China Southern Airlines' departure from SkyTeam and Qatar Airways' venting of its frustrations with Oneworld illustrate that global alliance membership is likely to remain fluid, but the groupings themselves are looking at facilitating seamless connectivity to underline their relevance in their third decade of operations.
All three alliances have faced questions about their future role in recent years, as member carriers increasingly focus on developing joint-venture partnerships in key markets. Much of that has drawn on existing alliance lines, but members have become more open to linking up with non-allied partners – or even some in rival camps.
Combined with the slowdown in recruitment – largely a product of alliances having covered the majority of geographic markets and a lack of convincing options in the areas where they are lacking – this has raised a question mark over the future role for the groupings.
"Over the 20 years of alliance history, initially it was all about the network," SkyTeam chief executive Kristin Colvile tells FlightGlobal. "Then it was better recognition – how do I provide consistent recognition when I travel [across alliance members]?"
She recalls a subsequent period where members focused on creating bilateral partnerships which were more commercially focused. "But I see a shift back to alliances," she says.
Colvile notes that, having developed these various joint ventures, airlines are looking at "how do I bring that together – not from a commercial perspective, but from a customer perspective". This, Colvile argues, requires a multilateral solution.
Her counterpart at Star Alliance, Jeffrey Goh, sees a similar evolution. "After 20 years, we have a very comprehensive, global network. The question is: how can we build on that asset we have?" he says.
"If you look at what is happening in the industry and what the individual airlines are doing, they are being compelled to go through a digital transformation. That is what we have been doing over the last two or three years."
All three alliances are looking to step up their delivery in providing passengers with a seamless travel experience across different member carriers, using digital platforms they have been working on to facilitate service connectivity.
Oneworld used the occasion of its 20th anniversary in London to outline a number of initiatives – as well a revamping of its brand, though the primary logo remains unchanged, and plans for its co-branded lounge.
"For this alliance to be relevant in an ever-changing world, it has to adapt," noted Willie Walsh, chief executive of IAG – whose British Airways unit was a founding partner of the alliance in February 1999.
Oneworld chief executive Rob Gurney – who took the helm just over two years ago, tasked with ensuring the alliance remains relevant – said at the 1 February anniversary event: "We are effectively relaunching Oneworld."
While the 13-strong alliance is in the process of swelling its numbers for the first time in several years – through the addition of Royal Air Maroc and its first Oneworld Connect member, Fiji Airways – the focus of the revamp in on customer service.
The first fruit of the initiative is the capability for member airlines, via their own apps or websites, to allow passengers to check in and generate boarding passes for connecting flights with Oneworld partners.
"Last year, we had 8 million passengers connect between different Oneworld member airlines, so this is a significant customer enhancement," says Gurney.
The services are being developed under Oneworld's new Carrierconnect digital platform, which facilitates the exchange of interline data. This went live in December and the first two members – Cathay Pacific and Qatar Airways – in late January began offering passengers the ability to check in and obtain their boarding passes for connecting flights on the respective carriers.
"That is genuine breakthrough technology," says Gurney. "So we are phasing this in progressively."
The alliance says additional capabilities – such as flight and baggage status updates – will be added to the platform later this year.
Rival groupings Star Alliance and SkyTeam have similarly been working on enabling their members to provide customers with a more seamless service using digital initiatives.
"What we have done over the last two years is establish our capabilities, by building our digital services platform," Goh tells FlightGlobal. "It is not providing an alliance product as such, but it is connecting the digital services and products of the members.
"The first stage, through use-cases and proof-of-concepts, is to show we are capable of doing this. Where we are moving it now is to take it to the next stage and for some of those services and products to make it available across the alliance."
Advance seat allocation is again an early initiative, beginning with United Airlines passengers gaining the ability to book seats on connecting Singapore Airlines and Air Canada flights through their home app last year.
"Progressively this year you will see a ramp-up in the number of members enabled," says Goh, noting that more than a dozen Star Alliance members have made their seat maps available on the digital platform for use with its partners.
"I think you will see us announce in the course of this and next year, that some of the things we have been working on will become standards across the alliance," Goh says.
Alongside advance seat selection, he points to progress on initiatives around seamless check-in and bag tracking. "These are some of the things [for which] we have proof of concept, and the next phase is to get greater adoption across the alliance," he says.
Star, meanwhile, has just unveiled a new initiative where visitors to its website will be able to search for flights, view airfares and make direct bookings with member airlines through a new partnership with Skyscanner.
SkyTeam, too, is expanding service initiatives this year. "We are focused on five core areas our customers want," explains Colvile, who took the helm of the alliance last summer. "These are seat selection, check-in, bag tracking, recognition at every step and service recovery."
This is being driven by the alliance's digital-spine initiative, which acts as a translation hub for the various systems of its members. "It facilities the ability for member [systems] to talk to each other," Colvile explains
"We launched Aeromexico-Delta – in their own apps they are able to select pre-paid seats on each airline segment," she says, noting that six carriers have already committed to adopt the programme by the end of the year.
She says proof-of-concept for bag-tracking is taking place with KLM and China Eastern. "Check-in, we are working on a proof of concept," she says. "We have been quite aggressive on service recovery – every member airline can rebook on another member airline." She notes that once on the spine, it becomes easier to align with other members. "It will be exponential once you get it going," she says.
