SkyTeam is the second largest airline alliance, formed in 2000 with its head office in Amsterdam. Founding members were AeroMexico, Delta, Air France and Korean Air. Originally starting in third place behind Star Alliance and OneWorld, SkyTeam has grown exponentially and in 2010 overtook OneWorld. Like the other two alliances, SkyTeam was formed to co-ordinate the marketing, timetables and operations of traditional legacy airlines with a view to sharing passengers and reduce operating costs by buying in bulk. The main benefit for customers is the integration of frequent flyer programmes. In 2001 Czech carrier, CSA Airlines joined. In 2004 Continental, KLM and now defunct American carrier Northwest joined. In 2006 SkyTeam was embraced Russia’s largest airline Aeroflot and a year later Spain’s Air Europa, China Southern and Kenya Airways. In 2009 Continental left following plans to merge with Star Alliance member United but was replaced by Alitalia. In 2010 Romania’s TAROM and Vietnam Airlines were admitted and in 2011 China Eastern and China Airlines joined. Saudi Arabian Airlines and Lebanon’s MEA are scheduled for admission later this year. SkyTeam also have a cargo division and many affiliate members are for all intense and purposes de facto members, such as New Caledonia’s Aircalin which used Air France’s Flying Blue loyalty programme. SkyTeam is particular strong in Continental Europe and east Asia and its weakest presence is in Latin America. Member airlines have systematically painted selected planes with SkyTeam logos which are now a common sight at most airports. SkyTeam is trying hard to recruit prestigious carrier Etihad and would like to poach Virgin Atlantic from Star Alliance.
Membership of SkyTeam does not indicate anything about the service available on individual airlines. At the top end passengers in all classes on China Airlines and Korean Air will be thrilled by the excellence of on-board service, while member airlines including Aeroflot and Delta who deliver underwhelming service at the best of times. Service on-board varies so much, it pays to check carefully what each airline offers. Etihad’s reluctance to join any alliance partially stems from the fact they will be in the same club as dubious airlines like Air Europa and Aeroflot.
Despite SkyTeam being the second largest airline alliance their global network does contain a few gaps. In Europe there are no SkyTeam carriers from the UK. North America is extensively covered by giant carrier Delta and AeroMexico, but the rest of Latin America is a SkyTeam no-go zone. The Indian sub-continent lacks a SkyTeam member and except for small but charming carrier Aircalin, the Pacific lacks any members. The centre of gravity for SkyTeam has definitely shifted towards east Asia with the member airlines dominating China, Taiwan, Vietnam and South Korea.
While SkyTeam exists primarily to reduce operating costs for airlines by bulk buying there is little coordination in ticket prices my members. In fact, in most places this would be illegal. Therefore it pays to check with individual carriers as prices vary widely. What can be said is SkyTeam ‘usually’ provide middle of range fares. Round-the-world fares are offered by most airlines and will use exclusive SkyTeam airlines wherever possible. Round the world tickets are the best value, but designed for backpackers or budget travellers with plenty of time up their sleeve.
The is absolutely no uniformity of catering amongst SkyTeam airlines. China Airlines, Vietnam Airlines, Korean Air and Saudi Arabian Airlines all provide excellent catering in all classes while Delta provides some of the worst in the sky. On domestic US flights passengers will receive nothing. Most airlines are in the middle and very unmemorable.
The legacy airlines of SkyTeam have a wide variety of entertainment systems available. China Airlines, Korean Air and Saudi Arabian Airlines have invested in top end seat back entertainment systems while some members are either too small to invest in such systems or are getting around to it slowing. Therefore entertainment choices will vary and there are no real SkyTeam benchmarks.
All SkyTeam airlines will interline baggage, which means that bags will theoretically transfer from flight to flight if passengers are transferring, however standards vary greatly. Most baggage problems have more to do with conditions prevailing at individual airports than with airlines. Consequently in airports where standards and pay for baggage handlers are low, the treatment of baggage is low.
Amongst SkyTeam members are some of the world’s best premium passenger services however most provide a middle-of-the-road product. Taiwan’s China Airlines, Korean Air and Saudi Arabian Airlines all have exceptional on-board and ground services for premium passengers together with luxurious lounges, while most airlines including Delta, Air France, KLM, Alitalia and AeroMexico have functional premium cabins and lounges designed for genuine businessmen on frequent travel. Clearly SkyTeam do have minimum standards in this area as all airlines offer some premium products but it pays to check carefully with the individual carriers.
The variation in quality of Economy Class for SkyTeam members differs from fantastic to ho-hum. There are no truly appalling Economy Classes on any airline so the SkyTeam brand name does not particularly stand for anything.
As far as passengers are concerned airline alliances like SkyTeam are all about synchronising frequent flyer schemes. Genuinely global frequent flyers typically have one membership for each airline and it particularly makes sense to do so in the US where all three alliances have an equal presence. There is little point in joining two SkyTeam frequent flyer programmes as points will be split and it will be difficult to rise from bronze to silver to gold. At gold the benefits result in passengers being able to use all lounges of any airline, extra baggage and a greater likelihood of an upgrade. There are some excellent frequent flyer programmes amongst SkyTeam members with Korean Air’s Skypass and Flying Blue, used by Air France, KLM, Air Europa, TAROM, Kenya Airways and Aircalin are the two best schemes with Delta’s SkyMiles not far behind. Some schemes are pretty pitiful and need development such as Aeroflot’s Bonus scheme. The good news is a single membership can be used on any SkyTeam airline.
Airline corporate cultures are typically very brutal and often despicable. Most airline executives in the West believe improvements in the balance sheet can only be made by making cuts and reducing services, while generally Asian and Middle Eastern airlines have a different view. They believe by improving services they will attract a more profitable clientele. So amongst SkyTeam members are executives who believe in slashing, while many others believe in upgrading. The bottom lines speak for itself. The slashers are in financial strife and losing market share to the improvers who are making money.
SkyTeam, like the other airline alliances, require member airlines to give a high priority to safety and maintenance as the reputation of the entire organisation is at stake. While variations in standards exist, passengers can rest assure that they will not be flying on a plane held together with rubber bands and sticky tape. Aeroflot, the airline with the most horrifying track record in aviation has enormously improved since joining SkyTeam and is now little different from anyone else, for example. Many members needed to lift their game to get into the club.
SkyTeam is an airline alliance with particular strength in east Asia and Europe set up to help legacy airlines survive in the cut-throat competition of the 21st Century. There is not much in it for passengers.
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