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We have just OneWorld, but we live in different ones

May 10, 2010 1 comment

Within a few years, there will only be about five real long-haul airlines, all based around the current alliance systems. The non-alliance airlines will stop flying long-haul, or where national egos won’t allow that to happen they’ll cut down to a couple of planes on flagship routes that nobody in their right mind would use unless their ticket cost fifty quid (good example: Nigeria’s Arik Air) [*]

Once you’re in the air, the best alliance currently going is OneWorld, which features most of the world’s most likeable airlines, plus America’s least awful major one.

BA are the BBC of airlines; I’ve posted before about why I like them. In short, old-school Britishness is a good counterpart to the unpleasantness and sheer weirdness of long-haul flying.

AA aren’t as awful and generally customer-averse as the other US airlines (although they’re not good, reflecting the general impossibility of finding an airline to fly on in the US that is good. I haven’t had the chance to try Virgin America [**]. They may be an exception).

Cathay Pacific and Qantas are desperate to outperform BA for obvious, post-colonial reasons. And they do, a bit: Qantas has newer planes, because Australia is richer than the UK, and Cathay has prettier stewardesses. But the general experience across the three airlines is pretty similar.

Then here’s Iberia, who aren’t as bad as you’d expect: they’re the least worst airline with serious numbers of flights from Europe to South America, which is Useful.

Unfortunately, as I’ve posted before, British Airways spent most of the 2000s being run by an idiot. So when BA and airport operator BAA built their new terminal at Heathrow, which is OneWorld’s most important hub, they only made it big enough to accommodate BA flights – not to accommodate all OneWorld flights.

Terminal 5 is one of the best airport experiences in the world. It is architecturally stunning, it is massively useable; overall, it’s really not a bad place to pass a few hours. Or even a week. But flying into Heathrow on a OneWorld partner flight and out on a BA flight is a massive pain in the arse, and involves losing the far-from-lovely Terminal 3, and Heathrow’s terrible internal transport links.

Given that everyone’s endgame at the time T5 was being planned – even Rod Eddington’s – was to run OneWorld as an integrated airline, this is the most insanely stupid thing ever.

It means that for any long-haul journeys that don’t start or end in London, you’d do better to buy a Star Alliance ticket rather than a OneWorld ticket. And because BA and Qantas have integrated their UK-Australia routes and there’s no room to bring Qantas over, all BA flights to Singapore and Australia (so not important destinations or anything) also leave from Terminal 3, so again you’d be daft to use them or to try and transfer onto them.

The Star Alliance partners (the big ones are Lufthansa, United, Singapore and Air India) mostly aren’t as good as the OneWorld airlines, apart from Singapore, who are better. But they’ll have a single, integrated terminal at Heathrow that’s just as good as Terminal 5, as well as good hubs in Frankfurt and Singapore. So they’ll kick OneWorld’s arse on Europe-Asia/Pacific and Europe-US flights, despite offering mostly-German levels of customer service once you’re onboard.

This is what is known as “the kind of obviously stupid, even at the time, short-termist idiocy that could only be implemented by the management of a quoted UK company”.

[*] Obligatory footnote: if Jim Bliss is right about the scale of the impending oil crash, then none of the above applies. On the plus side, Terminal 5 will then easily be big enough to accommodate what’s left of OneWorld…

[**] It’ll be interesting to see what happens to Virgin alliance-wise and as ownership rules change. In theory, Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Blue/V Australia and Virgin America could be a decent global airline in their own right for primary routes, in the same way that at least one of the Middle Eastern carriers will survive. The problem here is that Star’s Singapore Airlines owns 49% of Virgin Atlantic. Integrating Virgin Atlantic into Star would kill it as a brand, and would leave the Aussie and US businesses as basically domestic/local carriers, which would be a terrible shame. But Richard Branson doesn’t have the cash to buy the stake back, and I can’t think of anyone else who’d be willing to fund the deal. For a start, the last company to back Branson on a major airline investment lost over a billion dollars and then quit passenger aviation for good….