Better alliance service for the airlines and their business travelers often means worse for vacation travelers.
The Wall Street Journal just published a story about international airline alliances’ service improvements for their passengers. However, airlines, though they have not mastered technology to satisfy all business travelers, have found ways to make traveling outside of their alliances more difficult for any traveler attempting to do so or to save money.
Stopping the masses of tourist and coach passengers from saving money and not allowing them to connect and transfer luggage on flights outside the alliances has been successful. So, rather than operating a system for the general public, airlines have focused on creating mini-monopolies at alliance gateways. Airlines have discovered ways to squeeze travelers for more and more money when traveling internationally.
Airlines are working to make travel better for business travelers
The Wall Street Journal article focuses on business travelers who are collecting frequent flier points for status and the ability to share lounge access.
Now Star Alliance, Oneworld and SkyTeam say they are finally investing in technology that will make simple travel functions possible across their networks. Some changes have already happened, like the ability to use United’s app to get seat assignments on Singapore and Air Canada flights. Travelers will start seeing a lot more changes by the end of this year.
Travelers like how alliances let them earn and redeem their home airline frequent-flier miles on multiple carriers around the world. Other perks include shared lounge access and status recognition.
These benefits for those who are looking for convenience over price and for frequent flier status over choice of airlines are for the 13 percent of fliers who pay full fare and use business class.
The problem: Different IT systems do not work seamlessly together for business travelers
Airline alliances have for years been touted as a wonderful savings for travelers. However, they have not delivered for business travelers in convenience or for coach travelers in overall savings. Business travelers cannot easily maintain their frequent flier (FF) programs, guarantee that they are getting the correct FF mileage on flights, or receive a single boarding pass for travel. The alliance computer systems are not capable of handling the complexity of these airline partners.
That may be changing. But, coach travelers have been left in the dust and are getting less service and more problems.
Coach travelers suffer while airlines work to build business traveler satisfaction
Coach passengers are held captive by an oligopoly of three airline alliances — SkyTeam, Oneworld, and Star Alliance. The three alliances allowed to grow under DOT protection as protectors of consumer travelers used their power only to restrict travel choice for years, prop up high airfares, restrict capacity, and limit new routes.
Long before the advent of airline alliances, interline airline agreements allowed airlines to transfer baggage from airline to airline. They guaranteed passengers the ability to fly on other airlines if their airline could not get them to their destinations. Now, sadly, many of these interline agreements have been abandoned in favor of ways to squeeze more money from passengers.
Shrinking airline benefits for tourist-class travelers
For the hoi polloi travelers who are intent on saving money and choosing their own connecting flights, the alliance benefits are few.
- Passengers can no longer get a single boarding pass for flights across alliances.
- Travelers can no longer check bags across alliance airlines. This means baggage from Delta cannot be transferred to Lufthansa or to British Airways.
- Interline agreements for flight problems have been all but eliminated. No longer can many coach passengers be moved efficiently to their destinations on other competing airlines.
- Seat reservations are not possible across airline alliances.
- No alliance airline will transfer baggage to low-cost airlines.
- Families need to fight to get seats together. These battles take place during boarding.
The interline system is not broken. It is being dismantled to strengthen alliances
The growth of alliances and their anti-competitive activities need to be purged from our aviation marketplace. However, the Department of Transportation (DOT) that controls these monopolistic arrangements seems unconcerned for the average traveler. Alliance rules can make flights cost more, not less.
Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past 11 years with Congress, the Department of Transportation and industry stakeholders on travel issues. He was the first consumer representative to the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections appointed by the Secretary of Transportation from 2012 through 2018.