Air India is officially a member of the Star Alliance, taking its seat at the table alongside 26 other global airlines including Singapore Airlines, United, Thai and Air New Zealand.
India's Civil Aviation Minister Ashok Gajapathi Raju described the move as "a new beginning for Air India" and one which could help the ailing national carrier return to profitability by increased alliance-based bookings.
Shared frequent flyer benefits between Air India’s Flying Returns scheme and the rewards programs of existing Star Alliance member airlines are now available, including reciprocal 'earning and burning' of points plus lounge access and other perks.
Flying Returns members at the Maharajah Club or Golden Edge Club tiers now have Star Alliance Gold status, giving them access to more than 1,000 lounges across the global network.
Other creature comforts such as access to priority check-in counters, an increased baggage allowance and priority boarding and baggage delivery also apply across all Star Alliance member airlines.
In return, Star Alliance Gold members of other frequent flyer programs now enjoy those same privileges when flying with Air India.
Second time's the charm
This marks Air India's second attempt at joining the Star Alliance group as the airline coalition scrambled for a large piece of the growing Indian air travel market.
“We have said for many years that we needed a strong home carrier in the Indian market and by welcoming Air India to our Star Alliance family, we have achieved this goal,” said Star Alliance CEO Mark Schwab.
The Indian airline first signed on to Star Alliance in December 2007 but the process ground to a halt after almost four years, with the airline's application for membership suspended in July 2011.
Asked what has changed three years down the track, Schwab said today's airline is "a different Air India."
"They have been through a tough merger but they have a strong management team and they have improved their infrastructure and fleet."
Star eyes more Indian travellers
Nearly 37 million international passengers travel to and from India each year, with a third of those passengers flying on Air India and Jet Airways, Air India's local competitor which late last year sold a 24% stake to Etihad.
17% of the traffic belongs to Gulf carriers including Emirates, Qatar Airways, Etihad Airways and Air Arabia.
Star Alliance had only a 13% share of the country's total international traffic – now boosted to 30% with Air India – with rivals Oneworld and SkyTeam reportedly holding 8% each.
The remainder belongs to international airlines which are not affiliated with any of the three alliance families.
Finding an Indian partner has been troublesome for alliances.
Oneworld had pinned its hopes on high-flyer Kingfisher, which as recently as December 2011 enjoyed the the second largest share in India's domestic air travel market, but suspended the airline's membership application in early 2012 as the airline's growing losses exceeded US$1 billion.
Following a series of shut-downs, strikes and employee lock-outs, Kingfisher's aviation licence was withdrawn in October 12 and its international flying rights and domestic slots scrapped by Indian aviation authorities in February 2013.
Additional reporting by Chris Chamberlin.
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