Skyteam Throws Down the Gauntlet, Claims that at 10 Years Old They’re Better than the Other Alliances

Last week I received an email from a public relations person inviting me to come up to New York for a Skyteam press event tomorrow, celebrating the alliance’s 10th anniversary.

Unfortunately I’m pretty heavily committed tomorrow so I’m not headed up there, though they were offering lots of senior-level interviews (Skyteam’s Managing Director and their Chairman) which could have been interesting.

In person you sometimes get much better answers than in writing, where folks are much more careful and guarded. But I still shot back to them a couple of questions that are really the ones that interest me most.

View fromg the Wing: the primary consumer benefit of alliances is earning and redeeming miles on alliance partners and access to partner lounges and SkyTeam obviously provides both. But in terms of mileage redemption, SkyTeam as a whole lags behind both Star (in particular) and oneworld in opportunities to use miles for premium cabin international travel. Alliance-wide there’s not redemption access to the first class cabins of those partners which offer it, and business class inventory is on the whole tougher to get. Do you see this as a challenge/opportunity? (Or do you disagree with this statement?) And if so any plans to improve here?


The ability to earn and redeem miles has always been a key passenger benefit of alliances. It is true that there is a finite amount of space available on board each flight, and that can make finding award inventory for a specific itinerary a challenge at times. This fact of life applies to all alliances. Despite lacking the ability to add flights, SkyTeam is committed to doing what it can to improve the frequent flyer redemption benefit across all member airlines. For example, our Mileage Upgrades program enables frequent flyers to use miles to upgrade to Business Class on international flight itineraries on most SkyTeam member airlines. We continue to collect feedback and results from passengers to improve future phases of the program and we are considering an automated version, including expanded criteria for eligible flights and the ability to make and confirm requests online. Frequent flyer programs are one of the most important alliance benefits for travelers and SkyTeam continues to pursue enhancements to this program.
Bottom-line, there are only so many seats, redemption is hard (no reference to how it compares in other alliances). And then, ooh, look over there, shiny things! We’re working on our alliance upgrades! (Again, no comparative analysis vis-a-vis other programs).

View from the Wing: Are there other unique selling propositions for SkyTeam compared to rival alliances that I’m overlooking?

The basics of the three global airline alliances are the same, however we know that the passenger’s ultimate choice of airline, and hence their choice of alliances, is primarily based on where a passenger is traveling from and where they are traveling to. In other words, does the network match the need?

SkyTeam has a very robust route network. Its carriers operate from the most modern and convenient hubs across the continents. In fact, a key element of the SkyTeam alliance is the hub-and-spoke system, which provides unparalleled connectivity and an easy way for customers to travel. Because our members have complementary networks, and because SkyTeam provides faster transfers, particularly across hubs, passengers can fly on any SkyTeam member from their departure city and reach any location in the world.

Ok, now the fight is on! We’re comparing ourselves to the other alliances. Their argument: the most modern and convenient hubs, and faster transfers.

But… really? Atlanta, Paris Charles de Gaulle, Nairobi? Amsterdam is a decent place to connect, and so is Incheon, and for that matter Detroit and Memphis.

But I’m not sure I’d say they have most modern hubs with the fastest transfers. I mean, I’d put Munich and Vienna (and even Zurich and Frankfurt) up against de Gaulle any day. Almost anyone’s hubs are better for connecting than Atlanta or JFK. And who offers better connections in modern terminal space than Singapore and Cathay at their home airports?

It’s a good talking point but it doesn’t really ring true.

As someone who redeems more miles than probably anyone else, I can say that I value my miles in oneworld and Star programs more than those in Skyteam programs. I value the ability to redeem for international first class. And I value the top-end world carriers like Cathay and Singapore and All Nippon that populate the other alliences more than traveling on Korean and Air France.

Being a part of an alliance is better than not being a part of an alliance. Delta’s partnerships, with Air France and with Korean and now with Vietnam Airlines, make their miles much more valuable than they would otherwise be. But I do always come back to, “compared to what?” and compared to oneworld and especially Star, they’re a bit of an also-ran on the world airline alliance stage.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Obviously your perception of the SkyTeam alliance and SkyTeam’s perception are very different. Maybe you’re missing their point of view and thus undervaluing their offering. It seems shortsighted on your part to make claims based on perception (and I know you’ll dispute what I’m saying, again, perception).

