. Star’s Albrecht said: “These alliances are a reality and they offer passengers greater access to the world. We have reached a stable situation and we have all learnt from one another. Star has developed from a loose link of like-minded airlines into a family, with each airline bringing individual strengths to the table. Our corporate and individual travellers tell us they want to see more coverage.”

Star’s next two members, Egyptair and Air India, will prove controversial. Not only do travellers report that Egyptair has a less than perfect reputation for service quality, but it’s also a “dry” airline. What will Star passengers who have sampled the likes of Lufthansa or SIA make of that? Nevertheless, Egyptair is working hard towards joining Star in July.

More service anomalies could be in store next year when Air India is set to join  (although there are rumours this might be delayed). The carrier is making strides to catch up with best international standards but its reputation for poor passenger-handling persists. Recently, The Times of India reported on overbooking chaos at Bombay following Air India’s decision to bump 110 passengers from two flights to London and Chicago. The problem was compounded for these passengers because Denied Boarding Compensation is an alien concept in India. Even though Air India will improve its service (a new fleet of planes is being delivered with better seating), it will continue to be let down by the country’s airports.

As reported above, alliances do have their selling points, but questions are being raised regarding their usefulness for today’s business traveller. A spokesman for the UK’s ITM (Institute of Travel Managers) said: “Are these benefits filtering through to end users and really making a difference to the purchasing decisions of corporate travel buyers and travellers themselves?” When the ITM questioned its members earlier this year, only 25 per cent of respondents said alliances benefited the end user, while 47 per cent said they weren’t sure, and 28 per cent said they hadn’t seen any additional benefits.

Are alliances delivering when it comes to prices and usefulness for corporates? Mike Platt, group industry affairs director at Hogg Robinson Group, said: “We’ve always said that alliances were created to offer airlines efficiencies so they could reduce their costs. The very thing travellers want from alliances is better fares and this they have failed to do. If anything, the reverse has happened, particularly where carriers codeshare [one example is the main German-Scandinavian routes controlled by Lufthansa and SAS]. And when we have asked them for this and that, it’s been a waste of time. The carriers plead they cannot do anything because of anti-trust rules.”

So alliances do offer many benefits, but travellers must be prepared to look beyond the hype.


Star Alliance (staralliance.com)
Main members: Lufthansa, United, Air Canada, Austrian, SAA, SAS, SIA, Swiss, Thai, Turkish, ANA and Air China.

Oneworld (oneworld.com)
Main members: British Airways, American, JAL, Qantas, Iberia, Royal Jordanian and Lan Chile.

Skyteam (skyteam.com)
Main members: Air France, KLM, Delta, Northwest, Korean and China Southern.