Understanding Airline Alliances

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Understanding Airline Alliances

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Though I intended to delve into fuel surcharges today, I think the next logical step is to understand airline alliances and how you can take full advantage of them. This will help to give you a complete picture of the best way to book award tickets.

What’s an airline alliance and why is it beneficial for the consumer?

An airline alliance is an arrangement between two or more airlines agreeing to cooperate on varying levels, which includes inter-lining, code sharing and reciprocal elite benefits.

  • Inter-lining—a ticketed itinerary that includes multiple airlines, usually within the same alliance; the airlines agree to handle the passenger on all legs of the journey. Most commonly occurs when one airline will through-check luggage to your destination. Example: Flying American Airlines from Chicago to New York and then New York to London on British Airways; American and British cooperate to have your luggage (and you) reach the destination.
  • Code sharing—when two or more airlines “share” the same flight. This is what enables you to book a Delta revenue flight on an Air France website, or vice versa:
Notice the codeshare partner
Notice the codeshare partner
  • Reciprocal elite benefits—A frequent flyer with certain status on an airline within one of the alliances will have alliance status that enables the flyer to receive certain benefits amongst all member airlines.

 3 Major Alliances

OneWorld: American Airlines, British Airways, Qantas, LANTAM, Cathay Pacific, Japanese Airlines, Malaysia Airways, Qatar, Air Berlin, Finnair, Iberia Airlines, Royal Jordanian

Skyteam: Aeroflot, AeroMexico, Air France, Alitalia, China Airlines, China Eastern, China Southern, Delta Airlines, Garudo Indonesia, KLM, Korean, Saudia, Vietnam Airlines

Star Alliance: Aegean, Air Canada, Air Canada, Air India, Air New Zealand, All Nippon Airways, Asiana Airlines, Auatrian Airlines, Avianca, Brussels Airlines, Copa Airlines, EgyptAir, EVA Air, LOT Polish, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, South Afircan Airways, Swiss, TAP Portugal, Thai, Turkish, United Airlines

As you can see, different alliances provide flights to different destinations. Star Alliance, for example, is the biggest alliance by membership, and has access to nearly every continent and region in the world. So how does this help frequent miles users?

It’s quite simple. If you have miles to one member in any given alliance, you can use those miles to book awards on partner flights. Let me show you:

Redeeming your United miles on Star Alliance partner, Lufthansa
Redeeming your United miles on Star Alliance partner, Lufthansa

Sometimes you’ll need to call the airline to book the partner award, but, to their credit, the airlines are working to make all their partner awards bookable online.

Here’s a handy chart of pros/cons for each alliance.

Star Alliance SkyTeam OneWorld
Alliance Connectivity Best miles for European travels (particularly United miles); greatest access, via Europe, to Israel; excellent premium cabin airlines (All Nippon Airways, Thai) Mixed bag; Delta miles are usually not good for Delta flights, but Delta has partners with direct flights to very popular destinations in Europe (Rome, Paris, London) and Asia (Shanghai, Taipei, Beijing) Excellent use of miles (American) to travel to many destinations in Asia and South America; Great for short-hauls within regions (British Avios)
Ease of access to award flights across the alliance United and Air Canada search engines can access most Star Alliance award space Air France and Delta provide access to most SkyTeam partner award space British has access to most OneWorld alliance award space; with American you need to oftentimes call them to book. Others: Qantas
Ease of earning miles for alliance members Chase: Only 1:1 transfer partner to United; can transfer points to Singapore from all transferable point currencies. AMEX: Several co-branded Delta cards and membership rewards transfer to Delta, Air France; Citi: ThankYou points transfer to Air France Citi: Several American Airlines credit cards; Chase: Transferable points to British Airways and British Airways card
Cons Many Star Alliance partners pass on fuel surcharges; United is the exception; Inconsistent Delta low-level award availability; Air France’s website is getting better, but still has bugs. Aside from American & British Avios miles, most other OneWorld alliance miles have limited uses; heavy fuel surcharges on British for most non-intra U.S. flights
Other/Non-Alliance Partner Access (of importance) United miles provide access to Aer Lingus (Ireland) award space Delta miles provide access to Virgin Atlantic award space American miles provide access to non-alliance partner Etihad and Fiji Airways; British Avios provide access to Aer Lingus award space


Non-Alliance Partners: The Big Daddy

There are several airlines that are not part of any alliance, but they have partnerships with various alliances for revenue or miles flights. Alaska Airlines is the Big Daddy; they’re sort of like alliance agnostic and are friends with everyone.

  • Alaska Airlines—AeroMexico, Air France, American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Delta, Emirates, Fiji Airways, Hainan Airlines, Icelandair, KLM, Korean Air, LAN, Qantas

This provides access to many airlines that are not part of any alliance, most notably, Emirates and Fiji Airways. Alaska Airlines has separate award charts based on region and partner. You have to call-in many of the awards, but their search engine is solid.

There are two ways to earn Alaska miles:

  • Alaska Airlines consumer and business credit cards from Bank of America
  • Starwood Preferred Guest consumer and business credit cards from AMEX, that transfer 1:1 to Alaska.

There are several other non-alliance airlines that allow you to redeem their miles on partners, but rarely at a good value.

(Alaska Airline redemptions deserves its own post—don’t worry, it’s coming!)

Here’s a nice graphic to sum it all up:



-The Miner

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