  2. >>>Almost anyone’s hubs are better for connecting than Atlanta or JFK.

    This I don’t understand. Anything (even CDG) is better than JFK for sure. But ATL is a very efficient airport in my experience.

  3. I have seen recent reports(do not recall the website)of Delta blocking access to Korean Airlines premium class awards even when Korean showed these awards as available to other frequent flyer programs. So Delta may be joining United with its Star Net blocking style practices that deny awards on partner airlines.

  4. @Marco I don’t think it’s just perception. There are very real and demonstrable differences in award availability. And they made very specific claims about airport connecting times, I encourage anyone to look up data on minimum connecting times at Vienna and Munich and compare those to de Gaulle, for instance.

    @Bob L .. From an international perspective no airport in the US offers reasonable international-to-international connections. Personally I can’t imagine anything more convenient than Singapore or even Bangkok, and Hong Kong is pretty good. But Atlanta certainly isn’t as good a place to connect *even domestically* than Houston or Denver or even O’Hare.

  5. I agree ATL is horrible for international to domestic connections, but I find it very easy and efficient for domestic connections. With 1,000 daily departures at ATL, I don’t think DL could do much better.

  6. Gary’s favorite destination appears to be Asia, where SQ and CX are based. Access to those airlines is something he frequently writes about. And, his interest is in access to award travel in business/first class. And there is no doubt Star Alliance has served him well.

    For North Asia, paid or not, Oneworld is not great, given JAL’s business outlook. For an award, someone going to Europe or Africa is worse off on Oneworld than either Star Alliance or Skyteam. Oneworld forces you on to AA [or IB!] unless you want to take an unnecessary segment to Canada/Mexico/etc and waste time.

    And, Star Alliance looks great for award tickets because US airlines make it so easy to earn points. For Europe-based members, not so much. Points are harder to come by and harder to redeem for business/first class due to higher ratios – especially with BA.

    As to airport transit, it’s ridiculous to compare SIN or HKG to any US airport. It’s just ridiculous.

    Gary certainly has his opinion, and a rationalization for it, but remember his preferences and it is easier to understand his value prop for Star Alliance – and remember he is an admitted skeptic of Skyteam.

  7. Wow, I can’t believe that DL/Skyteam still has 2 or 3 supporters!? In comparison to the alternatives, DL/Skyteam fail miserably in just about every category. These supporters (how can anyone really be so irrational?) shift the argument to whether Asia or premium travel is relevant to them or point out some flaws in other alliances, but I challenge them to list the categories where DL/skyteam really excel. Besides personal geography (being close to a hub or specific nonstop routes), why should anyone who is just starting out and who has a choice choose dl/skyteam?

  8. At the end of the day we are still talking about award availability.From almost every publication of worth and the lions share of Deltas own customers the evidence is stacked against them for delivering fair redemption opportunity except at inflated mileage levels.I almost always ignore their promotional offerings in favor of other Domestic US airline programs as well as other international based programs.Deltas mile currency IMO is worth at least half on average of other programs.That said you will always find a percentage of satisfied customers in any program even a bad program
    I avoid Delta at all costs from my own personal experiences.Simply evil
    Sorry Delta fans 🙂

  9. The Skyteam rep does make an interesting point. He/she claims that the FFP does not actually matter to the average traveler; the destinations is what count. Is that true? For me it has been, and I am flying Skyteam indeed.

    I once made a comparison between Skyteam and A+ for my popular routes. Skyteam offers direct flights to all these destinations (Out of AMS), while with A+ I would need at least one additional segment. (Usually FRA or MUC). And at the end of the day, if I can fly to the other side of Europe in 3.5 hours on KL…why waste a day flying LH to get to the same place? So yes, the route network does play a big role in the whole thing.

    A fair point however is premium travel. Within Europe this basically does not exist on Skyteam. Well…they let you pay for business, but you get nothing extra. Skyteam as a whole is more aimed towards the masses, and Economy travel. You can even see that from their FFP rules (ie FB), where one can get the highest tier while spending less than $2000 on economy tickets.

  10. >>>>For example, our Mileage Upgrades program enables frequent flyers to use miles to upgrade to Business Class

    This made me laugh. Yes, they do offer this option, but on full-fare Y tickets only. And since in general a full-fare Y ticket is more expensive than a discount C ticket…why bother.

