Recently, smaller airline alliances have started popping up here and there. However, practically speaking, there are only three major airline alliances that you need to know about – Star Alliance, oneworld, and SkyTeam.
While airlines have been increasingly forming partnerships with airlines even outside their alliances, the alliances are still an important part of the air travel landscape as – besides the benefits they bring to the individual airlines within the alliance – they allow passengers to reach more destinations with seamless transfers and enjoy their frequent flyer perks across a wider variety of airlines among other things.
Below, we’ll take a closer look at the three major alliances – including their history, member airlines, route networks, and frequent flyer benefits – to try to determine which one is the best airline alliance.
Star Alliance was formed on May 14, 1997, and with its current 28 member airlines across all six inhabited continents, it is not only the first major airline alliance to have been formed, but also the largest one.
Star Alliance airlines serve a total of more than 1,300 destinations across 193 countries. As such, there are very few places where you cannot get to by using a Star Alliance airline.
The alliance was founded by five airlines – Air Canada, Lufthansa, Scandinavian Airlines, Thai Airways, and United – all of which are members of the alliance to this day.
Currently, besides the initial five airlines, the alliance counts the following airlines among its members as well: Adria Airways, Aegean Airlines, Air China, Air India, Air New Zealand, ANA, Asiana Airlines, Austrian, Avianca, Avianca Brasil, Brussels Airlines, Copa Airlines, Croatia Airlines, EgyptAir, Ethiopian Airlines, EVA Air, LOT Polish Airlines, Shenzhen Airlines, Singapore Airlines, South African Airways, Swiss, TAP Portugal, and Turkish Airlines.
The alliance also had other members such as Blue1, British Midland International, Continental Airlines, Mexicana, Spanair, US Airways, and VARIG in the past. Most of those airlines left the alliance either due to bankruptcy or acquisition by a member of another alliance.
Two of Star Alliance’s founding members – United Airlines and Air Canada – offer a wide network of domestic flights within the United States and Canada as well as international flights, especially to other destinations in the Americas, to Europe, and to Asia. They are complemented three of its newer members that joined in 2012 – Copa Airlines from Colombia, Avianca from Colombia, and Avianca Brasil – for an extensive coverage of both North and South America.
Flights within Europe and between Europe and other continents are covered well by Lufthansa Group – mainly Lufthansa, Swiss, and Austrian Airlines. TAP Portugal provides further connections to various destinations in Brasil, and Turkish Airlines offers many options for traveling between Europe and the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.
With Air China, ANA, Air India, and Asiana Airlines, Star Alliance offers plenty of connections within as well as to and from the four largest Asian economies as well.
Similarly, having the three largest African airlines – Ethiopian Airlines, South African Airways, and Egypt Air – in its portfolio allows Star Alliance to offer extensive connections to and within the continent. That is further helped by the fact that each of the three airlines is based in a different region – north, east, and south – of Africa.
The one area where Star Alliance lacks connectivity is within Australia. While airlines such as Air China, Air New Zealand, and Singapore Airlines offer flights to the country, there have been no Star Alliance airlines operating within the country since 2001 when Ansett Australia collapsed.
Frequent Flyer Benefits
There are two Star Alliance frequent flyer status levels – Silver and Gold – that the statuses of each individual airline’s mileage program map to.
The Silver status gives passengers priority on waitlists and when standing by for flights, and so is of very limited use. The Gold status – besides providing even higher priority on waitlists and stand-by lists – offers more benefits and can make travel significantly more comfortable.
Regardless of the class one is traveling in, the Gold status allows its holders traveling on a Star Alliance flight to use priority check-in counters as well as priority security and boarding lanes when available. It also gives its holders extra luggage allowance and priority treatment of luggage – meaning their luggage should be, at least in theory, among the first to be unloaded.
Finally, it allows its passengers to visit business class and Star Alliance Gold lounges.
Having been announced in 1998 and officially launched in 1999, Oneworld is the second oldest of the three alliances. It has just 13 member airlines, but thanks to some of the major airlines being part of it, it manages to cover most areas of the world fairly extensively.
Combined, the 13 Oneworld airlines serve more than a thousand airports.
Founding members of Oneworld alliance included American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Qantas, and Canadian Airlines. All of these airlines except for Canadian Airlines, which left the alliance in the early 2000s when it merged with the Star Alliance carrier Air Canada, are a part of the alliance to this day.
The remaining nine airlines that belong to Oneworld today include: Finnair, Iberia, Japan Airlines, LATAM, Malaysia Airlines, Qatar Airways, Royal Jordanian, S7 Airlines, and SriLankan Airlines.
Other than Canadian Airlines, the alliance also used to count Mexicana (which also used to be a member of Star Alliance at one point), Air Berlin, Aer Lingus, and Malev among its members in the past.
While Oneworld does not have domestic presence in Canada anymore, it offers an extensive network of flights within the United States as well as from the United States to other parts of the world thanks to American Airlines. In addition to that, LATAM provides great connectivity to and within South America.
