Surely they can’t be serious – or can they?

Air India is in a mess and has been in a mess for years. With each government restructuring plan it simply gets worse. For the last few years it has been on our list of airlines to avoid and it is hard to see that changing.

The airline was supposed to be going through the process of joining Star Alliance but the alliance has clearly got fed up with the interminable delays as the airline has struggled – presumably unsuccessfully – to bring its operations into line with the other members of the alliance. A terse announcement from Star Alliance said that the application was now “on hold”. It now seems likely that Star will try to bring in Jet Airways which would be a good move since it is by far the best airline in India (though that is hardly a major compliment).

The next step for Air India was almost inevitable – a rumour that the airline is now looking to join SkyTeam. We have been saying for so long that this alliance is so desperate to grow it will take almost anyone but it is now becoming a joke. Even without Air India, it is quite obviously the alliance for airlines that cannot join either of the two proper alliances. Sadly for the couple of decent airlines in the alliance, Air India looks to be a near perfect fit.

Shock Horror! Half-decent airline joins SkyTeam!

In their rush to sign up the few remaining non-aligned airlines, SkyTeam have really been going for broke as this blog has kept pointing out. The original leading members (including Air France/KLM, Delta and Aeroflot) are no great shakes but the addition of Garuda, Aereolineas Argentinas and China Airlines has done nothing for the overall reputation of the alliance – let alone its combined safety record, which was dreadful to start with.

Now, the Lebanese airline, Middle East Airlines is set to join the alliance. Before the troubles in Lebanon, this airline was regarded not just as one of the best but also had very strong and innovative management who were much admired in the industry. Times have changed and MEA has done amazingly well to survive as a recognisable airline but it is still very much in business. Maybe not at the forefront of the business as it once was, but able to stand its own amongst the middle-rank.

Presumably, their long-standing commercial arrangement with Air France pushed them towards SkyTeam. That seems rather a shame – they deserve a place in one of the two better alliances.

SkyTeam win the prize

All the alliances have been in a rush to sign up the few remaining non-aligned airlines. Star Alliance is the biggest, One World is slightly smaller but probably has a greater concentration of quality airlines and that has left SkyTeam to try to grab any airline that is left. They have become the alliance for airlines that would not get into Groucho Marx’s club.

However, even I was shocked by the news today that Garuda will join the alliance in 2012. This airline has had the doubtful reputation of having one of the worst safety records in the world and has only just been allowed to re-start flights to Europe. The combined safety record of Air France, Aeroflot, Korean Airlines, Tarom and new members China Airlines and now Garuda is not something the alliance would wish to boast about.

SkyTeam is the least developed of the alliances in terms of offering passengers “joined-up travel”. In its desire to catch up with the two big alliances it has become a resting place for some airlines with doubtful reputations for safety, customer comfort or both. Any regular traveller would want to be a member of the frequent flyer programme of both a Star Alliance carrier and a One World carrier so they can “earn and burn” throughout the network of these alliances. Unfortunately, I cannot see much point in having a SkyTeam card at all because so many of their airlines are second, or third best in their own markets.

No Stopping SkyTeam

On Tuesday I was listening to an Argentinian friend moaning about the slow progress Aerolineas Argentinas was making in improving its standards. Chile has LAN, Brazil has TAM (the two of them are about to merge) and whilst these two airlines have done a great deal to change the dreadful reputation of South American airlines, Aerolineas Argentinas just goes on in the same old way, making fairly minor improvements. Like a lot of Argentinians, my friend is actually very annoyed about this. It is a matter of national pride. Argentina has come up in the world since the dark days of hyper-inflation, and it should be able to match or better anything Chile or Brazil do in aviation, but they are stuck with a lumbering giant.

Somehow, it was not a surprise to read the next morning that Aerolineas Argentinas is about to join SkyTeam – it has become the alliance for airlines that can’ t join OneWorld or Star Allaince.

This is actually getting out of hand. I pointed out a while ago that they now have a near-monopoly on large airlines with bad safety records (only Turkish Airlines is missing – they are in Star Alliance). Now that Garuda is improving its finances and even considering an IPO, it is surely a shoe-in for SkyTeam.

The head of a Chinese airline with a chequered financial past was quoted as saying that he would consider joining an alliances but One World is for rich airlines, Star Alliance already has a lot of members so he will look to SkyTeam.

The alliance is at serious risk of making itself look distinctly third-rate and their new recruit does not do anything to improve the image.

SkyTeam’s Incredible Safety Record

There is no stopping SkyTeam – they seem intent on recruiting every airline with a poor safety record they can find. The news that China Airlines is to join the alliance next year means that they really only need to add Cubana and a couple of Indonesian domestic carriers and they will have a full house.

Look at any table of airline accidents over the last twenty or thirty years and you will see that Aeroflot, Korean Air, China Airlines and Air France are fairly high on the list. If you adjust the figures for the size of the airline then you can add Kenya Airways and Tarom. The only major accident-prone airline missing is Turkish Airlines which, somehow, missed the grip of SkyTeam and joined Star Alliance.

Airline accidents are so rare that statistics can be misleading but they have happened sufficiently frequently at some of these carriers to suggest that they have had a genuine problem. All of them have improved  in the last few years (particularly Korean Air, China Airlines and Tarom) but it can take a long time to change the culture of a large airline. Paradoxically, Delta, one of the world’s safest airlines, and a company that commands worldwide respect for its safety culture, is also a member of SkyTeam. Delta have given considerable assistance to Korean Air and Air France in the last few years.

The Chief Executive of a mainland Chinese airline that is considering joining an alliance summed up the situation quite succinctly. “One World is an alliance of the rich airlines, Star Alliance has many members so we are looking at joining SkyTeam”

Sadly, that is the position of SkyTeam – the alliance for airlines that can’t join one of the other two.