What Is An Airline Alliance? (2024)

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You may have noticed (but not fully understood) that some airlines seem to be grouped together while others stand alone. You might have even noticed that flights you’ve booked with one carrier might’ve been operated by another or that an itinerary booked through one airline actually involved flights through multiple carriers. This is because of airline alliances. But what exactly are these airline alliances and, more importantly, how do consumers benefit from them?

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Airline Alliances: Defined

Airline alliances are partnerships between or among airlines. Within these collaborations, airlines can share resources, pick up or extend partner routes and even offer the ability to earn and redeem miles through each others’ rewards programs. There are three major airline alliances: SkyTeam, Star Alliance and Oneworld. Each has different partner airlines.

You may have benefitted from an alliance without even realizing it. Unless you set out to intentionally maximize your benefits, some of the benefits of these alliances are already integrated into the consumer experience. Here are some of those specifics.

Codeshare Flights

Have you ever flown an itinerary that was booked through one airline but operated by another? You can thank an airline alliance agreement. Codeshares allow customers to book a larger variety of flights directly through one airline than that airline operates by itself. This means long-haul or multi-connection tickets can be booked all the way through with the same airline, even though the flights may be operated by multiple airlines.

Going somewhere your airline can’t quite get you? Does your airline not have a flight along one leg of your journey that works for your schedule? One of its alliance partners might. Instead of booking multiple itineraries, you can book one with multiple airlines that are partners.

For example, if you want to fly from Denver (DEN) to Tokyo (NRT) via San Francisco (SFO), you can book that entire itinerary with United even though the SFO to NRT leg will be operated by All Nippon Airways (ANA). Since United and ANA belong to the Star Alliance, you can book with either company without the hassle of managing two separate itineraries.

Points and Miles

Similar logic that informs codeshares informs the earning and spending of points and miles. Just like Star Alliance makes booking a Tokyo trip itinerary through United possible even though one leg is operated by ANA, the collaboration also allows you to earn United MileagePlus miles on the ANA leg of the ticket.

Furthermore, it’s possible to spend MileagePlus miles to book an itinerary that includes a flight on ANA or any other United partner airline—providing that award flights, which are often capacity controlled, are available.

Partnerships like this help members build miles in one currency instead of stocking up miles in several currencies. A single miles currency may be ideal if you’re working toward a specific redemption. Having a few thousand United miles and a few thousand ANA miles wouldn’t do much in terms of redemption value, but the opportunity to earn and redeem one currency among multiple airlines is incredibly beneficial to a member looking to earn a free flight faster.

Shared Benefits

Not only is it possible to redeem your miles for flights on partner airlines, but membership status offers benefits across multiple airlines within an alliance too. With Star Alliance, for example, members who have status within an individual airline’s frequent flyer program will enjoy a similar level of Star Alliance status and can benefit from some of the same luxuries when flying with the other member airlines of the same alliance.

One specific example is that members with Star Alliance Gold status can take advantage of Star Alliance lounges in airports around the world. There are slight variations to the lounge access policy depending on which airline you earn status through, but as a Star Alliance Gold member, it’s possible to access most Star Alliance Gold lounges.

Shared Service

Perhaps the most important aspect of an alliance is the centralization of customer relations. Flying multiple airlines with multiple codes can cause a major headache if something goes wrong in the middle of your journey—especially when the airlines don’t communicate with one another.

Alliances enable airlines to communicate and operate with centralized customer relations such that when things go wrong, one airline’s customer relations can adjust, fix, rebook or otherwise repair the itinerary with minimal hassle.

For instance, you may decide to speak with United’s customer service if things go awry with the theoretical DEN to SFO leg of the Denver to San Francisco to Tokyo itinerary, but you can also speak to them if you have issues with the ANA-operated SFO to NRT leg.

This means you don’t have to communicate directly with ANA, or even with Star Alliance headquarters in Frankfurt—ANA is automatically made aware of what’s happening with the entire itinerary because of its partnership with United. This streamlined approach benefits each airline and you as a customer by reducing the workload all around—it’s working smarter, not harder.

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The Three Major Airline Alliances

We’ve mentioned Star Alliance, but there are three main global alliances and a handful of smaller ones. The other two major alliances are SkyTeam and Oneworld, but other airline partnerships exist. Understanding these alliances can be helpful when booking travel, redeeming points or leveraging your points and miles earning potential.


Founded in 2000, SkyTeam started with a partnership between Delta Air Lines, Air France, Aeroméxico and Korean Air. SkyTeam has grown into a partnership between 20 airlines worldwide, operating routes to 1,000-plus destinations within 160-plus countries.

Star Alliance

With an impressive 26 members, Star Alliance was founded in 1997 by Lufthansa, Air Canada, United Airlines, Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) and Thai Airways. Today it services 1,200-plus airports (even more with their connection partners) and is the largest airline alliance.


Founded in 1999 by American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Qantas and Canadian Airlines (which later merged with Air Canada and subsequently joined Star Alliance), the Oneworld alliance is the smallest major airline alliance but now stands strong with 14 airlines—soon to be 15.

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Bottom Line

If you’ve flown before, the names of these alliances might be familiar. Now you’ll have the tools and understanding necessary to take advantage of these alliances and the shared benefits they offer when booking your next flight.

What Is An Airline Alliance? (2024)
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