As Continental Airlines was being officially inducted into the Star Alliance at an October 27 ceremony at Newark Liberty International Airport, two new talking points surfaced regarding another potential new member of the alliance and possible additional members for the Atlantic-Plus-Plus international joint venture within Star.
The ceremony followed months of preparations by Continental for the first-ever transition of a major airline from one global alliance to another. Previously a member of the SkyTeam alliance dominated by Delta Air Lines and Air France-KLM, the world’s two biggest airline groups, Continental Airlines ― the world’s fifth-largest airline ― left SkyTeam at midnight on October 25.
In the summer of 2008, Continental had taken the decision to leave SkyTeam as a result of Delta’s merger with Northwest Airlines, which Continental CEO Larry Kellner said had persuaded his airline that it would be left a junior partner in SkyTeam without a substantial say in how that alliance was run.
Continental’s Star Alliance induction ceremony began with senior executives from all the existing Star member carriers and from forthcoming members Aegean Airlines, Brussels Airlines, Air India and TAM Brasil being introduced to the audience.
As the sizable group took their places at two long tables on a stage in front of the audience of airline employees, media and other guests, a massive backdrop curtain fell to reveal a Continental Airlines Boeing 757-200ER newly painted in the white-and-midnight-blue Star Alliance livery.
Arrayed on an airstair leading to the 757’s middle door were flight attendants of all the Star carriers. Although only one flight attendant from each member airline took part in the uniformed spectacle, the sheer number of flight attendants standing on the stair reminded all present just how large and powerful the oldest global airline alliance has become.
Star CEO Jaan Albrecht, United Airlines CEO Glenn Tilton, retiring Continental chairman and CEO Larry Kellner and forthcoming Continental CEO Jeff Smisek all delivered brief remarks, in what air transport industry insiders see as the most significant development for Star Alliance in several years. Not only is Continental one of the world’s largest airlines, it is also widely regarded as the best-managed and most service-oriented carrier among the five large remaining U.S. legacy operators.
During the ceremony, Tilton revealed in his remarks that the new, intra-Star, Atlantic-Plus-Plus joint venture among Air Canada, Continental, Lufthansa and United Airlines may eventually grow to six airlines.
Tilton didn’t say who the two potential new members might be, but some audience members saw Star member US Airways as a strong bet, as well as any of the Lufthansa Group’s three subsidiary carriers Austrian Airlines, Swiss International and Brussels Airlines and established European Star partner Scandinavian Airlines.
Also present at the ceremony ― but for obvious reasons not sitting at either high table ― was Pedro Heilbron, CEO of Panama’s Copa Airlines. A long-time codesharing partner and commercial ally of Continental Airlines and formerly a member of the SkyTeam alliance, Copa also left SkyTeam at midnight on October 25.
Heilbron told www.AirlinesAndDestinations.com that Copa had begun discussions with Star about possibly joining the alliance and expected a decision in the near future. If Copa didn’t join Star it would remain independent, said Heilbron. Star CEO Albrecht confirmed that the alliance had begun discussions with Copa about its joining Star, but said Star was also talking to the newly merging Avianca-Taca grouping, Copa’s biggest rival, as well.
In the 48 hours before it was inducted into Star, Continental signed bilateral commercial agreements with all of the 24 existing Star Alliance members. These agreements define the business relationships underpinning the Star Alliance brand and services, including reciprocal earning and redemption of frequent flyer miles.
In addition, Continental has already signed code-sharing agreements with four Star Alliance members ― United, Lufthansa, Air Canada and British carrier BMI. Codesharing with additional airlines in Star Alliance will be implemented in the coming months, according to Continental, which noted that codesharing facilitates marketing of interline itineraries and creates operational synergies that improve the flight-connecting experience for travelers on itineraries involving more than one airline.
“Since making the strategic decision 16 months ago to join Star Alliance, Continental has been intensely focused on making preparations for this change,” said Kellner. “For our customers, the change will be seamless and will deliver significantly improved travel opportunities.”