It’s good to have friends, especially in a cut-throat industry where competitors are often fighting for larger slices of an ever-shrinking pie.
That’s the rationale behind airline alliances – families of airlines bound by ink and contracts, and sometimes by common enemies as much as common interests.
Most Australian travellers would be familiar with Oneworld, one of the three global airline alliances.
Competitor Star Alliance has its own A-list roster including Singapore Airlines, Air New Zealand, Lufthansa, Thai Airways and United.
(Ansett was part of the Star family until the Aussie airline collapsed in late 2001, taking with it untold millions of frequent flyer points ansd leaving Star with a still-smarting gap in the Australian market.)
Rounding out the troika is SkyTeam with Korean Air, China Southern, Garuda Indonesia, Air France and US carrier Delta in its corner.
Alliances are quick to spruik their benefits. There’s seamless travel on a single ticket, even when you’re hopping between several airlines, while your luggage (at least in theory) follows faithfully along from plane to plane.
You can earn frequent flyer points with your chosen partner airline even when travelling on another alliance member’s metal, and you can use them to snare free seats and upgrades on those other airlines.
Then come on-the-ground goodies such as access to almost any lounge run by any partner airline, and status-based privileges like a higher checked luggage allowance.
While that all sounds pretty appealing, many airlines are picking their own dance-partners rather than joining one of the three alliances and inheriting its membership like a clutch of foster-children.
Virgin Australia has adopted a DIY approach, forging close partnerships with Air New Zealand, Singapore Airlines, Etihad, Delta, Virgin America and Airberlin, among others.
Virgin Australian chief John Borghetti says it’s all about choosing airlines based on ‘best fit’ principles to strategically build out Virgin’s international network.
Across Virgin's virtual network you can generally make multi-airline bookings, earn and burn frequent flyer points, enjoy reciprocal lounge access… in other words, the same core benefits of a formal alliance.
The Qantas-Emirates hookup is another example of a bilateral buddy-system built around the needs of each airline, and sees Alan Joyce cannily put a dollar each way.
Qantas retains oneworld membership while stitching up a bespoke partnership with Emirates, which stands steadfastly independent, with Emirates president Tim Clarke shunning alliances as “gang warfare” on a global scale.
“I’m so opposed to alliances because I believe they distort and channel and direct for the greater good of the alliance thing, rather than the consumers that are driving it all,” Clarke once explained in an interview with aviation industry website FlightGlobal.
“There is actually room for us and our way of doing things, and the way they do. I’d rather work with all these airlines on an independent basis, and that’s what we do.”
Understandably, Oneworld CEO Bruce Ashby has a different opinion.
“We don’t bind anybody’s hands” says Ashby. “That wouldn’t be good not good for us, our members or the travellers.
“Look at Qantas-Emirates. There’s a business niche and a need that Qantas wants to fill."
"Emirates is an excellent partner and Oneworld didn’t have somebody who could step into that gap. That doesn’t hurt us, and it helps Qantas which is is one of our members, and that’s what we’re about.”
How significantly do airline alliances shape your travel plans, and which do you rate as the best alliance of The Big Three – or are alliances on the whole becoming less relevant to you?
Follow Australian Business Traveller on Twitter: we're @AusBT