While work continues on rolling out these initiatives, the alliances see further opportunities ahead.
Goh notes: "The next phase is who are those third parties that can be part of the digital ecosystem – so that you enjoy a seamless experience, not just about the transfer from one flight to another, but have a transactional seamless experience, too. Hopefully, this will enable us to create a loyal [customer base] who will see this as their one-stop shop to carry out their transactions."
In November last year, China Southern took the decision to quit SkyTeam and follow a course of bilateral arrangements. The Guangzhou-based carrier said its decision was based on the company’s development strategy and to "better align with the new trend of co-operation model" in the global aviation industry.
"The company will explore the possibilities to establish new partnerships with advanced airlines around the world, promote bilateral and multilateral co-operation and provide quality services to passengers around the world," the airline says.
Colvile notes that China Southern has left on good terms and that from a network perspective "there has been a minimal impact". That largely reflects the alliance also having as a member Shanghai-based China Eastern – with which SkyTeam members Delta Air Lines and Air France-KLM have close ties.
China Southern has since tightened its links with several Oneworld partners – sealing new or enhanced codeshares with minority shareholder American Airlines, as well as British Airways and Finnair. Qatar Airways, meanwhile, acquired a 5% stake in the airline in January.
Not that this link necessarily moves China Southern closer to Oneworld, given Qatar Airways' unsettled status in the alliance at present. Chief executive Akbar Al Baker has expressed frustration at the perceived ill treatment of his airline by other partners in the alliance, citing gripes with American and Qantas.
All eyes, therefore, were on Al Baker at the 20-year anniversary. While he departed the event promptly, citing previous commitments, he pointed out that Qatar's appearance showed that – for now – the members were "all together as a team".
Al Baker signalled that the airline would discuss its particular issues with the other Oneworld members. "After that, we'll see what to do," he said.
Also at the event was Abdelhamid Addou, chief executive of prospective Oneworld member Royal Air Maroc. The airline is set to become the alliance's first new member for six years – and its first full member in Africa.
Indeed, the airline will become the first new member of any of the global alliances since Avianca Brazil joined Star in 2015.
Former Oneworld carrier Aer Lingus has been linked with a potential return to the grouping after its acquisition by IAG in 2015. Again, however, joint ventures have been the priority here.
Speaking at a media briefing in Dublin on 17 January, Aer Lingus chief executive Sean Doyle said that gaining anti-trust immunity to enter the joint venture was the Irish flag carrier's "number one" focus, as part of a four-year strategy of developing its home airport into a transatlantic hub.
While joining Oneworld is of interest, there is "no firm timeframe" to do so, says Doyle.
Aer Lingus applied for permission from the US Department of Transportation to join the transatlantic joint venture in December last year.
But once that has been achieved, IAG chief Walsh says, the carrier will look again at alliance membership, particularly after Oneworld developed a new affiliate programme.
"It is fair to say one of the reasons Aer Lingus left the Oneworld alliance was the complexity associated with being a full member, which at the time Aer Lingus found difficult to justify as the airline expanded,”"he says.
Walsh believes the alliance is "much more suited" to the Aer Lingus business model and as a result a much more "attractive proposition".
Oneworld developed the programme to provide a lighter connectivity model than full membership. "The idea of the programme… is they are not required to have relationships with every member – there is only a requirement to have relationships with those that are relevant," explains Gurney.
"There is [only a] requirement to have a minimum of three sponsor members, so it's much easier" both for potential new recruits to the alliance and the existing membership, he says.
The first member to join Oneworld under its connecting scheme is Fiji Airways, which formally joined the grouping in December last year.
Under the arrangement, passengers travelling on the carrier with Oneworld Emerald, Sapphire and Ruby status will be able to access priority check-in and boarding.
Additional benefits – including through check-in, status and mileage earning and redemption – will be available for passengers of Fiji's four sponsoring Oneworld members. They are American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific and Qantas.
There was previously a similar development at Star Alliance. Chinese carrier Juneyao Airlines became the first to join the group under the scheme in 2017 – the year in which Star Alliance marked its 20th anniversary. However, the alliance has since been reviewing the programme to simplify it.
"After the integration of Juneyao, we realised many lessons were learnt and we had the humility to acknowledge there was still some work to be done," says Goh.
Alongside evaluating the content and commercials of the model, that includes focusing it on providing a way to cater for existing member subsidiaries.
"We spent the better part of the year looking at what is the strategy underpinning this model, who are we targeting – and we became very clear our original intent was to work with the subsidiaries of our members that are operating on a different platform.
"We are now in the process of talking to many of these members and subsidiaries, and you will hear us announce one or another connecting partner to be integrated in the course of the year."
Not that Goh rules out additional membership. "Without your network you lose your proposition to get customers from A to B to C. And that is an asset we are very intent on protecting and perhaps developing should the opportunity arise.
"We are not closed for business in the sense of no-more-members," he says, noting that the alliance would would look at carrier where it make sense or adds value. "There are still some airlines out there that could potentially make sense to one or other alliance."
SkyTeam, however, is not yet following the affiliate membership path. "We are formulating a view. It is not something that is a big priority for our members or customers, but we are watching," says Colvile.
"We are not in a phase where we are looking to grow our membership," she adds. "Our focus is on building our functionality."
Additional reporting by Oliver Clark and David Kaminski-Morrow
Source: Cirium Dashboard