October 08, 2012
Credit: Photo Credit: Keith Gaskell
Jens Flottau Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
Qatar Airways is expected to finally announce it will join the Oneworld alliance on Oct. 8. Oneworld will celebrate the deal as an important milestone in the its development. The question is: what development? The past few weeks have seen fundamental change in the landscape of long-haul air travel. Qantas Airways was the first to announce a U-turn by forming a bilateral partnership with archrival Emirates while dropping a long-standing joint venture with British Airways. Etihad Airways is pushing its German Oneworld partner Air Berlin to go for a bilateral deal with Air France and put less emphasis on the global alliance. And Qatar Airways, now welcomed into the camp of its former opponents, may simply illustrate the surrender of European and Asian legacy carriers.
Increasingly, more of those legacy airlines are recognizing that they will not be able to curtail the growth of Qatar, Etihad and Emirates. Attempts to fend Persian Gulf carriers off have included limiting traffic rights, lodging complaints about state subsidization, and filing arguments against export credit support, citing unfair competition. None of the strategies worked, partly because European and Asian carriers certainly also have benefited from subsidies. Now the idea seems to be: “If you can't beat them, join them.”
But there is another underlying trend that must have all the alliances worried: Most carriers seem to prefer strong bilateral ties over the global groups that are sometimes too restrictive in allowing their members other partnerships and too demanding in terms of integration of sales tools.
In addition to Air Berlin and Qantas, TAM Brazil's experience highlights the shift. TAM is expected to exit the Star Alliance as a result of its merger with LAN. The two South American-based airlines formed the Latam Group this year. That was TAM's first decision against alliances. Its second could be that it might eschew Oneworld, even though LAN is a founding member. Becoming an independent airline would enable TAM to retain its bilateral ties with Star Alliance carriers while reaping the benefits of its merger with LAN.
Qatar Airways has been negotiating its admission into Oneworld for months. Oneworld has traditionally had a more relaxed approach toward what members are allowed to do outside of the alliance. But it speaks volumes that it has selected Qatar to strengthen its Asian operation. In a strange way, it is countering the all-but defection of Qantas to Emirates by mirroring the effort.
Admitting Qatar could also be a sign that Oneworld is not sure whether Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific Airways is going to stay for the longterm. And even if it does, the value may be limited: Cathay cannot introduce a joint venture with British Airways on the all-important London route because such an arrangement would never be allowed by the regulatory authorities. On the other hand, Cathay is tied to Air China, a Star Alliance member, through cross-ownership. Even traditionally restrictive Star had to accept this.
Etihad has an extensive network of nearly 40 bilateral code-sharing agreements that contributes around 20%—or close to $1 billion—to its annual revenues. It has abstained from alliances so far and if there was one option for the airline, it would probably be Air France-KLM's SkyTeam. That is because it is currently negotiating a code-sharing deal with Air France. Talks have been “very good and are continuing,” says Etihad CEO James Hogan.