- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2008

FRANKFURT — Jaan Albrecht is a diplomat of a peculiar kind.

International negotiations and dispute resolution are two of his specialties, but he does not work at an embassy or a foreign ministry. A big part of his job is selecting new members for the organization he heads, but it is neither NATO nor the European Union.

Mr. Albrecht, a Mexican citizen of German heritage, is the chief executive officer of the Star Alliance — a global network of 22 airlines from 20 countries. It carries 29 percent of the world’s airline traffic.

Most people Mr. Albrecht meets during his frequent travels think of him as a businessman and a manager, but he says that, in practice, he is more of a diplomat.

“Much of what we do is diplomacy,” he said. “We try to educate airports, publics and governments about the benefits that come from a network like ours.”

Star, as it is often referred to in the airline industry, was the first group of its kind when it was founded in 1997 by United, Air Canada, Lufthansa, Scandinavian and Thai Airways. It was later followed by the One World and SkyTeam alliances.

The idea was not only to represent the members’ best interests — that is primarily the job of trade associations — but to boost business by feeding passengers from one carrier to another in the smoothest possible way.

That is where airline diplomacy began in earnest — first among the alliance members and then, on their behalf, with airports, transportation authorities and governments in 160 countries.

The carriers had to harmonize their schedules so that United passengers from Washington could easily transfer in Munich to a Lufthansa flight to Moscow with their luggage checked to their final destination.

Members of one airline’s frequent-flier program started earning and redeeming award miles on all the carriers in the alliance; gold members began getting perks like lounge access and priority check-in across the network.

All three alliances have achieved that basic level of collaboration among their members, but Star has undertaken much more ambitious tasks. Mr. Albrecht’s team is now working on creating a “common IT platform” that will synchronize the reservation and operation systems of all its member carriers.

Another innovation is Star’s “under one roof” project, which aims to group member airlines in the same terminal at airports around the world, as well as to provide passengers access to one large lounge instead of several small ones. Here, Mr. Albrecht’s diplomatic skills have been essential, he said.

“It’s not easy to get an airport like London Heathrow to restructure its terminals in order to accommodate the Star Alliance,” he said, noting that the group’s members will all move to the same terminal in 2012.

The co-habitation of all Star carriers at Tokyo’s Narita Airport has cut connection times from two hours to 45 minutes, Mr. Albrecht said. But one airport where the project has no future, because of infrastructure issues, is Washington Dulles International Airport.

“That’s a bad one,” he said. “It”s a big problem.”

Although part of Mr. Albrecht’s job is to keep the Star members happy, disputes invariably break out — after all, these are businesses that do battle in a fiercely competitive industry.

Singapore Airlines, often ranked the best in the world in various surveys, is not shy to point out its superiority to most other Star carriers, particularly those in North America.

A year ago, soon after the alliance introduced a program that allows passengers to use their miles accrued on one carrier to upgrade flights on another, United suspended its participation, citing technical reasons.

Mr. Albrecht said that Singapore Airlines was unhappy with the rates United charged its customers for upgrades on Singapore flights. The dispute should be resolved soon, he added.

Singapore Airlines has also been rumored to have threatened to leave the alliance, which it joined in 2000, to protest recent membership invitations to Air India and Egypt Air, whose reputation is less than impressive.

Mr. Albrecht denied the rumor, saying that Singapore could have blocked those invitations if it wanted to, but it joined the other Star carriers in the realization that having members in large markets like South Asia and the Middle East makes good business sense.

Air China and Shanghai Airlines are the most recent additions, with Turkish Airlines expected to join later this year. Talks have begun with TAM, the largest Brazilian carrier, to replace Varig, the bankrupt airline that was expelled last year, he said.

“We have 53 membership requirements, and an invitation is an incentive for a candidate to work hard to improve,” which is also the case with the EU and NATO, he said.

FLYING IN FORMATION

Airlines around the world are increasingly joining together in groups to feed passengers from one carrier to another, harmonize schedules and, in the case of Star Alliance, to enable common computer systems and the sharing of terminals and lounges.

Star Alliance

Members: Air Canada, Air China, Air New Zealand, All Nippon Airways (Japan), Asiana (South Korea), Austrian, BMI (Britain), LOT (Poland), Lufthansa (Germany), SAS Scandinavian Airlines, Shanghai Airlines (China), Singapore Airlines, South African Airways, Spanair (Spain), Swiss, TAP (Portugal), Thai Airways, United Airlines, US Airways.

Regional members: Adria (Slovenia), Blue1 (Finland) and Croatia Airlines.

•Annual passengers: 455 million

•Daily departures: 17,000

•Countries served: 160

•Airports served: 897

SkyTeam

Members: Aeroflot (Russia), Aeromxico, Air France, Alitalia, China Southern Airlines, Continental Airlines, Czech Airlines, Delta Air Lines, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Korean Air and Northwest Airlines.

Associate airlines: Air Europa (Spain), Copa Airlines (Panama) and Kenya Airways.

•Annual passengers: 428 million

•Daily departures: 16,000

•Countries served: 162

•Airports served: 841

One World

Members: American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific (Hong Kong), Finnair (Finland), Iberia (Spain), Japan Airlines, LAN (Chile), Malev (Hungary), Qantas (Australia) and Royal Jordanian.

•Annual passengers: 321 million

•Daily departures: 9,000

•Countries served: 144

•Airports served: 688

Sources: Staralliance.com; Skyteam.com; Oneworld.com


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