The History Of The SkyTeam Alliance

SkyTeam is the youngest of the three major alliances and home to carriers like Delta, Air France, KLM, and more. The alliance carried the second-most passengers in 2019, beating oneworld and closing in on the Star Alliance. Let’s find out more about the history of this bustling airline group.

Korean Air (SkyTeam Livery) Boeing 777-3B5(ER) HL7783
SkyTeam requires its airlines to paint a certain number of planes in the alliance’s livery. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Founding

SkyTeam was founded on 22nd June, 2000 by four major carriers: Delta Air Lines, Air France, Aeromexico, and Korean Air. The group had a similar goal to many others – to offer a robust, global network to all of its passengers. This goal would be achieved in the years that followed as the alliance continued to grow in size.

The foundations of SkyTeam were actually set a year before its commencement. In 1999, Delta and Air France signed an exclusive long-term strategic agreement, which became the bedrock for the subsequent alliance.

All three major US airlines (United, American, and Delta) anchor the three global airline alliances. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

However, SkyTeam was not the first airline alliance in the world. The Star Alliance was founded in 1997, and oneworld quickly followed in 1998. By comparison, the launch of SkyTeam took much longer, coming a good two years after the previous alliance. This also meant fewer choices of major partner airlines since many had joined other alliances.

However, none of this deterred SkyTeam’s progress, which became a powerhouse in a matter of a few years.

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Beginnings

From the beginning, SkyTeam offered a robust global network, more so than its rivals at their founding. While Delta anchored the alliance’s US operations, competing with American and United on dozens of routes, the real difference came from Air France and Aeromexico.

In addition to being one of the biggest European carriers, offering robust connectivity across the busy continent, Air France has long had an impressive number of destinations in Africa. This meant that SkyTeam already had access to the long-haul African market from its founding, an important step.

Air France Boeing 787-9
Air France has an impressive number of routes to Africa, boosting SkyTeam’s connectivity. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

The second big difference was the membership of Aeromexico. The airline opened up dozens of routes in the Caribbean and South America, offering better connectivity to passengers around the globe and especially from the US.

Similarly, Korean Air was the alliance’s anchor in East Asia, competing with the likes of Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific. While still smaller than both, Korean made sure that SkyTeam had a strong network in the region for connecting passengers. With a presence in four continents, SkyTeam was off to a strong start.

Heating up

In the years that followed, SkyTeam quickly grew from its four members. Czech Airlines and Alitalia both joined in 2001, boosting the group’s presence in Europe. Following the Air France-KLM merger, the latter also joined SkyTeam, another boost for the African long-haul network.

However, SkyTeam also picked up access to several crucial domestic markets in 2004. Aeroflot joined the alliance in the same year, making it an important hub for long-haul and routes to Eastern Europe. Similarly, the entry of China Southern, the country’s largest airline, was another major coup for the airline, opening the second-largest market in the world to SkyTeam.

China-Southern-strong-domestic-getty
China Southern has grown to become one of the largest airlines in the world by passenger volume over the last two decades. Photo: Getty Images

September 13th of the same year saw Continental Airlines, KLM, and Northwest join the alliance on the same day. This was a gamechanger for SkyTeam, growing its yearly traffic exponentially and allowing it to overtake oneworld as the world’s second-largest, yet youngest, airline alliance.

Mergers

Despite the early successes of SkyTeam in its first five years, the 2008 financial crisis hit the group hard. A series of airline mergers in the US meant that the alliance lost several notable carriers in a short span. Continental and COPA both left following an acquisition by United (and subsequently joined the Star Alliance). Northwest was merged with Delta, streamlining operations and reducing the fleet count.

Airlines At Paris Charles De Gaulle Airport In Roissy, France In 2001.
SkyTeam faced a few tough years but quickly bounced back. Photo: Getty Images

However, things quickly bounced back for the alliance. The entry of Vietnam Airlines in 2019 was a strategic win for SkyTeam, which now had a presence in the busy Southeast Asian market. Moreover, China Eastern (and Shanghai Airlines, a Star Alliance member) joining in 2011 solidified the alliance’s presence in the country, making it formidable in the domestic and international market.

Notably, SkyTeam has been unable to make significant inroads into Oceania. This is because both major airlines from the region, Qantas and Air New Zealand, were members of the oneworld and Star Alliance respectively, leaving few opportunities to grow. This continues to be an issue, with SkyTeam only having a partner in Virgin Australia.

Changes

SkyTeam continued to expand in the years that followed. In 2012, the alliance added its first Middle Eastern carrier, Saudia. With Emirates and Etihad going it alone and Qatar Airways joining oneworld, Saudia’s entry was important for SkyTeam. The same year, Middle East Airlines (MEA) joined the alliance as well, significantly boosting the group’s presence in the MENA region.

Notably, SkyTeam was the first to found a cargo alliance as well. Known as SkyTeam cargo, this has been one of the few significant freight partnerships among airlines. The group currently has 13 members and a robust global network.

Korean Air Cargo Boeing 777F Getty
SkyTeam Cargo is a rare airline freight alliance with robust membership numbers. Photo: Getty Images

In 2019, SkyTeam carried an impressive 630 million with its 19 members in over 1,036 destinations. This put the group behind Star Alliance (752 million) but ahead of oneworld (535 million). However, the same year saw China Southern exit the alliance, impacting future passenger numbers.

Current members

SkyTeam currently has 19 full members, which are: Aeroflot, Aerolíneas Argentinas, Aeroméxico, Air Europa (leaving), Air France, Alitalia, China Airlines, China Eastern Airlines, Czech Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Garuda Indonesia, Kenya Airways, KLM, Korean Air, Middle East Airlines, Saudia, TAROM, Vietnam Airlines, XiamenAir.

As with all alliances, 2020 has been challenging for SkyTeam. The coming years could see some airlines exit the alliance and some possible entries. However, this alliance is clearly here to stay for the long-haul and continue growing.

What do you think about SkyTeam? Where could they improve? Let us know in the comments!

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