Airline alliances you've never heard of

With the three main partnerships accounting for just over half of the global annual passenger traffic, it’s easy to forget that other options exist. Key Aero examines the lesser-known alliances that live in the shadow of ‘the big three’ 

Airline alliances have been around since the 1930s when Panair do Brasil and its parent organisation, Pan American World Airways, agreed to exchange routes to Latin America. 

Pan Am
The first airline alliance was between Pan Am and its subsidiary Panair do Brasil in the 1930s. Aviation Image Network/Bailey Collection

The first large pact between two rival carriers came in 1989 when Northwest Airlines and KLM signed a substantial codeshare agreement.

Northwest Airlines KLM
This Northwest Airlines DC-10 was painted in a hybrid livery to promote the partnership between it and KLM. Wikimedia Commons/Paul Spijkers

The benefits of joining an alliance for an airline usually consist of cost reductions from the sharing of sales offices, maintenance facilities, operational staff etc. The advantages for the traveller include lower prices, more destinations, shorter travel times as a result of optimised transfers and a wide range of airport lounges and frequent flyer programme integration. 

Virgin Group
In 2010, Richard Branson, the chairman of Virgin Group announced his intention to setup a fourth alliance. This idea was later dropped. Aviation Image Network/Simon Gregory

Star Alliance – which is the largest in the world – was founded in May 1997 and currently has 26 full members and 40 affiliates which in total carried 762.3 million passengers last year. The organisation’s carriers share airport terminals and paint some of their aircraft in special liveries. In total, the operators serve 1,290 airports in 195 countries on more than 19,000 daily flights. 

Star Alliance
Star Alliance has its own special livery which member airlines apply to some of their fleets. Aviation Image Network/Bailey

Founded in June 2000, SkyTeam is the second biggest alliance when measured by annual passenger count after its topped 630 million in 2019. The Amsterdam-based organisation has 19 members that together, fly to more than 1,150 destinations in more than 175 countries, operating 14,500 daily flights. 

Like Star Alliance, SkyTeam also has its own custom liveries. Aviation Image Network/Bailey

The third major alliance is oneworld, which was founded in February 1999. Based in New York, the group has 13 members and 12 affiliates. The alliance is popular with flag carriers and is home to British Airways, American Airlines, Qantas, and Japan Airlines just to name a few. The organisation carried 530 million passengers last year. 

Vanilla Alliance 

Formed in September 2015, Vanilla Alliance is an airline group setup to improve air connectivity within the Indian Ocean region by facilitating more attractive fares and optimised codesharing. The intergovernmental organisation Indian Ocean Commission, which represents the region, decided an alliance should be formed in May that year and the five founding members met to sign the agreement. 

Air Mauritius
Air Mauritius is one of the five members of Vanilla Alliance. Aviation Image Network/Simon Gregory

The participants include Air Austral, Air Madagascar, Air Mauritius, Air Seychelles and Int'Air Îles. With a combined fleet size of 56, Vanilla Alliance carries more than two million passengers each year to 89 destinations in 26 countries. 

U-FLY Alliance 

With five members, U-FLY Alliance is the world’s first pact of low-cost carriers. Formed in January 2016, its partners include Eastar Jet, Lucky Air, Urumqi Air and West Air. 

Lucky Air
Lucky Air is a Chinese low-cost carrier founded in June 2004. Wikimedia Commons/Byeangle

The group was formed to help small airlines in China grow larger without having to merge and become one company. Upon its founding, the four original members – which included HK Express – were all part of HNA Group. 

In 2017, the five members offer capacity for 44 million seats annually to 18 countries, 149 airports with a total fleet comprising 129 aircraft. By 2020, the roster had grown to 218 examples. 

Value Alliance 

The largest of the ‘other’ alliances – Value Alliance was formed in May 2016 and like U-FLY, consists of only low-cost carriers. The organisation boasts six full members which last year carried 92 million passengers to 183 airports in 30 countries. 

Cebu Pacific
Cebu Pacific is a 32-year-old Philippine low-cost airline. Aviation Image Network/Bailey

Its current members include Cebu Pacific, Cebgo, Jeju Air, Nok Air and Scoot. NokScoot, Tigerair Australia, Tigerair and Vanilla Air are all former participants. 

The alliance offers passengers the ability to book flights with all six carriers through each partner website, and to create bookings across the Asia-Pacific region through a single booking. 

Accounting for just 4% of the global airline passenger traffic, these three alliances are tiny compared with ‘the big three’, but while they aren’t on the same scale, they offer both member airlines and passengers the almost the same benefits.