Understanding the three main airline alliances – Star Alliance, oneworld, and SkyTeam – can make a big difference to your travels. Airlines have cooperated this way for over 20 years, and offer many benefits to passengers and airlines alike. This guide explains the history and membership of the alliances and how they work together to offer benefits to passengers. It also looks at some recent developments and the future of the alliances.
Table of Contents
- What are airline alliances?
- What benefits do alliances offer to passengers?
- A guide to the three main alliances
- A few more thoughts on alliances
What are airline alliances?
An airline alliance is an agreement between a group of airlines to cooperate. They work together in marketing and offering flights and connections across their networks. They also provide guaranteed benefits to connecting passengers and to each other’s elite members.
You can see this cooperation when searching for connecting tickets. If you book a flight from the US to Europe, for example, you will often find tickets combing members of the same alliance (American Airlines connecting to British Airways or Iberia, for example, all within the same alliance).
These airlines will offer through ticketing, connection guarantees, and baggage handling. From an operational point of view, though, there is not necessarily any revenue sharing in place (this would be handled by codeshares or joint ventures agreements, not alliance membership).
What are the benefits to passengers and airlines?
Alliances offer a win-win solution for passengers and airlines. For passengers, they open up more destinations with their home airlines, ease booking and flight connections, and offer more ways to use air miles and elite benefits.
For airlines, they allow the marketing of more destinations, and to more customers, without the need to operate flights themselves. By combining networks, member airlines can offer flights to many more destinations than they could on their own. There are many cases of this working well at scale.
For example, consider American Airlines and Japan Airlines as members of the oneworld Alliance. American Airlines can operate several flights daily into Tokyo, offering connections on domestic (and international) Japan Airlines flight to many destinations.
When did alliances start?
The first airline alliance was formed in 1997. Five airlines looking to expand their networks and market flights to more passengers came together to form the Star Alliance.
Since then, three alliances have been formed, each taking one of the three US airlines – American Airlines, United, and Delta Air Lines.
The oneworld Alliance came next in 1999 with founding members American Airlines, British Airways, Canadian Airlines, Cathay Pacific, and Qantas. And the SkyTeam was the last to be formed, in 2000, by Delta Air Lines, Aeroméxico, Air France, and Korean Air.
Which airlines are in alliances?
In summary, most of the larger, legacy airlines partake in alliances. Once the first airlines joined together in 1997, the benefits of an enhanced network and more passenger options appealed to most established carriers. The formation and history of alliances are very interesting, as the groups have grown trying to offer complete global coverage alongside a combined ‘brand’ or quality.
And which airlines are not in alliances?
None of the newer ‘budget’ or low-cost airlines are members of the three main alliances. Even when these are owned or part-owned, by legacy alliance member airlines, the low-cost airline does not join.
There is in fact one alliance of low-cost airlines in Asia, the Value Alliance. This offers basic connection guarantees between six airlines, but no frequent flyer benefits.
There are also some notable exceptions amongst the larger, long haul airlines. Two of the largest Middle Eastern airlines, Emirates and Etihad, are not alliance members. And in Europe, Virgin Atlantic stands out for going solo.
Some of these airlines have formed close partnerships with other airlines, but not as formalized as alliance memberships. Virgin Atlantic, for example, offers mileage collection and redemption in its Flying Club program with a global range of airlines (many of them members of other alliances) but does not provide reciprocal status benefits.
Emirates has a similar relationship with nine other airlines through its Skywards program. This includes one European low-cost airline, easyJet, which allows mileage redemption for its flights through Skywards.
What about codeshares and joint ventures?
Alliances allow airlines to market flights to more destinations and offer connections to passengers. They do not force airlines to collaborate on route and schedule planning, and certainly do not require any revenue sharing.
Many airlines within an alliance will choose to work even closer together through codeshare or joint ventures. This is, of course, equally possible by airlines not in the same alliance.
Both joint ventures and codeshares offer close cooperation but do not necessarily provide the same alliance benefits for mileage and frequent flyers. A joint venture is an agreement between airlines to share revenues on a route (according to an agreed contract) and to coordinate together on route planning and scheduling. Codeshares are much less committed and involve airlines placing their codes on each other’s flights to increase flight options for passengers.