The alliance also offers plenty of connections between Europe and Africa and the Middle East, Asia, and even Australia.
With Qantas being a member of the alliance, it is also the only one of the three alliances to offer domestic flights within Australia. Similarly, Japan Airlines provides a dense domestic network within Japan.
The two areas where Oneworld noticeably lacks coverage are Europe and China.
While it has three European members, due to the geographic location of the UK, Spain, and Finland, none of the airlines is ideal for most flights within continental Europe.
As for China, while airlines such as British Airways, Finnair, American Airlines, and Qatar Airways offer plenty of connections from China to the rest of the world, the alliance lacks a member from mainland China that would offer domestic flights.
Frequent Flyer Benefits
Similarly to Star Alliance and SkyTeam, Oneworld has its own alliance-wide frequent flyer status levels. There are three levels – Ruby, Sapphire, and Emerald – offering increasingly attractive perks.
The Oneworld Ruby status offers priority waitlisting and stand-by just like Star Alliance Silver status. On top of that, though, it also allows its holders to use business class check-in regardless of the class of service they are traveling in, and to select seats in advance in some cases.
The Oneworld Sapphire status offers, on top of the Ruby benefits, access to business class lounges, priority luggage handling, priority boarding, and extra luggage allowance.
What separates Oneworld from the other two alliances is its Emerald status level which – in addition to all of the perks above – also allows its holders to use fast track security, first class check-in area and visit first class lounges regardless of the class they are flying in.
The youngest of the three alliances, SkyTeam, was formed in 2000. Since then, it has grown to include 19 different airlines serving a total of more than a thousand airports around the world.
SkyTeam originally comprised of four airlines: Air France, Delta Air Lines, Aeromexico, and Korean Air. The following year, Alitalia and Czech Airlines joined the alliance.
The alliance expanded further in 2004 when KLM, Continental Airlines, and Northwest Airlines joined. Since then, the latter two were merged into United Airlines – a member of Star Alliance – and Delta Air Lines respectively.
Four more airlines – Aeroflot, Air Europa, Kenya Airways, and China Southern Airlines – joined SkyTeam that decade. China Southern decided to leave the alliance at the end of 2018, though.
This decade, Aerolineas Argentinas, China Airlines, China Eastern Airlines, Garuda Indonesia, Middle East Airlines, Saudia, TAROM, Vietnam Airlines, and Xiamen Air joined the alliance bringing the total membership up to its current 19 airlines. Garuda Airlines was the last airline to join the alliance, becoming a member in 2014.
Counting Delta Air Lines, Aeromexico, and Aerolineas Argentinas, SkyTeam offers decent coverage of not only the United States, but also the Americas overall. Similarly, with both China Eastern Airlines and Xiamen Air being its members, it offers a dense network of domestic flights within China.
Flights within Europe are covered quite well by Air France, KLM, Air Europa, and TAROM. The first two of those also offer extensive connections to cities around the world. Vietnam Airlines, China Airlines, and Korean Air offer a reasonable way to get around Asia.
While the alliance does not have members in North Africa, Australia and Oceania, and Japan, its other members airlines provide a link between destinations in those parts of the world and the rest of the world.
Frequent Flyer Benefits
SkyTeam has two levels of frequent flyer benefits: Elite and Elite Plus.
Passengers with a SkyTeam Elite-level status can use priority check-in desks and boarding, receive priority on stand-by lists, have access to a wider selection of seats, and even get a bit of extra luggage allowance.
SkyTeam Elite Plus members receive, in addition to all of the above, access to SkyTeam lounges regardless of the class they are traveling. They are also eligible for priority immigration, security, and transfer desk lanes, they get a seat on sold out flights, and their luggage gets handled with priority.
Summary: Which Airline Alliance Is the Best?
As you can see, while each of the alliances has a major member airline from the United States, they are also made up of very different groups of airlines – each having more coverage in one region or country than another.
Because of that, it is difficult to choose one of the three and call it the best airline alliance. Instead, before committing to either of the three, you will have to look at what airlines operate the routes you fly on the most frequently – and what alliances they belong to.
In some cases, that might leave you with very little choice – for example, if you are based in Australia, chances are you will go with Oneworld unless you live in one of the major cities and only travel internationally. On the other hand, if you live in the United States, China, or Japan, you will have more choices.
While all three alliances offer their frequent flyers more or less the same perks, the one that stands out is Oneworld. The reason for that is that while – on an alliance-wide basis – Star Alliance and SkyTeam only offer their frequent flyers access to business class lounges, Oneworld Emerald members can also use first class lounges – including the great The Pier and The Wing lounges in Hong Kong.
All that said, there is also of course the option of not sticking with any single alliance which is becoming the “right” choice in more and more cases with the decreasing mileage earning rates and growing networks of low-cost carriers.