A guide to global airline alliances
One key benefit of Oneworld is that top tier, elite level frequent flyers from member airlines (typically those who fly more than 50,000 miles per year) get Sapphire or Emerald tier status in the alliance, which provides access to 506 airline lounges around the world, regardless of class of travel. Even if you fly in economy, you will still have access to some of the finest airport lounges in the world — such as British Airway’s Galleries at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 in London, Qantas’ first and business class lounges in Sydney, and Cathay Pacific’s award winning lounges at the Hong Kong International Airport.
SkyTeam’s strong points lie mainly in the size and strength of its founding members: Delta Air Lines — the second largest carrier in the US after United, with hubs in key cities like Atlanta and New York — Air France/KLM — the largest airline in Europe, operating out of Amsterdam and Paris — and Korean Air’s excellent hub in Seoul for travel across Asia.
With the recent admittance of China Eastern, China Southern, China Airlines (Taiwan), and soon, Xiamen Airlines, SkyTeam is the clear alliance winner in the increasingly important Chinese air travel market.
Other prominent SkyTeam members are Russia’s Aeroflot, Spain’s Air Europa, Italy’s Alitalia, CSA Czech Airlines, Kenya Airways, Romania’s Tarom and Vietnam Airlines.
The alliance’s 15 members fly to 916 destinations around the world, making SkyTeam the second largest of the three. Like Oneworld, SkyTeam lacks a significant partner in India, and its coverage in Latin America remains sparse compared to other alliances. With Kenya Airlines onboard, SkyTeam covers more than 40 destinations in Africa.
International first, business and SkyTeam Elite Plus members (those at the top of the elite tiers at member airlines, typically flying more than 50,000 miles per year) have access to 490 SkyTeam lounges around the world. Over the last two years, the alliance has grouped all SkyTeam member airlines in single terminals at London Heathrow Terminal 4, Barcelona Terminal 1 and Moscow Sheremetyevo Terminal D. The move eliminates the hassle of transferring between terminals to visit lounges or catch flights on partner carriers, offering a truly seamless travel experience, which is something alliances like to promote, but are not always able to deliver.
Created in 1997, Star Alliance was the first and remains the largest alliance in terms of member carriers (27) and destinations served (1,185).
Key members include several of the world’s largest and most highly regarded airlines in key regions. North America is blanketed by coverage from Air Canada, Continental, United and US Airways. Europe is anchored by Lufthansa’s giant hub at Frankfurt, plus the United Kingdom’s BMI, and Swiss, Austrian and SAS airlines. South African Airways covers most of Africa. Oceania is covered by Air New Zealand. In South America there is Brazil’s largest carrier, TAM. In Asia, members include some of the best airlines in the world: Singapore Airlines, ANA, Thai and Air China. South American carriers Avianca (Colombia) and Copa (Panama) will join the Star Alliance in 2012, which should help fill in gaps in Latin American coverage.
Among most industry observers, the Star Alliance is the clear leader of the pack. “Firstly, Star was able to snatch up some of the world's premium airlines into its fold early on,” said writer Ramsey Qubein, who covers airline alliances for several publications. “Secondly, with 27 carriers as partners, the entire world is at your fingertips. Thirdly, the benefits for frequent travellers include lounge access, increased baggage allowances, and priority check-in for Star Alliance Gold members. While all alliances offer similar benefits, Star offers them on more airlines and in more cities giving it the unquestioned upper hand.”
Business, first class and Star Alliance Gold customers (those at the upper end of elite status with the airline program they fly most) have access to 970 member airline lounges, as well as dedicated Star Alliance lounges at London-Heathrow, Los Angeles International Airport, Nagoya-Chūbu Centrair and Paris-Charles de Gaulle.