What benefits do alliances offer to passengers?
All passengers benefit in several ways from alliance cooperation. But for frequent flyers and members of airline loyalty schemes, there are even more advantages.
- Easier ticket booking. Alliances mean more options for passengers, bookable as one connecting ticket.
- Simplified in-flight operations, such as check-in and baggage handling.
- The ability to earn and redeem miles on other alliance members. Each airline frequent flyer program will allow members to earn miles on all alliance airlines. Likewise, award tickets can be booked with all member airlines.
- Reciprocal frequent flyer benefits between member airlines. Depending on the elite level with the airline, members receive a corresponding level within the alliance, which will offer set benefits across all member airlines. This can include additional luggage allowance, waived ticketing and seat selection fees and priority airport check-in, security, and boarding. For details, see the information below on specific alliances.
- Access to airline lounges. One of the best defined and most valuable benefits is lounge access for elite members. Elite members can access the lounges of any airline member.
A guide to the three main alliances
The Star Alliance is the largest alliance today by both the number of airlines and passenger volume. Its 26 airlines cover every continent, and it probably offers the fewest ‘gaps’ of any of the alliances. It covers China well, with two domestic Chinese airlines, has several African based members, and one major South American airline.
In analysis of the three alliances in 2019, Simple Flying reported Star Alliance significantly ahead of the other in terms of total passenger revenues ($179 billion out of a total of $450 billion). It is also the most connected, covering 195 countries.
Star Alliance was the first alliance to be formed, in May 1997. This was a global collaboration between United Airlines, Air Canada, Scandinavian Airlines, Lufthansa, and Thai Airways. It adopted the slogan “The Airline Network for Earth.”
The alliance focussed on expanding its global coverage, adding Brazilian airline VARIG later in 1997 and Ansett Australia and Air New Zealand in 1999. The Japanese airline ANA expanded the alliance’s Asian network when it joined in 1999.
The expansion has continued up to the 26 members it has today. Notable previous members include:
- UK airline British Midland. It offered UK and European connections from 2000 until 2012 when it merged with International Airlines Group, the owner of British Airways.
- Brazilian airline TAM. It was a member from 2010 until it merged with oneworld member LAN in 2014.
- Mexicana was a member from 2000 to 2004.
- Avianca Brasil and Adria Airways both left the alliance in 2019, with financial difficulties.
The current 26 members of Star Alliance are:
- Aegean Airlines
- Air Canada
- Air China
- All Nippon Airways
- Air India
- Air New Zealand
- Asiana Airlines
- Austrian Airlines
- Brussels Airlines
- Copa Airlines
- Croatia Airlines
- Ethiopian Airlines
- EVA Air
- LOT Polish Airlines
- Scandinavian Airlines
- Shenzhen Airlines
- Singapore Airlines
- South African Airways
- Swiss International Airlines
- TAP Portugal
- Thai Airways
- Turkish Airlines
- United Airlines
In addition to these main member airlines, there are around 40 affiliate members. These are linked, often subsidiary airlines, and offer similar benefits.
Status levels and benefits
Elite members of each airline receive a corresponding status with Star Alliance, allowing frequent flyer benefits to be enjoyed when traveling with any member airline. See the Star Alliance website for details of how these levels map across.
Star Alliance Silver offers:
- Priority airport standby and priority waitlists
Star Alliance Gold adds the following:
- Business class lounge access
- Additional baggage allowance
- Fast track security lanes
- Priority check-in and boarding
There are currently no planned new entrants to the Star Alliance. Some reporting by aeroTELEGRAPH recently indicated that Vietnamese Bamboo Airways might be considering membership, but this is not confirmed.
The oneworld Alliance
The oneworld Alliance is the smallest of the three in terms of traffic. But it has an excellent membership of top-rated airlines. It offers good global coverage, but with notable gaps in China (where it provides many Hong Kong connections with Cathay Pacific but lacks a Chinese airline member) and South America (where it recently lost LATAM as a member).
