Both Avianca-TACA and Copa to join Star Alliance

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Both Avianca-TACA and Panama's Copa Airlines have been accepted as new members of Star Alliance, giving the group a powerful presence in Latin America.

Star announced at an event today in Miami that Avianca-TACA and Copa will become its second and third Latin American members after Brazil's TAM, which formally joined earlier this year. Avianca-TACA and Copa will begin the implementation process, which typically takes one year to 18 months.

Adding Latin America's fourth- and sixth-largest airline groups will give Star the unusual position of having two members in Colombia and Brazil. Avianca is Colombia's largest airline while Copa Colombia, which until recently was known as Aero Republica, is the country's third largest carrier. In Brazil, TAM is the largest while Avianca Brazil, previously known as OceanAir, is the fifth-largest.

 avianca a330-200, stephane beilliard/airteamimages.com
 © Stephane Beilliard/AirTeamImages.com
copa airlines 737-700, andrés contador/airteamimages.com
 © Andrés Contador/AirTeamImages.com
Both Avianca-TACA (top) and Copa Airlines (bottom) have today joined the Star Alliance

Copa has been considering joining Star since 2008, when it decided to exit SkyTeam. It formally left in October 2009 with close partner and former part-owner Continental Airlines. While Continental immediately entered Star, Copa slowly pondered its options and said was it was also considering staying non-aligned.

Copa has always maintained that El Salvador-based Grupo TACA's potential Star membership would not be a factor in its own alliance decision because their two networks have different focuses.

Grupo TACA first decided to pursue membership in Star over two years ago. TACA initially expected Star would accept its application by the end of 2008 but talks dragged on for nearly another two years without a decision by the alliance's board.

In October 2009, TACA unveiled plans to merge with Colombia's Avianca. At the time TACA said it would continue to pursue membership of Star on its own with Avianca potentially deciding later to pursue its own membership. But Avianca, which before the merger had indicated it planned to remain non-aligned, and TACA were urged by Star to pursue a joint application.

Avianca-TACA subsequently decided to initiate a new joint evaluation of potential global alliances. After speaking to both Star and SkyTeam, Avianca-TACA elected to pursue membership of Star as a merged entity. Their merger was completed early this year, leading to the creation of a new airline group with 13 carriers from 10 Latin American countries.

Avianca-TACA and Copa's joining Star will give the alliance a local presence for the first time in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama.

Having Avianca-TACA and Copa on board also ensures that Star will continue to have a strong presence in the region should the new TAM-LAN combination eventually opt for Oneworld. While TAM is in Star, merger partner LAN is a long-time member of Oneworld.

After unveiling their merger plans earlier this year, the two carriers indicated they would stay in their respective alliances until at least 2012 although there recently has been some indication they may be forced to decide on one of the two global alliances earlier. TAM and LAN are already Latin America's two largest airline groups.

Before TAM joined Star earlier this year, Latin America was Star's biggest 'white spot' for coverage. The alliance had not had a member from the region since 2007, when Brazil's Varig left the alliance.

SkyTeam also has only one member from the region, Aeromexico, following Copa's exit. But SkyTeam is working on bringing in Aerolineas Argentinas and recruiting other Latin American members.

TACA already has codeshare agreements with several Star members including Lufthansa, United Airlines and US Airways. Avianca's main US partner is SkyTeam member Delta Air Lines and historically its main European partner has been Oneworld member Iberia. But last week Avianca signed a codeshare agreement with Lufthansa, moving the entire Avianca-TACA group closer to Star.

Copa's strongest bilateral partner is Continental which, earlier this year, merged with United Airlines. Copa also codeshares with KLM, which is still in SkyTeam.