Why airline alliances are good for fliers

The Star Alliance’s 15th birthday this month reminds me that a global airline alliance is one of the most fascinating concepts in the history of commercial aviation. It’s also an example of the airline industry’s creative thinking aimed at increasing revenues. However, unlike some of the questionable practices I described in “Decoding Air Travel,” this one has dramatically improved the customer experience.

It’s fascinating for me personally, because it combines my two passions and areas of expertise, international affairs and air travel. In fact, what alliance executive teams do every day is nothing short of diplomacy. International negotiations and dispute resolution are two of their specialties, and a big part of their duties is selecting new members, not unlike NATO and the European Union.

When Star was formed in 1997, the idea was not only to represent its members’ best interests — that’s primarily the job of trade associations — but to boost business by feeding passengers from one carrier to another in the smoothest possible way. Soon, airline diplomacy began in earnest — first among alliance members, which after all are rivals in a fiercely competitive industry, and then with airports, transportation authorities and governments around the world. The other two global alliances are Oneworld and SkyTeam…

9/23 is ‘mad as hell day’ over airline fees

Three major travel-industry organizations begin a campaign on Tuesday to compel the airlines to disclose all fees not included in the ticket price at the same time as the actual fare — and before the ticket is issued. But will such a campaign succeed?

The groups — the Business Travel Coalition (BTC), the American Society of Travel Agents and the Consumer Travel Alliance — want consumers to sign a petition to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. The text urges him “to require airlines to fully disclose their fees, whether airfares are purchased on an airline’s website or through an online or brick-and-mortar travel agency.” The organizations plan to deliver the petition to LaHood on Sept. 23, which they have designated as “Mad As Hell Day”..

Round-the-world fare mysteries revealed

Trying to figure out how airlines determine fares is utterly futile, but that doesn’t necessarily dampen my curiosity. On a recent visit to the Star Alliance headquarters in Frankfurt, I sought insights into how the global group sets its popular round-the-world fares.

I always enjoy dropping by the alliance’s modest office — not only because it’s an easy walk from the airport terminal, but also because just about everything it does is unique and pioneering in the industry. With 27 member-carriers, one would think it’s a grand operation, so I was surprised that fewer than 80 people work there…

When ‘open skies’ aren’t really open

Having covered American diplomacy for a decade now, I’ve received many “diplomatic” answers to my questions — but none more so than “Yes, but not really.” I was reminded of it by the recently negotiated Open Skies aviation agreement between the United States and Japan.

The idea of the Open Skies accords, which Washington has with more than 90 countries, was to liberalize air travel between the signatories, allowing flights from any city in the first country to any city in the second without the previously imposed government restrictions. However, the deal reached with Japan in December has one glaring exception…

Continental shows new transparency

As Washington policymakers continue to question the value of global airline alliances, Continental Airlines has shown them a benefit they most likely never suspected: increasing the transparency of sensitive data tightly held by many carriers.

That may not have been what Continental set out to do, but it’s a positive side effect. The very day it officially joined the Star Alliance last week, it uploaded on its Web site “award” seats made available by other alliance members, which its customers can book using Continental frequent-flier miles. It took “nine months of planning and implementation”…

Keeping track of your trips

How many miles have you flown over the years and how many hours have you spent in the air? What is your most-traveled route? How many times have you circled the Earth or flown the distance to the moon?

Flying today may not be as much fun as it used to be, but many travelers still find it fun to keep track of their flight history. Having such a log can also be practical, in case you need to remember when you were in a certain country, for example. For years, my main frequent-flier account was my only reference to past trips. Airline alliances make it possible to post flights on several carriers to the same account, and being loyal to one alliance pays off in terms of achieving elite status…

United risks customer loyalty over award blocking

United Airlines seems to be playing a dangerous game. It has implemented an “award” redemption policy that saves the carrier a lot of money but has been denounced by loyal customers as deceitful. In frustration, some of those passengers are turning their backs on United, depriving it of valuable revenue.

The customers want the airline to stop blocking “award” seats on flights operated by United’s partners in the global Star Alliance, which those carriers have made available for mileage tickets. United, however, is balking. Apparently, it saves more money by not having to pay its partners for those seats than it loses by driving some passengers away. It’s likely to continue to balk until the balance shifts. But how long will it take?…