What are airline alliances, and who’s in them?
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If you are an even moderately frequent flyer, you have taken advantage of the perks that airline alliances offer passengers. And if you’ve flown at all in the past two decades, you have heard their name spoken in an onboard announcement: Thank you for flying Air X, a member of the Y Alliance.
There are three of them: Star Alliance, SkyTeam and Oneworld, in order of size. They make connections and mileage collecting and spending easier. Since their appearance in the late 1990s, they have been a welcome innovation for flyers who have elite status, which gets recognized by all partner airlines. If you’re a Delta Air Lines Medallion member, for example, you can get priority treatment from all other airlines that are members of SkyTeam.
Not everybody is a fan. Weekly magazine The Economist calls them price-fixing cartels, asserting that those benefits have come at the cost of higher fares because alliances reduce competition.
Pretty much every major airline is in an alliance, with relevant exceptions among the big global players being Emirates, Virgin Atlantic and TPG Awards winners Etihad and Virgin Australia. Several large regional airlines also aren’t in; that’s the case of Southwest, JetBlue and WestJet in North America, Ryanair and EasyJet in Europe, and Air Asia.
Code-share flights and mutual collections of miles don’t happen just between alliance members, though. Often, airlines outside alliances partner up with one another. You can for example transfer American Express Membership Rewards points to Emirates’ Skywards program, and use the resulting miles to book a flight on JetBlue.
So, here’s a list of what airlines are in which alliances. You’ll notice that each one of the big three U.S. legacy carriers was a founding member of each one, and Oneworld is the only alliance with two U.S. carriers, having welcomed Alaska Airlines on March 31, 2021.
The first airline alliance was founded on May 14, 1997, when Air Canada, Lufthansa, SAS, Thai Airways and United Airlines came together in a globe-spanning partnership. From its first day, Star served every inhabited continent, in a clear illustration of why alliances exist: You can travel pretty much everywhere on alliance carriers. Wherever you’re based, if you are a frequent flyer there’s an alliance with a value proposition for you based on the perks of loyalty and seamless connections.
Star has since grown to 26 members, flying 727 million passengers. It’s the biggest alliance by most metrics. It’s also the only one with at least one full member from every inhabited continent. Members include:
- Aegean Airlines
- Air Canada
- Air China
- Air India
- Air New Zealand
- All Nippon Airways (ANA)
- Austrian Airlines
- Brussels Airlines
- Copa Airlines
- Croatia Airlines
- Ethiopian Airlines
- EVA Air
- LOT Polish Airlines
- Scandinavian Airlines (SAS)
- Shenzhen Airlines
- Singapore Airlines
- South African Airways
- Swiss Airlines
- TAP Portugal
- Thai Airways
- Turkish Airlines
- United Airlines
Like in the other two alliances, Star members paint one or more of their planes in special alliance colors. It’s become a tradition for alliance airlines, and those planes make coveted targets for aviation geeks with cameras, who collect images of as many special-color planes as possible.
The newest alliance, founded in 2000 by Aeromexico, Air France, Delta Air Lines and Korean Air, has since grown to be the second largest by airline members and people carried on its planes.
Its 19 members, based on all continents except Australia, fly 630 million passengers a year. Airlines include:
- Aerolíneas Argentinas
- Air France
- China Airlines
- China Eastern
- Czech Airlines
- Garuda Indonesia
- Kenya Airways
- Korean Air
- Vietnam Airlines
Like in the other alliances, its members paint some planes in alliance colors — but with a silver fuselage.
The second alliance to be formed — in 1998, by American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific and Qantas — is the smallest, with 14 carriers and 535 million passengers in 2018.
This year, it grew to 14 members and become the only alliance with two members in the U.S., the biggest aviation market in the world, with the entrance of Alaska. The fifth-largest airline in the country carried nearly 47 million people in 2019, so its addition will represent a significant jump in passenger numbers for the alliance.
Oneworld members include:
- Alaska Airlines
- American Airlines
- British Airways
- Cathay Pacific
- Japan Airlines
- Malaysia Airlines
- Royal Air Maroc
- Royal Jordanian
- S7 Airlines
Oneworld members also paint some planes in alliance colors, but unlike Star and SkyTeam, there’s no alliance logo on the tail.
(Featured image of a Lufthansa Airbus A340 by JOKER/Hady Khandani/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
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