Airline friends with benefits

It's good to have friends, especially in a cut-throat industry where competitors are often fighting for larger slices of an ever-shrinking pie.

That's the rationale behind airline alliances – families of airlines bound by ink and contracts, and sometimes by common enemies as much as common interests.

The Qantas-Emirates hookup is a buddy-system built around the needs of each airline, with Alan Joyce cannily keeping Oneworld membership in the Red Roo's pouch

Alliances don't fly their own planes. They're a 'virtual brand' straddling multiple airlines, each of which can pin hundreds of destinations on their route map by tapping into the network of partner airlines.

A global travel troika

Most Australian travellers would be familiar with Oneworld, one of the three global airline alliances.

It counts Qantas, British Airways and Cathay Pacific as foundation members, along with Japan Airlines, Finnair and as of last week, Malaysia Airlines.

With the Malaysian flag carrier on board, you can now fly direct to Kuala Lumpur from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth – with onwards legs to major cities including London, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Mumbai – while earning Qantas Frequent Flyer points and status credits.

As with other Oneworld partner airlines you can book MAS flights through Qantas and also turn your frequent flyer points into reward seats and upgrades.

Malaysia Airlines has no premium economy cabin, though, so you'll need plenty of points to make the jump from economy to business class.


Next on Oneworld's list is Qatar Airways, the first of the big three Gulf airlines to sign up with an alliance.

Competitor Star Alliance has its own A-list roster including Singapore Airlines, Air New Zealand, Lufthansa, Thai Airways and United-Continental.

Ansett Australia was part of the Star family until it collapsed in late 2001, taking with it untold millions of frequent flyer points belonging to Aussie travellers.

Rounding out the trioka is SkyTeam with Korean Air, China Southern, Air France and US carrier Delta in its corner.

Points and perks

Alliances are quick to spruik their benefits. There's seamless travel on a single ticket, even when you're hopping between several airlines, while your luggage (at least in theory) follows faithfully along from plane to plane.

You can earn frequent flyer points with your chosen partner airline even when travelling on another alliance member's metal, and you can use them to snare free seats and upgrades on those other airlines.

Then come on-the-ground goodies such as access to almost any lounge run by any partner airline, and status-based privileges like a higher checked luggage allowance.

While that all sounds pretty appealing, many airlines are picking their own dance partners rather than joining one of the three alliances and inheriting its membership like a clutch of foster-children.

Virgin Australia has adopted a DIY approach, forging close partnerships with Air New Zealand, Singapore Airlines, Etihad and Delta.

Virgin Australian chief John Borghetti says it's all about choosing airlines based on 'best fit' principles to strategically build Virgin's international network.

And across this network you can make multi-airline bookings, earn and burn frequent flyer points, enjoy reciprocal lounge access ... in other words,  the same core benefits of a formal alliance.

Qantas's each-way bet

The forthcoming Qantas-Emirates hook-up is another example of a bilateral buddy-system built around the needs of each airline, and sees Alan Joyce cannily put a dollar each way in the alliance game.

Qantas retains Oneworld membership while stitching up a bespoke partnership with Emirates, which stands steadfastly independent. Emirates president Tim Clarke shuns formal alliances as "gang warfare" on a global scale.

"I'm so opposed to alliances because I believe they distort and channel and direct for the greater good of the alliance thing, rather than the consumers that are driving it all," Clarke explained in an interview last year with aviation industry website FlightGlobal.

"There is actually room for us and our way of doing things, and the way they do. I'd rather work with all these airlines on an independent basis, and that's what we do."

Understandably, Oneworld CEO Bruce Ashby has a different opinion.

"We don’t bind anybody's hands," Ashby says. "That wouldn’t be good for us, our members or the travellers. Look at Qantas-Emirates. There’s a business niche and a need that Qantas wants to fill. Emirates is an excellent partner and Oneworld didn't have somebody who could step into that gap. That doesn't hurt us, and it helps Qantas, which is is one of our members, and that’s what we’re about."

How significantly do airline alliances shape your travel plans, and which do you rate as the best alliance of The Big Three, or are they becoming less relevant?

David Flynn is a business travel expert and editor of Australian Business Traveller.

Twitter: @AusBT