The oneworld Alliance was formed in 1999 by American Airlines, British Airways, Canadian Airlines, Cathay Pacific, and Qantas. Canadian Airlines left soon after joining when it merged with Air Canada.
Finnair was the first recruit, closely followed by Iberia and then LAN Chile. The early 2000s saw Japan Airlines, Royal Jordanian, and Hungarian carrier Malev join.
It has grown to 13 members today. Several airlines have joined and left along the way, including:
- Mexicana was a member for a short time from 2009 until it went bankrupt in 2010.
- Air Berlin was a member from 2012 until its bankruptcy in 2017.
The latest addition is Royal Air Maroc, which joined in April 2020, adding several new African destinations to the network.
In May 2020, it lost LATAM as a member. LATAM is the largest airline in South America and was an important part of oneworld. Its departure leaves the alliance with no member in South America.
The 13 members of the oneworld Alliance are:
- American Airlines
- British Airways
- Cathay Pacific
- Japan Airlines
- Malaysian Airlines
- Qatar Airways
- Royal Air Maroc
- Royal Jordanian
- S7 Airlines
- SriLankan Airlines
In addition, there are around 30 affiliate members. These are usually regional airlines owned or with strong links to the members. For example, American Eagle is an affiliate member under American Airlines, and British Airways has affiliates BA CityFlyer, Sun-Air, and Comair.
Oneworld also operates a membership known as oneworld connect. This offers select connection and elite status benefits, but not the full range (and guarantee) of alliance benefits. It allows smaller airlines to join without the cost of full membership. Currently, Fiji Airways is the only oneworld connect member.
Status levels and benefits
Elite members of all oneworld airline loyalty programs have a corresponding status with oneworld. For full details of how membership levels map across, see the individual airline websites, or the oneworld website. The main benefits at each level include:
- Access to priority check-in desks
- Priority on standby and waiting lists
- More seating choice (varies between airlines)
Oneworld Sapphire adds:
- Access to business class check-in
- Access to business class lounges
- Increased baggage allowance
Oneworld Emerald adds:
- Access to first class check-in
- Access to first class lounges
- Priority security at some airports
Alaska Airlines is scheduled to join by the summer of 2021. This will make oneworld the first alliance to have two US-based members.
Following the loss of LATAM in 2020, it will also likely try to add another South American member soon, with options including Brazilian airline Gol (it already has a close relationship with American Airlines).
SkyTeam is the youngest alliance, founded in 2000. It does, in fact, have the highest passenger volume (730 million passengers a year, compared to 728 million for Star Alliance and 528 million for oneworld).
Its 20 airlines offer good global coverage. But it has gaps in Australasia (it is the only alliance to not have any member in Australia, New Zeland or the Pacific) and South America (where its only member, Aerolineas Argentinas provides poor coverage for the more northern countries).
Like the other alliances, it has leading members in the US, Europe, and Asia. Many of its other members are smaller, less ‘global’ perhaps than the oneworld members, for example.
Like the other alliances, the SkyTeam Alliance was formed by a group of heavyweight airlines. In this case, in 2000, by founding members Delta Air Lines, Aeroméxico, Air France, and Korean Air. It was also the only alliance to also establish a separate alliance for cargo operations, SkyTeam Cargo.
SkyTeam was slower to expand than other alliances. It added other European airlines Czech Airlines and Alitalia, but the next major expansion came in 2004 with Aeroflot, China Southern, Continental Airlines, KLM and Northwest Airlines.
It has now grown to 19 members, with probably less movement than other alliances. Continental and Northwest were lost to mergers, and China Southern left the alliance in 2018 after a long membership.
The current 19 members of SkyTeam are:
- Aerolineas Argentinas
- Air Europa
- Air France
- China Airlines
- China Eastern Airlines
- Czech Airlines
- Delta Airlines
- Garuda Indonesia
- Kenya Airways
- Korean Air
- Middle East Airlines
- Vietnam Airlines
- Xiamen Airlines
Status levels and benefits
Like the other alliances, SkyTeam offers shared elite benefits for members of all airline frequent flyer programs. Benefits at different levels include the following:
- Priority reservation waitlists
- Preferred seating
- Priority check-in and boarding
- Additional baggage allowance.
