Features

Why airline alliances work for global travellers

3 Apr 2024 by BusinessTraveller
(Credit rawintanpin/istock)

From smoother journeys to frequent flyer perks, airline alliances offer benefits to all.

Airline alliances are the gold standard of modern aviation. Consistency and proper integration between airlines remove much hassle from the travel experience. But formal alliances offer so much more – and not just for passengers.

Let’s wind the clock back to 1997, when the concept first took flight.

Hungry for new opportunities, Air Canada, Lufthansa, Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), Thai Airways and United Airlines banded together to form Star Alliance. Dubbed “The Airline Network for Earth”, its name tips its key objective – having a broad network of destinations dotted across the map, like clusters of stars in the night sky. For the trivia buffs, Star Alliance’s logo also connects five points to create a circuit – representing those five founding airlines working together. Precious metals double as Star’s global frequent flyer tiers: Silver and Gold.

Not to be outdone, American Airlines, British Airways, Canadian Airlines (later absorbed into Air Canada), Cathay Pacific and Qantas would then come together and form oneworld in 1999. Making a planetary play of its own, oneworld is symbolised by a globe-like orb, across which oneworld’s members can transport you. Oneworld’s frequent flyer tiers would also pay homage to the earth. High flyers would be identified via gemstones: Ruby, Sapphire and Emerald.

A third collective emerged in 2000, which joined Aeromexico, Air France, Delta Air Lines and Korean Air. SkyTeam was what it said on the tin, championing simplicity over branding trends. Regular flyers would simply be categorised as Elite or Elite Plus.

Whatever the name, alliances serve to boost airline bottom lines. Fresh revenue opportunities come when a traveller flies with a new partner. Mix in operating benefits – everything from smoother transits to coordination on spare parts – and there’s a lot to keep the accountants happy. Efficiencies also drive alliances to recruit new members. A gap in a region could be plugged by adding a strong local partner. Or perhaps, a non-aligned airline might have close ties with an alliance member. That can also motivate an airline to change its alliance allegiance. Brazil’s TAM Airlines notably switched from Star Alliance to oneworld after its merger with LAN, forming LATAM in 2012. (Ironically, LATAM would later exit oneworld after investment by SkyTeam’s Delta, without LATAM joining SkyTeam itself.)

(Credit Magnus Hagnas/iStock)

Making alliances work for you

Airlines needn’t belong to global alliances to facilitate frequent flyer ties or baggage through-check. But alliances provide consistency. One ticket can cover an entire multi-stop or round-the-world journey. In other words, for the passenger, it’s just easy.

Alliances also enforce global standards. How much baggage can I bring? Can I visit the lounge? Where do I line up? When you have lofty elite status, it’s usually straightforward. You can expect broadly the same privileges with a partner airline as you’d get on your home carrier. For instance, British Airways’ Executive Club Silver unlocks BA’s business class lounges. It also aligns with Sapphire – oneworld’s middle rank. Through Sapphire, you’ll qualify for lounge access across oneworld. Book airlines near and far – Finnair, Iberia, American Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Qantas and more – and your loyalty to BA is rewarded and recognised. That’s the power of an alliance.

For the savvier flyers, drilling down into the detail can pay dividends. For example, not all paid fares on partner airlines accrue Tier Points or help retain status. Keep that in mind when booking ‘best fare of the day’ in economy: the lower-end tickets often don’t count. You might also need to undertake a certain amount of travel on your ‘home’ airline each year to keep that status in check. On the flipside, some frequent flyer programmes track your travels year-on-year for recognition that lasts a lifetime. It’s a serious reward for those practically living in their aisle seat.

But as in life, some relationships aren’t forever. When it’s time to move on, asking for a ‘status match’ can be a fast-track to enjoying creature comforts somewhere new. “Is the grass really greener somewhere else?” ponders Mark Ross-Smith, CEO at StatusMatch – a business that helps high-value travellers switch allegiances. “Well, yes… sometimes,” he teases. He suggests four key times where a status match proves highly valuable. The biggest drivers are moving to a new city or when an employer significantly changes its travel policy. But dissatisfaction with the status quo, or just the itch to try something new, can be great times to pounce.

No single alliance has the entire world covered, though. Your favourite alliance might be solid at home, but less strong as you venture further abroad. In fact, you could have the highest possible frequent flyer card and still be barred from a lounge. SkyTeam, for instance, only grants lounge access when travelling internationally. Hop on Air France from Paris to Toulouse and the lounge is off-limits. On this, SkyTeam CEO Patrick Roux says: “Loyalty is a key priority for SkyTeam and our members this year. As such, some evolutions are being studied and could be announced in the next months.”

(Credit rasmus jurkatam/visualspace/istock)

Which airline alliance is best?

Business travel is never ‘one size fits all’ – the same is true of alliances. But what makes each one stand out? No doubt, a tweak to that international-only quirk of SkyTeam would be well-received. But its network and membership base is rather strong across the UK and Europe. London-based Virgin Atlantic is the alliance’s newest edition – recently marking its first anniversary in SkyTeam. There’s also founding member Air France, joined by KLM in the Netherlands, Spain’s Air Europa, Czech Airlines, Italy’s ITA Airways and TAROM of Romania. For travel to, from and within these countries, SkyTeam has the edge. Further afield, members including China Eastern, Korean Air, Delta and Vietnam Airlines provide attractive networks and connectivity.

