As the clock runs down on one of the oldest alliances in Asia, US and Taiwanese carriers are forging closer ties following the recent open skies deal between the two countries.

The first sign that Singapore Airlines' Global Excellence alliance with Delta Air Lines and Swissair is starting to unravel comes with the codeshare deal between Swissair and SIA's bitter rival, Malaysia Airlines. Three weekly MAS B777 services from Kuala Lumpur to Zürich will carry the Swissair code from November.

The move is seen as a coup on the Malayan peninsula. MAS has striven long and hard to compete with the more succesful SIA since the former Malaysia-Singapore Airlines split in the 1970s.

SIA insists it is satisfied with its relationship with Delta and Swissair, but the benefits of the alliance have long been questioned. Sources say the carrier is studying a realignment which could see it link with the Star Alliance, led by United Airlines and Lufthansa.

An SIA shift would also cast doubt on the membership of another neighbouring flag, Thai International, in Star. United and Thai say they are 'happy' with the link. But one Thai official says a tie-up between United and SIA would cause 'a great deal of soul searching in Bangkok and we may have to look for a new partner'.

Meanwhile, American and Continental Airlines have jumped at the chance of increasing their exposure in the Asia-Pacific by signing alliance agreements with Taiwan's two major operators. Continental Airlines and EVA Airways signed an agreement in late August to start codesharing and link frequent flyer programmes from early next year on trans-Pacific and domestic US services, as well as routes from Taiwan to southeast Asia. The move follows Washington's approval of a similar pact between American and China Airlines.

The recent open skies bilateral between Washington and Taipei is the driver behind these alliances. It eases the way for China Airlines and EVA to access a number of beyond gateway cities served by American and Continental within the US. These pacts may allow Taiwanese carriers to put their codes on their respective US partners' flights from the US to Europe and South America, subject to approval by the third countries.

The reverse prospect of codesharing on China Airlines and EVA-operated services beyond Taiwan to southeast Asia is a major draw for the two US carriers. Both American and Continental plan to use Taipei as a hub for such flights. 'This partnership [affords] Continental Airlines an opportunity to begin building a presence in southeast Asia,' said Continental's president Greg Brenneman after signing the alliance agreement with EVA. The two US carriers, along with Delta, are at a disadvantage in the Asia-Pacific market to rivals United and Northwest, both of which enjoy fifth freedom rights beyond Japan.

T Ballantyne/D Knibb

Source: Airline Business