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Friday, May 25, 2007
The brightest Star in the sky

Last week I was in Copenhagen at the tenth anniversary celebration of Star Alliance.

I remember when Star was announced in 1997, with the five original member planes parked in a star format at Frankfurt Airport (just in case you have forgotten, the original five were Lufthansa, United, Thai, Air Canada and SAS).

One of the first reasons for Star was to allow airlines to co-operate and offer seamless operations without having to go through cumbersome takeovers and mergers which back then seemed impossible because of treaties affecting nationality which could cause carriers to lose routes.

When I was asked to take part in Copenhagen, I did so readily. I wanted to meet the two men who were the driving force behind Star; Jan Stenberg was the Chief Executive of SAS and Jurgen Weber was head of Lufthansa at the time of the birth of star. I wanted to know whether the chiefs had any idea of what they were starting. For instance would oneworld and SkyTeam would ever have come about if Star Alliance hadn’t started the trend?

Jurgen’s view is that the other alliances would probably not have got together with the speed that they did after Star formed. It was an unseemly rush to build alliances before any decent airline was left outside. In the end this is a moot point; Star did form and the others followed.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Jan of SAS still believes that the alliances are still relevant even though airlines like KLM/Air France and Lufthansa/Swiss have found clever ways to merge without losing their routes. They point out there are still large parts of the world not covered by open skies agreements.

All of which brings me to whether as a business traveler I think the alliances are such a good thing. Today 47 airlines are full members of one alliance or another (17 for Star Alliance, 10 for oneworld and 10 for Skyteam).

There has to be a pretty compelling reason for you not to be on alliance metal; for instance my trip to Croatia next week, when the timings are just simply wrong or the failure of Star to have a non-stop between London and New York - scandalous for trans-Atlantic travelers (United sold the route to Delta and leased the slot to Air Canada last year).

But how many member airlines are too many ? Star says it’s not the United Nations of the airline world, although it’s starting to look rather like that, with so many members. Star believes there is geographical room to grow where the alliance is ill served, such as India or Latin America.

That may be true, but with more airlines come more members, more golds, and more competition for airmile tickets or upgrades. In other words, as Groucho Marx put it so wonderfully, “I wouldn’t want to be a member of a club that would have me as a member.”

If everyone is Star Gold, or OneWorld Emerald, is this a prize worth having ?

Anyway, in the end, which benefit do you most prize from your alliance?

For the record, I prize in the following order:

  • Earn and Burn on Star Alliance airlines.

  • Priority check-in.

  • Priority boarding (I can fill up the overhead before everyone else gets there).

    The rest – dedicated phone lines, wait-listing on sold out flights, supposed-recognition - frankly don’t add up to much once you are traveling away from your home carrier.

    Do join in. Use our poll and vote for your favorite benefit. And whichever alliance you are a member of, I think we can all toast the Star tenth anniversary celebration. It did re-write the rules on flying, and started something that frankly, is unstoppable. Happy Birthday, Star Alliance.

    (For the record and for my neutrality, CNN Standards and Practices forbids us from accepting fees for such engagements. I did not seek nor was I paid a fee to take part).

CNN International anchor Richard Quest shares his thoughts and opinions on the world of business travel.
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