What are airline alliances, and who’s in them?

Feb 14, 2020

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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 2019 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 JetBlue’s TrueBlue mileage account, and use the resulting miles to book a flight on Emirates.

Related: Your guide to airline partners and award charts 

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 that no other U.S. airline besides those three is in an alliance. That will change in 2021, when Alaska Airlines will join American Airlines in Oneworld.

Star Alliance

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.

Graphic by Orli Friedman / The Points Guy

Related: Book This, Not That: Star Alliance Award Tickets

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.

SHANGHAI, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 08: An Air China (Star Alliance livery) Airbus A330-243 in runaway at Shanghai Pudong International Airport on September 08 2018 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Yu Chun Christopher Wong/S3studio/Getty Images)
An Air China Airbus A330-200 at Shanghai Pudong International Airport in 2018. (Photo by Yu Chun Christopher Wong/S3studio/Getty Images)

SkyTeam

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.

Skyteam Airlines: Aeroflot, Aerolineas Argentinas, Aeromexico, Air Europa, Air France, Alitalia, China Airlines, China Eastern Airlines, Czech Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Garuda Indonesia, Kenya Airways, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Korean Air, Middle East Airlines, Saudia, TAROM, Vietnam Airlines, Xiamen Air
Graphic by Orli Friedman / The Points Guy

Related: Book This, Not That: SkyTeam Award Tickets

Like in the other alliances, its members paint some planes in alliance colors — but with a silver fuselage.

A Delta 767-400ER in Skyteam livery landing at New York - JFK in 2019 (Photo by Alberto Riva / The Points Guy)
A Delta 767-400ER in Skyteam livery landing at New York – JFK in 2019 (Photo by Alberto Riva / The Points Guy)

Oneworld

The second alliance to be formed — in 1998, by American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific and Qantas — is the smallest, with 13 carriers and 535 million passengers in 2018. It will lose its lone South American member in 2020 when LATAM leaves to become one of the few unaffiliated major international airlines. This year, though, it will also gain its first airline based on the African continent, Morocco’s flag carrier Royal Air Maroc.

And next year, it will grow 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 47 million people last year, so its addition will represent a growth of almost 9% in passenger numbers for the alliance.

Graphic by Orli Friedman / The Points Guy

Related: Book This, Not That: Oneworld Award Flights

Oneworld members also paint some planes in alliance colors, but unlike Star and SkyTeam, there’s no alliance logo on the tail.

A Malaysian Airline System Bhd. (MAS) Airbus A330-300 aircraft stands on the tarmac at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) in Sepang, Malaysia, on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013. Malaysia Airlines joins the Oneworld airline alliance tomorrow. Photographer: Goh Seng Chong/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A Malaysia Airlines Airbus A330-300 at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in 2013, when the airline joined the alliance (Photo by Goh Seng Chong/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

 

Featured image of a Lufthansa Airbus A340 by JOKER/Hady Khandani/ullstein bild via Getty Images

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