Giant plates are shifting within the global alliances, and the outcomes could have lasting consequences for the losers.

The major offensive, of course, is playing out in South America, where the main battle tanks of each group have been rolling into position. The big guns have been out in force ahead of one of the most eagerly awaited decisions in the alliance era's short history - how LAN/TAM will resolve its alliance dilemma when it confirms its merger. The likely outcome here is intriguing: ask four experts and you'll get four different answers.

There are skirmishes elsewhere, too. In Asia, all the alliances have white spots to address, and perhaps the long freeze-out in the Gulf could begin to thaw this year.

The evolution of the global alliances has been intriguing since the craze was kick-started by Star 15 years ago. The three alliances now boast over 50 members between them, and have several more on the chocks waiting to formally join.

But what role do these global groupings play, and why do they seem so vital to so many airlines, but of no relevance to others? They certainly can't save you if your business plan is flawed. That's evidenced by the three fully paid-up members that have failed in the last two years, and another imminent arrival is in cardiac arrest. And more could follow.

Alliances are of their time. That is, they provide a vehicle for quasi-consolidation within the aero-political climate that exists today, and have helped pave the way for key players in each alliance to create commercial joint ventures, many of which have antitrust approval. And this is a growing trend.

But how long the alliances will prosper and remain relevant remains to be seen, and is largely dependent on how long international cross-border ownership regulation prevents the aviation industry behaving like any other and being blind to national sovereignty (and security) concerns.

"An alliance is a means to get things done in the dynamic of the world in which are living," says SkyTeam's managing director Michael Wisbrun. "It is a stepping stone to a new world that still has to be shaped and created, where a part of it is in our hands, and a part is in external conditions - like the regulatory authorities allowing airlines to integrate the way the automotive industry has."

Emirates is the one major airline that can see no purpose in joining the global alliances. Indeed, president Tim Clark is forthright in his view that alliances' behaviour is like "gang warfare". He says the idea of joining one is "anathema" to Emirates, which is not interested in being "subjected to the whims of an amorphous board saying: 'You can't do this, you can't do that, you've got to fly this route.'"

But Emirates' position on alliances is not shared by fellow Gulf network carriers. While currently unaligned, Qatar Airways and Etihad are both warming to the concept. The latter recently raised the prospect of potentially finding a backdoor way into Oneworld through its acquisition of a 29% stake in the alliance's latest recruit, Air Berlin.

These airlines could be attracted to the alliances to aid the next phase of their growth strategies once all independent opportunities have been exhausted. And there is no doubt that the alliances would welcome one of these airlines into the fold. For one, it would bring a strong and aggressive competitor on side, as well as delivering powerful network connections.

But certainly not all members would see it that way: for example, the longer-established network carrier members that created the original blueprint that Gulf carriers have so successfully adopted and developed.

So stay tuned to "the alliance channel" for an action-packed 2012 - the fun and games could only just be starting.

Source: Airline Business