CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Star Alliance has had a good month, and United Airlines has been one of the main beneficiaries.
In a year when a principal theme for legacy carriers was global expansion -- to China, India, Europe and Africa -- the largest of the air alliances had a December to remember, formally adding two major Chinese airlines and announcing that a big Indian carrier will also join.
United CEO Glenn Tilton applauded the arrival of Air China and Shanghai Airlines into the alliance in a taped message to employees last week. "It is difficult to overstate the importance of these two Chinese carriers for United and the continued growth of our services to China," he said.
Air China, one of three state-owned carriers in China, is based in Beijing, while Shanghai Airlines competes with state-owned China Eastern in Shanghai. United, a unit of
, operates five daily flights between the U.S. and China, serving both Beijing and Shanghai.
The welcoming ceremony for the Chinese carriers, held in Beijing, was chaired by Tilton. It "received significant media coverage in China, and has been an opportunity for United to really demonstrate our presence and leadership in Star and in the China market," Mike Whitaker, United senior vice president for alliances, said during the same taped message.
Meanwhile, Air India became the first Indian airline to join an alliance. It recently merged with Indian Air, the country's leading domestic carrier, and has orders for 111 new aircraft.
Experts say Star Alliance made significant gains this month, but ample opportunities remain for its two competitors, Oneworld and SkyTeam.
"If Star is roping in airlines in the two fastest growing markets in the world, it's huge," says consultant Robert Mann. "But there are lots of airlines in China, and there will be more names that will become important. In India, Air India and Indian Air historically have the biggest market share, but you also have fast-rising contenders like Jet, which will be a real prize for somebody."
Consultant Henry Harteveldt says Star ranked ahead of its counterparts even before its moves into China and India. United and
, another Star member, both benefit from the Chinese additions, he says. Not only will both have China routes once US Airways adds Philadelphia to Beijing service in 2009, but Air China already flies to Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco.
"The U.S. carriers can work to coordinate fares and schedules in San Francisco and Los Angeles," he says.
Among Oneworld carriers,
American Airlines boosted its China access in January, moving into the Japan Air Lines terminal at Tokyo's Narita Airport.
From Narita, JAL serves more than 85 markets, mainly in Asia.
"We have a very robust codeshare relationship with Japan Air Lines, and now connections for customers going to China or other locations in Asia are faster and easier than ever before," says American spokesman Tim Smith.
Oneworld also includes Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific and Dragonair, which serves 22 destinations in China. As for India, Jet code-shares with American on flights from several U.S. gateways and from Brussels, where connections with Jet are available. "It looks like Jet will go to Oneworld," Harteveldt says.
The third alliance, SkyTeam, offers China service through the Narita hub operated by
, while Northwest passengers can access India via joint venture partner KLM.
Additionally, SkyTeam welcomed China Southern in November. "As the largest carrier in the People's Republic of China, China Southern will extend SkyTeam's Asian network," SkyTeam said, in a prepared statement.