But then, there’s Star Alliance. The world’s first airline alliance is also the largest, sporting 26 members. Nine of those are based in Europe, giving Star Alliance an even greater presence across the region. European members include Greece’s Aegean Airlines, Austrian Airlines, Brussels Airlines, Croatia Airlines, LOT Polish Airlines, Lufthansa, Scandinavian Airlines, SWISS and TAP Air Portugal. More broadly, Air Canada, Japan’s All Nippon Airways (ANA), Singapore Airlines, Turkish Airlines, United Airlines and others bring individual strengths. Its members serve 1,200 airports, providing the greatest opportunities for earning and spending miles, and for frequent flyer recognition.

SkyTeam and Star Alliance treat status similarly. There’s a lead-in level, followed by core benefits at the ‘main’ elite tier – SkyTeam Elite Plus and Star Alliance Gold, respectively. But some frequent travellers dislike this approach, as there’s nothing higher to aim for. You could be a Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer Gold, PPS Club or Solitaire PPS Club member, but when you fly across Star Alliance, the treatment is effectively the same through Star Alliance Gold.

That’s where oneworld sets itself apart. Rather than two tiers, oneworld has three. While oneworld Sapphire is broadly equivalent to SkyTeam Elite Plus and Star Alliance Gold, oneworld Emerald is a cut above. Naturally, lounge access is part of the parcel. But at key airports, Emerald cardholders are treated to an even better lounge than their Sapphire counterparts. Quite often, that’s a first class lounge – even if flying economy.

Comparatively, alliance-wide recognition with SkyTeam and Star Alliance is capped to business class lounges instead. Emerald members also get that little bit extra: more checked baggage, separate fast-track queues or higher boarding priority… the list goes on.

On a personal note, I’ve held top-tier status with all three global alliances, but it’s oneworld Emerald that keeps me hooked. Sure, there’s access to The First Wing at London Heathrow. But no matter how often I fly, nothing beats waltzing into a first class lounge. With oneworld, I get that experience even if I’m booked on the lowest-cost economy ticket – it’s a massive drawcard.

What’s next?

Is it time for a fourth global alliance to shake things up? Some have tried – but with a twist. Ten years ago, Etihad kicked off a quasi-alliance of its own, dubbed Etihad Airways Partners (EAP). Launched with five such partners, its goals aligned with the ‘big three’. Frequent flyer cards from participating airlines carried EAP branding, with tier levels and benefits standardised for consistency. Etihad didn’t view this as a true ‘fourth alliance’ though – EAP member Airberlin was simultaneously in oneworld.

Traditionally, alliances target global travellers within the full-service market. But other alliances exist with more modest ambitions and customer bases. Vanilla Alliance brings together five airlines based around the Indian Ocean with the aim of better local connectivity. U-FLY Alliance is the first group of exclusively low-cost carriers, spread across China and Korea. Value Alliance has a similar remit with a larger footprint. Scoot, Singapore Airlines’ low-cost offshoot, is among its members.

For oneworld, SkyTeam and Star Alliance though, things have been busy. Oneworld will soon welcome Oman Air into its family – and possibly Hawaiian Airlines. There’s also talk ITA Airways could shift from SkyTeam to Star Alliance in a deal with Lufthansa Group. One of Star Alliance’s founding members, SAS, plans to do the reverse: hopping to SkyTeam as it inks a tie-up with Air France and KLM.

Alliance-branded lounges are also gaining importance. Oneworld debuted its first two locations in early 2024, at Seoul’s Incheon Airport and Amsterdam Schiphol. Last year, Star Alliance opened an additional lounge at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport for travellers venturing beyond the Schengen Area. SkyTeam similarly revealed a lounge in São Paulo in 2023, but no longer offers a branded lounge at London Heathrow – home to newest member Virgin Atlantic. Branded lounges “offer a very good proposition for customers in markets served by lots of SkyTeam carriers but without a home airline,” SkyTeam’s Roux reflects. “We are certainly planning to open more in future. Watch this space.” We certainly shall.

LIFETIME PERKS

  • BA Executive Club has Gold membership for life if you earn 35,000 Tier Points throughout your lifetime. (That’s effectively lifetime oneworld Emerald.) They don’t have lifetime status for the lower ranks, though.
  • Finnair Plus has Lifetime Gold (oneworld Sapphire, earned at three million lifetime tier points) and Lifetime Platinum (oneworld Emerald, given at five million tier points).
  • Lufthansa Miles & More has Frequent Traveller Lifetime at 30,000 Qualifying Points (Star Alliance Silver), and Senator Lifetime at 40,000 Qualifying Points (Star Alliance Gold).
  • Qantas has Lifetime Silver (oneworld Ruby), Lifetime Gold (oneworld Sapphire) and contentiously, given it’s so ridiculously stratospheric to even get close, Lifetime Platinum (oneworld Emerald).
  • AA, Delta and United all also offer lifetime status through their million miler ranks as well.

Words: Chris Chamberlin

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The cover of the Business Traveller April 2024 edition
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