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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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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