The Story Of The oneworld Alliance

The oneworld alliance turned 20 in 2019. With 13 full airline members, it is the third-largest global alliance (by passenger numbers). This article takes a look at the history, growth and changing airline membership of oneworld throughout this history leading us to the alliance as we know it today.

American Airlines
American Airlines in Oneworld livery. Photo: American Airlines

The start of oneworld

Airline alliances today are a standard part of the travel experience. Most of the major airlines are aligned with one of the three main alliances – Star Alliance, Skyteam and oneworld. This brings operating and cost advantages to the airlines, connection and routing conveniences for passengers and of course plenty of loyalty perks shared across the airlines.

Oneworld 20 year logo
Oneworld 20 year logo. Image: Oneworld

This has not always been the case though. There was small collaboration as early as the 1930s with Panair de Brasil and Pan American World Airways co-operating on routes to Latin America. And in the early 1990s, a number of African airlines operated joint services as an alliance. But it was not until the late 1990s that any real globally operating alliance was started.

The first major airline alliance was formed in 1997 when five airlines joined together to formally launch Star Alliance, its five-point star logo representing these founding airlines.

Star Alliance logo
Star Alliance was the first airline alliance formed in 1997 – oneworld would follow very soon after. Image: Star Alliance

Founding members of oneworld get together in 1999

The creation of the oneworld alliance came soon after Star Alliance. It was announced in September 1998 and became operational in February 1999. The five original founding members of oneworld were:

  • American Airlines
  • British Airways
  • Canadian Airlines
  • Cathay Pacific
  • Qantas Airways

This initial alliance together served 648 destinations in 139 countries, carrying 181 million passengers a year (as of 1998). Bringing so much together was no easy task. Along with the launch, the new alliance introduced a massive communication and training program involving all airline staff. And there was also a major advertising and branding campaign using the new slogan “oneworld revolves around you.”

British Airways in Oneworld livery
British Airways – one of the founding members of oneworld. Photo: Simple Flying

Canadian Airlines left the alliance after it was acquired by Air Canada in 2000, but the other four founding airlines remain a key part of the alliance today.

First expansion straight away

Part of the strategy of the newly launched oneworld was expansion, and they wasted little time inviting new members to join. Two European flag carriers were the first additional members. Finland’s Finnair and Spain’s Iberia both joined in September 1999.

Finnair was the first airline to join the founding members of oneworld. Photo: Finnair

Aer Lingus joined the alliance in 2000 (it would later leave in 2007 after changes in its business strategy to focus on lower fares). Additionally, Lan Chile joined later the same year, adding a strong network in South America to the alliance.

Big expansion in 2007

Global growth continued over the next few years, and a major expansion to the alliance was set for April 2007. Japan Airlines, Royal Jordanian and Hungary’s Malev all joined as full members at this time.

They all announced intention to join some years earlier and spent time working to offer all services required by the alliance before becoming full members. This is a practice that still continues with new members.  Japan Airlines and Royal Jordanian remain key alliance members today, but Malev left after suspending operations in 2012.

Japan Airlines 787
Japan Airlines (and its several subsidiaries) significantly expanded oneworld’s presence in Asia. Photo: Masakatsu Ukon via Wikimedia

By this point, oneworld airlines now served around 700 destinations in 150 countries, with passenger numbers of 315 million per year.

These destinations were further expanded when Russian airline S7 Airlines (along with its subsidiary Globus Airlines as an affiliate member) joined Oneworld in 2010.

S7 destinations
The introduction of S7 to the alliance added 53 new cities to the oneworld map. Image: S7 Airlines

Members that came and went

As well as Aer Lingus and Malev, there were several new members added during the first 10-12 years that we don’t see in the alliance today.

  • Mexico’s Mexicana joined in November 2009 but left after insolvency filing in 2010.
  • India’s Kingfisher Airlines was due to join in February 2012, but delayed just a week before due to their financial situation. It later cased operating in February 2013.
  • Germany’s Air Berlin joined in March 2012, and was to leave in 2017 after filing for insolvency.

Growing again from 2012

More major changes to the alliance as we know it today came in 2012-2014, with the addition of several major airlines.

  • Malaysia Airlines became a full member in February 2013, adding its strong Asian network as well as direct flights to Europe.
  • Sri Lankan Airlines joined in May 2014, after nearly two years as a member-elect airline with support from Cathay Pacific.
  • Qatar Airways was a major addition in October 2013. This was the first of the large Middle Eastern airlines to join an alliance, a major milestone for oneworld.
  • TAM and US Airways both joined oneworld in March 2014. These carriers would later join with LAN and American Airlines and remain part of the alliance.

The alliance today

These additions have led to the alliance as we know it today. Oneworld now (as of 2018) serves 1,100 destinations in 180 countries with annual passenger numbers of over 535 million.

Oneworld logos
Image: Oneworld

By passenger numbers, it’s the smallest of the three alliance. However, this by no means makes it the weakest. Oneworld is a regular winner of many alliance awards – including ‘best alliance by the World Travel Awards for 15 years running, and by UK Business Traveler for five years running.

And they have long offered some of the best innovation with connected ticketing. Their round the world fares are a good example of this. They are the only alliance to offer a round the world product (the oneworld Explorer ticket) priced based on continents included rather than the standard method of total mileage flown. They offer full online planning and booking of these tickets using all partners.

Oneworld explorer booking
The innovative oneworld Explorer ticket is easily booked online. Image: Oneworld

Twenty-year celebrations, and more plans for the near future

Oneworld celebrated its 20th anniversary in February 2019. This was marked with a plan for a 21st Century transformation of the alliance to better serve customers. There are plans for a new Oneworld digital platform helping passengers with alliance wide journeys. Oneworld are also introducing their own branded airport lounges at key hub airports – with the first one hopefully being opened later in 2019.

Oneworld branding
The 20th celebration sees new branding for Oneworld with the new tagline “travel bright.” Photo: Oneworld

Looking forward, plans continue for Oneworld’s expansion. They have confirmed Royal Air Maroc as the next full member, due to join Oneworld in 2020. As the first African airline to join, this new membership this will open up several new destinations. American Airlines has already announced a new service to Casablanca, helping to connect the new network this will add.

Royal Air Maroc
Royal Air Maroc is the next new member of Oneworld, and the first African based member. Photo: Simple Flying

The alliance introduced a new form of alliance membership recently as well. The ‘Oneworld Connect’ model allows better alliance access for smaller, regional airlines. Fiji Airways is the first airline to join under this scheme.