Sifting the sands of global alliance networks is quickly becoming an art. Over the next year to 18 months this skill will be tested to the limits as exposed "independent" carriers seek shelter in global alliances.

These are interesting times for alliance watchers everywhere. Swissair's long-running Atlantic Excellence alliance has unravelled with the final departure of Delta Air Lines and its Qualiflyer grouping has lost Austrian Airlines. Others are already posturing to pick up the pieces in the shape of Star, oneworld, the KLM/Northwest grouping (unofficially dubbed Wings)and the yet-to-be-named Delta/Air France group.

For Star, the largest of the alliances in terms of global share, the waiting list for membership is impressive. In October, All Nippon Airways formally joined and Singapore Airlines gave a firm commitment to join next March, while Austrian Airlines and Mexicana will join next summer. That leaves Star short only, perhaps, of a Chinese, and possibly a UK, partner to sign. The "target" list includes Air China, China Airlines or Hong Kong-based Dragonair for partners into Asia.

Intense talks are also taking place with British Midland (BM), which is already a Lufthansa codeshare partner The odds would seem to be improved by the fact that Star member SAS already holds 40% of the UK airline and has pre-emptive rights for the rest. With around 14% of the slots at London Heathrow at stake the price is rumoured to be up at the $500 million mark.

Talks intensify

Others alliances too are angling for BM's signature, with Air France/Delta keen to win this time, after receiving an unexpected rebuff from Austrian Airlines as it forsook Delta to join Star.

A brief run through Air France's extensive alliance network provides a few clues as to who may be on the list. Some of its long-term Francophone partners such as Royal Air Maroc must be high up, but other major carriers such as Japan Airlines, Korean Air and Air India are all as yet uncommitted. Delta too could look for potential in codeshare partners such as South African Airways, TAP Portugal and Hungary's Malev.

Austrian's decision clearly came as a shock to the alliance - the carrier had been wooed with offers of a founding seat at the alliance table and even a financial sweetener to help offset the cost of switching horses. But other European independents such as Air Europa, Spain's third largest airline, could be in the sights. Stefan Egli, Delta's European manager, promises that "we'll all know a lot more before the end of the year", but declines to name any targets apart from BM.

Former partners Swissair and Sabena have made clear their distaste for a deal. Egli says that both were given the opportunity to join earlier this year but declined, thus prompting Delta to disband the Atlantic Excellence co-operation. "It was a difficult decision to end it," says Fred Reid, Delta's executive vice-president, who was at the centre of forming the original Star grouping when he was at Lufthansa. "It had become apparent that benefits associated with such participation were not there for all parties," he adds in a carefully worded statement.

Swissair's parent SAirGroup shrugged off the disbanding of the Atlantic Excellence and announced it was in discussions with oneworld member American Airlines to expand its codeshare alliance. The more significant issues is where this now leaves SAir and its Qualiflyer Group. Analysts have long marked out SAir as a potential partner for like-minded British Airways and its oneworld alliance, especially given the rush to sign up with American Airlines on the Atlantic. If that does come to pass, this in turn leaves other Qualiflyer members such as THY Turkish Airlines and TAP having to consider their future.

The "Wings" alliance based around Northwest Airlines and KLM is set for expansion. It is talking to Air Europa and BM, while in September, Northwest said it was to start codeshares with Malaysian Airlines (MAS). This not only takes MAS closer to "Wings" but could also drag in carriers such as Royal Brunei, SriLankan and even THY Turkish, which all have codeshares with MAS.

Meanwhile, the air around oneworld recently has been relatively still, but this disguises a period of consolidation in the group. Iberia and Finnair formally joined in September, while at the same time a series of bilateral codeshare deals were begun or signed, between American LanChile, Qantas and British Airways.

BA also looks set to win a stake in Polish carrier Lot - although Lufthansa may yet be still in the running - while oneworld will also likely see LanChile join formally next year. Whatever happens next it seems clear that this is only the beginning of a global alliance game which is starting to hot up nicely.

The emerging global alliance groupings

Passenger traffic (RPK)

Passenger numbers

Group revenues



World share * (%)


World share* (%)

$ billion

World share* (%)

Star Alliance





















Air France /Delta














NOTE: Includes all partners which have committed to the alliance, including those which have signed but where membership is still pending. Associated bilateral members have not been included. *World share based on latest ICAO estimates.


Air France/Delta



Star Alliance


Core Members

Delta Air Lines Air France Aeromexico

American Airlines British Airways Qantas Cathay Pacific Canadian Int'l Iberia Finnair

Swissair Sabena THY Turkish TAP Air AOM Lauda Air Crossair Air Europe

United Airlines Lufthansa Air Canada Thai Int'l SAS Varig Air New Zealand Ansett Australia

NorthwestKLM Continental Alitalia

Future Members


All Nippon Airways Singapore Airlines Mexicana Austrian

Source: Airline Business