SkyTeam Elite Plus
- Guaranteed full-fare economy tickets on sold-out flights
- Business class lounge access
Spanish airline Air Europa will leave the alliance after its purchase by International Airlines Group in 2019. It is not clear yet when this will happen, or whether Air Europa will join the oneworld alliance.
One of the most significant weaknesses of SkyTeam is its gaps in coverage. Hopefully, this will improve from 2020 with Delta’s stake in LATAM, the largest airline in South America, although there are no plans for LATAM to join SkyTeam. There are fewer options to offer coverage in the Pacific, with Virgin Australia the only unaligned airline. Unfortunately, with its current financial problems, there is likely to be little change in the near future.
The Value Alliance – a low-cost alliance
Worthy of a mention here is the Value Alliance. This is the first alliance to be created between low-cost airlines. It was formed in May 2016 and (as of June 2020) has the following six airline members:
- Cebu Pacific (Philipines)
- Cebgo (Philipines)
- Jeju Air (South Korea)
- Nok Air (Thailand)
- NokScoot (Thailand)
- Scoot (Singapore)
There are many low-cost airlines in Asia, and some sort of alliance bringing them together makes sense. This is a basic alliance though. It offers interlined flights, but little else. There are no tiers, frequent flyer benefits, or combined mileage programs.
Passengers booking through the Value Alliance website will benefit from a connection guarantee and free rebooking in case of delays. They will still receive separate tickets for each flight, and check-in with each airline.
This is very much a marketing and sales alliance, rather than one which provides the levels of airline cooperation and benefits seen with the big three alliances. But it does improve on the offering of each individual airline and may become something we see more of.
A few more thoughts on alliances
These three alliances only cover passenger operations. There has been much less formalized alliance collaboration for cargo operations. There have only been two cargo alliances of significance.
- SkyTeam Cargo was formed around the same time as the SkyTeam alliance. Four SkyTeam members joined initially – Aeroméxico Cargo, Air France Cargo, Delta Air Logistics, and Korean Air Cargo. It has grown to 11 members today.
- The WOW Alliance was formed in 2000 between SAS Cargo Group, Lufthansa Cargo and Singapore Airlines Cargo. JAL Cargo later joined. But the alliance never really took off and stopped operating sometime around 2010, blamed partly on its cross alliance strategy.
It is surprising, in some ways, that the other alliances have not come together for cargo operations. There are similar benefits to be offered in increased route marketing and joint operational benefits such as shared warehousing and tracking technology (SkyTeam Cargo promotes such benefits).
What about other alliances?
While there is no other formalized alliance yet, a few of the unaffiliated airlines have made strong moves to form their own networks of airlines, offering various options for flight connections and shared mileage earning and redeeming.
Virgin Atlantic, Emirates, and Etihad are the most notable in this area. And one or more of these may go further to introduce a new alliance. There was also discussion in 2018 of Qatar Airways leaving oneworld to start its own alliance based on its equity investments.
The future of airlines alliances
There has been little major change to airline alliances since they grew in the early 2000s. Many more airlines have joined them, and some have left, but they still work much the same way. While they seem well established and embedded, with their frequent flyer offering well used, there a few recent trends that may affect them going forward.
The rise in low-cost and budget airlines. While most are not members of the alliances, they give passengers more choice over airlines. They offer point to point fares and few frequent flyer benefits. This gives passengers more options than just sticking to a preferred alliance, and this will likely increase.
There is of course now the one low-cost alliance in Asia. While there has been some talk about more low-cost airlines forming their own alliance, this could be unlikely as they are focussed more on their individual operations and profitable point to point routes.
The increase in joint venture and codeshare operations. More and more airlines are looking at opportunities to cooperate this way. If this offers the connections and marketing opportunities they need, there is less need to be in (and pay for) an alliance.
Airline consolidation. Recent years have seen more joining together of airlines. American Airlines and US Airways, and Air France and KLM to name just a couple of examples. The pandemic and slowdown of 2020 may well cause more of this, and with this trend, will some of them become too big for alliances?
What are your thoughts about airline alliances? Do you have a preferred alliance, and what do you think the future hold for them? Let us know in the comments.