Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 20, 2009

So What Airline Club Do You Belong To?

On the wings of Horus

The lead editorial/feature in Horus, the in-flight magazine of EgyptAir has an air of controlled excitement about it; this is after all the management talking. In this particular case it is important for EgyptAir to get the “imminent” good news out, but at the same time not sound too over-enthusiastic. It’s kind of like getting “this close” to the big break but at the same time not wanting to tempt fate.

Here’s what it’s all about.

In October 2007, just after celebrating its diamond anniversary, EgyptAir was invited to apply for membership in the club. The club in question is the Star Alliance group of airlines, the world’s largest.

It’s a big move for EgyptAir, or for any airline that has not always been considered to be playing in the big leagues. However, it is important also to point out that EgyptAir has been flying since 1932 and was the first airline in all of Africa and the Middle East to begin operations. And in contemporary terms — important given the geopolitics of the world today — EgyptAir will be the first Arab airline to join the Star Alliance.

As the world continues to evolve from a global business perspective and create all kinds of borderless alliances and economic partnerships, airline alliances are powerful entities. A small national airline, or indeed regional airline, that gets accepted into a particular club stands to gain a lot of advantages. And what’s good for the other members of the club is good for my airline … or yours.

In case you weren’t aware, there are three airline alliances in the world today: Star Alliance, Oneworld, and Skyteam. And about two thirds of all airline passengers on the planet fly, often by conscious choice, on a carrier that is affiliated with one of these big guys.

So why did EgyptAir make a pitch to Star Alliance to join the club? According to Atef Abdel Hamid, Chairman and CEO of EgyptAir Holding Company, the company engaged in an intensive study of the airline alliance marketing strategy and decided the following:

“Simply, EgyptAir realized that it was not realistic for a carrier to work separately in a very complex and changing environment, given the trend of airlines joining huge entities.”

I guess it’s a question of getting in when you can. But being accepted as a member of the club is not all that easy. The Big Alliances do a very careful vetting of the prospective member, and according to Star Alliance CEO Jaan Albrecht, it has a lot to do with what the new member brings to the table in terms of destinations that other alliance members don’t serve. Obviously safety records, service, the airlines business plan, and other quality factors play a role, but I suspect that once those “other” criteria are confirmed, it’s more about the bottom line… for all the partners. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em … or get them to join you.

And what Egyptair can offer its prospective partners is a Middle East hub in a Middle East country that is relatively stable, one of the most important tourism destinations (in terms of human civilization) in the world, and an airport that is strategically-geographically well located.

Expanding global business and marketplaces, as well as tourism — a little bit chicken and egg — is happening everywhere on the planet, even in the numerous countries of the Middle East. (All of them by the way are not in a state of war nor are they “traveller-beware” destinations — as one might assume if you only watch CNN.) Jordan, for example, which I visited recently is a magnificent destination and a modern country (not without its problems of course); but a country that describes itself as the “peace in the middle of the East.”

So what’s in it for the passenger when it comes to airline alliances?

Well, first of all, let me say that my wife and I travelled from Toronto to Cairo on Lufthansa (a Star Alliance member) by way of Frankfurt. We did our homework carefully, looking at all the possible airlines and routes — assessing especially crucial items like flight times and layover times. The YYZ-FRA-CAI Star Alliance route (Frankfurt is such an easy-on-the-nerves airport) was simply the best. For example, as most airlines leave Cairo for the return flight to Europe and elsewhere about 5:00 am in the morning, we were able to catch a 10:00 am flight that got us home to Toronto in the early evening. And one leg of that route (Cairo to Frankfurt) was on EgyptAir.

And here are the other principal advantages of joining the club:

(a) In an airline alliance routing you normally do not have to change terminals when changing flights at stopover destinations. And usually you arrive in the same terminal and just walk from one gate to the next. By the way, in the business they call this “Move Under One Roof.”

(b) If you are a Business or First Class customer, you have combined alliance lounges (therefore more of them); currently there are 666 Star Alliance lounges worldwide, as well as combined lost luggage facilities. (I hesitate to mention the latter, but we have to be “real” about this.)

(c) Routing schedules are often much better coordinated, which was our Toronto-Frankfurt-Cairo situation, with shorter layovers. But when researching or booking online, it is incumbent on the passengers to work a little harder and read the fine print, in order to “customize” their routing preferences.

(d) And we must not forget airline points, as problematic and tricky as they can be. I’m with Air Canada’s Aeroplan, but get points when I fly a Star Alliance carrier.

(e) I have been told (but it needs more research) that alliances can also benefit from economies of scale to negotiate fuel prices, for example, with suppliers and even aircraft manufacturers. One would hope (assume?) that these cost benefits would be passed on to customers. (Anyone want to do some research on that and get back to me?)

Integrated infrastructure, connectivity, and consistency can result in a happier camper

I love to travel. However, I am not wild about flying or, as a friend said to me recently, of being “subjected to the indignities” of travel. I expect many of us understand what he means. However, the more I fly, the more I understand how, all things considered, I might just be able “to work the room” a wee bit more in order to get hither and yon a touch more efficiently and with less wear and tear on my psyche.

Post scriptum

(a) The next test of my Star Alliance routing is Slovenia; Toronto to Amsterdam to Ljubljana. We will do this on Air Canada, followed by Adria Airways, Slovenia’s national airline and a Star Alliance regional partner. I’ll let you know how it goes.

[UPDATE: It went well. Seamless connection.]

(b) Horus. What a great name for EgyptAir’s in-flight magazine! There were actually two principal deities by the name of Horus in Ancient Egyptian Religion, as well as some minor ones. Horus was represented as a falcon and the name is thought to connote the “high one” or “he who is above.” In terms of the mythology, he is associated with flight, the sky, and kingship because he was the son of Hathor the sun god. The cult of Horus lasted for thousands of years.

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