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How to choose your perfect flying partner

By Richard Quest, CNN
Star Alliance may have more members than its two other major competitors, SkyTeam and Oneworld. But is it the best?
Star Alliance may have more members than its two other major competitors, SkyTeam and Oneworld. But is it the best?
  • There are plenty of airline alliances to choose from but which one is best for you?
  • Star Alliance, SkyTeam and Oneworld are major players in the market
  • Pick an alliance which suits your flights and destinations and stick to it, says CNN's Richard Quest

(CNN) -- So you have just been given your first corporate travel card and told: "Go into the big world and do business." Your first big decision, after where should I go: With whom should I fly?

It used to be really simple. When taking a flight you chose your national flag carrier or whichever airline happened to be going from A to B. When there was a choice, braver hearts might be adventurous and fly an unusual airline to add a bit of local color and mystique to the trip!

But individual airlines couldn't fly to all places and suddenly the world was a small place. Code sharing came along and we found ourselves on those unknown airlines whether we liked it or not. Then, in 1997, code sharing went into overdrive and the airline alliances were born.

In the past 12 years, three big alliances have grown -- Star, Oneworld and SkyTeam which have now gobbled up 52 of the world's major airlines. For the absolute avoidance of conflict let me state straight away I have membership in all three alliances, but primarily use Star and Oneworld.

Choose the one that best suits the flights you will make and the destinations you visit. Then stick to it like glue
--CNN's Richard Quest

The Star Alliance is by far the biggest. With 27 members, it has more than the other two combined (even if four of its members are owned by Lufthansa.)

SkyTeam has 13 main airlines including the merged Air France-KLM.

Oneworld is currently the smallest with 12 members -- with BA and Iberia now owned by the same company too.

The argument over size rumbles on. In some eyes Star's size and reach is a plus -- more airlines, more flights, more destinations.

The smaller alliances never miss the chance to point out that biggest isn't always best. After all, more airlines means more members to clutter up the lounges, less chance of an upgrade, and less exclusivity when you finally make the hallowed "gold status" for having traveled so many miles.

Frankly, I find the whole size argument a bit ridiculous. The truth is when flying through any airline's main hub, for example Paris for Air France, Chicago for United, or Madrid for Iberia, you will always be toe-to-toe with a gazillion other members. Upgrades will be hard to get. Exclusivity will be for the very few uber-elite. The very nature of fortress hubs means the home airline's passengers will outnumber everyone else.

Like any family with a few dodgy characters that everyone would like to ignore, every alliance has its embarrassments -- not that they would ever admit them publicly.

Oneworld has bankrupt Mexicana in its ranks, along with Hungary's Malev which has just been re-nationalized -- again.

Star Alliance has Spanair, Lot and U.S. Airways, which can hardly be in the same category as Singapore or Lufthansa. SkyTeam probably has more also-rans than the others -- such as bailed out Alitalia -- and seems happy to accept more. For instance Garuda of Indonesia, which was banned from flying into the European Union because of safety until 2009, is about to join.

"Yes, yes, yes," I hear you tut. But which alliance do I think is the best? It's not that easy!

For a start, you are most likely to end up flying the hub carrier simply out of convenience. The home airline will have more non-stops to more destinations. In Frankfurt it will be Lufthansa and Star. In Moscow it is likely to be SkyTeam's Aeroflot and in Hong Kong, Oneworld's Cathay.

You will have to work hard if you want to remain loyal to another alliance and be prepared to fly through connecting airports.

Perhaps some guidance can be sought from the SKYTRAX airline star ratings. While no airline in any alliance rates less than 3* in the survey, if you look at 4* and 5* ratings, slight differences emerge.


7.5% rate 5* (Singapore & Asiana)

29.6% get 4*


8% rate 5* (it was one airline -- Cathay)

33% get 4*


No 5*

23% get 4*

Since the numbers involved are small it is obviously dangerous to overstate these results -- and anyway the choice of alliance is often determined by where we live and what is available.

With this in mind, the alliances' goal is to cover the world, ensuring we never have to leave their warm embrace when we travel. The race is on to "fill in the global gaps" before another alliance hoovers up the prizes.

Some countries like India are exceptionally attractive with its huge and growing aviation market. Star has invited Air India to join its ranks. Oneworld is taking on Kingfisher. SkyTeam has yet to attract an Indian carrier.

The other major fighting ground is of course China. Here, SkyTeam is in the lead. Shanghai Airlines has announced it will become part of SkyTeam under the wings of parent company China Eastern, which is already in the process of joining the alliance.

China Airlines, based in Taiwan, is also in the process of joining. All is friendly in the skies it seems. It is Oneworld that's out in the cold in China, having failed to attract a major mainland Chinese carrier to join.

Many frequent travelers now bemoan the growth of the alliances -- too many passengers and not enough perks. It is a fruitless complaint. The reality is the airline alliance is here to stay and is growing fast.

Choose the one that best suits the flights you will make and the destinations you visit. Then stick to it like glue. The alliances are here to stay.