24 Years Of The Star Alliance: How It Has Grown And Thrived

Friday marked the 24th birthday of the Star Alliance, the oldest airline alliance in the world. Founded in 1997, the alliance has remained the biggest in the world, both by passengers carried and the number of members. Let’s find out how the Star Alliance has grown and dominated for over two decades.

Air China (Star Alliance Livery) Airbus A350
All Star Alliance members have to paint a certain percentage of their fleet in the livery of the alliance. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Beginnings

The Star Alliance was founded on May 14th, 1997, by a group of five leading airlines: United, Lufthansa, Air Canada, SAS, and Thai Airways. The goal of the alliance was simple: to create a single network for passengers to be able to travel globally from any major city. Unlike previous joint-ventures or codeshare agreements, the Star Alliance would offer unprecedented choices to global travelers.

The five-pointed silver star on a black background was chosen as the logo of the alliance to represent the five founding carriers. While membership has since grown much larger, the symbol has become synonymous with the alliance. Carriers also paint the livery on the tail on select aircraft and the words across the fuselage.

Lufthansa-india-cancellation-october
The founding of the Star Alliance triggered the formation of the next two major airline alliances as well. Photo: Tom Boon | Simple Flying

The formation of the Star Alliance was a huge coup for the airlines. Never before had five global airlines come together to offer such deep integration. Travelers could seamlessly fly from New York to Copenhagen to Bangkok without breaking the journey once or picking up their bags. However, this was only the beginning of a unique two decades.

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Expanding

Despite the reach of the five founding airlines, the Star Alliance had some noticeable gaps in regions like Africa, South America, and Oceania. However, the group quickly got working on inducting new members to increase its reach. In September 1997, the now-defunct Brazilian carrier VARIG joined the alliance. VARIG’s entry opened up destinations in its home continent and beyond, including Africa and the Caribbean.

Similar moves were made in Oceania, where Air New Zealand and Ansett Australia joined the Star Alliance to provide connectivity in the Pacific. The two additions were notable since competitor Qantas had joined the newly-made oneworld alliance as a founder in 1998.

Air New Zealand Airbus A320 Star Alliance Livery
Airline alliance competition heated up in 1998 with the formation of another star-studded group: oneworld. Photo: XPinger via Wikimedia Commons

However, perhaps the most notable new members came from Asia, where the Star Alliance became a powerhouse. In 1999, Japan’s rapidly growing ANA became the second Asian airline to join the alliance.

Just one year later, Singapore Airlines joined the Star Alliance, raising connectivity in the continent dramatically. This latest joining did ruffle some feathers, with Thai reportedly considering exiting the alliance and jumping to oneworldHowever, both carriers remained, putting the Star Alliance in pole position to dominate the growing Asian market.

Singaore Airlines 747 Star Alliance Livery
Singapore Airlines had a unique take on flying the alliance’s livery at first, leaving the SIA logo on the tail. Photo: tearbringer via Flickr

The boom

The early 2000s saw many changes for the Star Alliance. The 9/11 attacks in 2001 resulted in deep losses for the industry and bankruptcy of some airlines in the next few years. Carriers like Ansett exited due to bankruptcy, boosting oneworld in Oceania instead (thanks to founder Qantas). In 2006, VARIG went out of business too, severing Star Alliance’s link to South America as well.

However, despite these setbacks and more competition (SkyTeam was formed in 2000), the alliance pushed on with adding new carriers. Austrian (then not a part of the Lufthansa Group) joined in 2000 along with British Midland Airways a few months later. This set up Europe as a battleground, with London Heathrow featuring two competing alliances.

Lufthansa, Airbus A330, London Heathrow
Europe and the US became the battlegrounds for all three alliances. Photo: Vincenzo Pace – Simple Flying

Across the Atlantic, United, American, and Delta were all battling for supremacy as well. The former’s decision to form the Star Alliance triggered the latter two to form their own alliances, creating the current landscape of aviation. The early 2000s were marked by all three alliances trying to grow their route maps and memberships to outcompete each other.

At the top

Through the last 24 years, Star Alliance has remained the world’s largest airline alliance with its focus on connectivity. The group’s official hub is Frankfurt Airport, the home of Lufthansa and a crucial connecting point for many members. However, nearly every major city globally now features a Star Alliance presence, bringing the alliance closer to its ultimate goal.

For travelers, the Star Alliance presented an excellent opportunity. In addition to the larger route map, passengers could redeem their airlines across dozens of airlines. This meant not being tied down to a single airline for redeeming those hard-earned miles. While each airline values miles differently, most allow partner bookings with relative ease.

United Airlines Boeing 737
United has anchored the alliance in the US and become the largest airline by revenue. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

However, the alliance’s membership has not slowed in the last decade, even though the process has become harder. The alliance made big strides in South America with the joining of TAM and Avianca, boosting once-lost connectivity. In Africa, the inductions of Ethiopian Airlines and South African Airways made the alliance a formidable foe.

More hub airlines like Turkish Airlines also joined in 2008, adding more routes. However, the last decade marked the entry of “connecting airlines,” which were subsidiaries of existing members. This opened up connectivity to smaller destinations and expanded the alliance’s reach from major cities to destinations globally.

Current members

In 2019, the Star Alliance carried a massive 762 million passengers with over 19,000 daily departures to 195 countries. This was made possible with the membership of 26 airlines, which are:

AegeanAir CanadaAir ChinaAir IndiaAir New Zealand
All Nippon AirwaysAviancaAustrianAsianaUnited
Brussels AirlinesCopaAirlinesCroatia AirlinesEgyptAirEthiopian
EVA AirLOT Polish AirlinesLufthansaSASSingapore Airlines
Shenzhen AirlinesSouth African AirwaysSWISSTAP Air PortugalTHAI Airways
Turkish Airlines
Ethiopian 767 Star Alliance
The Star Alliance’s larger membership, more destinations, and major hubs have made it the leader for decades. Photo: Alan Wilson via Flickr

While the pandemic has shaken up the members of the Star Alliance, it seems unlikely to go anywhere. The coming years will likely see more members join and leave the alliance as it adapts to the post-pandemic future. However, expect the group to maintain its leading position for years to come.

What do you think about the history of the Star Alliance? What is your favorite airline alliance? Let us know in the comments!

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