  11. Interesting that so many of you talk about alliances as if the US FFP were only ones that existed. To really evaluate the alliances the entire spectrum should really be viewed.

    I fly enough to have top tier on all alliances and I therefore feel I have a fairly objective view on the differences between the 3. SkyTeam is definitely the lowest in my opinion compared to the other 2. They still get some of my business purely on destinations and routes, but the majority of my travel spend goes to OW and *A! Most of the flights that go to ST are low profit for them as I often don’t choose to pay for their premium cabins that I don’t think are worth the money.

    It doesn’t surprise me at all that the ST rep talks about FFP not mattering as that is clearly the opinion of their carriers as well (DL and AF-KL are perfect examples). It is likely also much more true now that a lot of those that care about FFPs have been switching to either OW or *A.

    Also I agree with Gary on the point of airport transfers. ATL and CDG are awful for connections, not sure why they would even mention that as their selling point. You don’t even have to compare them to Asian airports.

  12. @Mike: “In comparison to the alternatives, DL/Skyteam fail miserably in just about every category.”

    And you have the gall to suggest that I am the one deflecting the topic??? Whatever. Go bury your head in the sand.

    And, just in case you don’t know, Skyteam and Delta are not synonyms.

    Quality of Airlines: Each alliance has quality airlines. Star Alliance has the most airlines so they have some top airlines, but too many airlines to provide a consistent expectation.

    Connecting Traffic: OW has MAD, but also LHR. Nothing can be said to redeem LHR. *A has a lot of hubs in Europe, but FRA is not great. MUC used to suck but has gone through construction. People love ZRH but I personally don’t. CDG is huge, AMS is always favorable. HKG and SIN consistently highly rated. Can’t speak to NRT but all 3 alliances hub there. All US hubs suck compared to international peers. Given a choice I would always connect in Europe or Asia rather than in the US.

    Route Network: All have good route networks. Skyteam lags for Australia. Oneworld lags in ATI across the Atlantic.

    Frequent Flier Programs: Oneworld is worst across the Atlantic, Skyteam lags in lounge access. Howeever in European FF programs Miles and More (*A) is worse than BA or AF/KL.

    US domestic: Star Alliance airlines frequently rated worst for service and product in domestic US travel (UA, US).

    Financial Position: BA is broke. JAL is broke. QF is not doing well. AA is about to have major labor issues. UA is broke and being bought. US is broke.

    Premium Cabins: I can’t comment on availability. I’ll defer to the experts who say ST makes less space available. I assume that means they are selling the seats as opposed to giving them away, but that is just a guess. I’ve also seen people accept ridiculously circuitous itineraries to get free seats, which I think is nice for the experience, but horribly inefficient for a traveler on vacation. If I lose an extra day each way to find a premium award seat, the value proposition isn’t that strong to me. Also, I don’t think its sustainable for airlines to keep giving away premium cabin space rather than selling it at a discount.

    Online award booking: People hate Delta’s website. There is a blogger who has written a lot of good info about how to find and book seats. Once you find the do’s and don’ts, it’s better than its competitors. In my opinion Delta’s website is far better than UA, US or AA (yet I personally think it sucks). Only CO has a better website for awards.

    Ground Services @ Hubs: I don’t place a lot of value on ground services at hubs. (spa, etc.) If you are spending a lot of time on the ground at hubs that means the alliance network is not efficient and you are wasting travel time.

    Also, personally, I think if *A kicked out UA or US, every US-based member would start trashing the United and USAirways mileage programs as the worst in the industry. They value that alliance because they get to access the international carriers. The true value of *A is access to the international carriers – in a way that OW and ST do not match (FF benefits).

    I’ll turn it back on you. Tell me every single area that Skyteam is worse than its peers. Stuff that actually matters to a traveler, as opposed to stuff like how many times you’re offered hot towels in first class.

  13. Mike, I had the same thought!

    Actually, I thought Delta was paying their PR people to post here.

    I have a friend or two that still like the “new” Delta, but I attribute it to light use on their part. Anyone that’s a medium/heavy user has switched or is in the process.

    Gary, just curious if you’d care to reveal approximately how many miles you help people use a month on average?

  14. @Bikeguy I probably help folks spend 8-10 million miles per month, all at the ‘low’ level. (Just a quick back of the envelope based on May.)

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