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A Game of Thrones – South American Airline Alliances Edition

Colombian/El Salvadoran/Costa Rican/Peruvian AviancaTaca group was supposed to be a member of the Star Alliance by now. Actually by a month ago. They’re still not. Instead, a month before that, they sign a major codesharing deal with Aeroméxico, a huge player in a competing alliance, SkyTeam.

Seriously? While their April 1 no April 15 no May 1 no May 10 Star Alliance Accession keeps not happening? Where are Taca, LACSA (their Costa Rican brand), and Avianca? What is the delay?

We all know that the merger of Chile-centric Chile/Argentina/Ecuador/Peru/Colombia Conglomerate LAN to Brasil’s TAM was allowed by Chilean antitrust courts on the condition that the combined LATAM (hey, LAn+TAM and also the common abbreviation for LATin AMerica – clever, they are) must not stay in both alliances (LAN in ow, TAM in *A) and must not join or remain in any alliance in which the newly-merged AviancaTaca group is a member.

(“We all” being the very tiny subset of airline geeks.)

We all know that SkyTeam sucks to high hell in Latin America south of Mexico. There’s Aeroméxico. And then there’s… you know… “Oops.” The much-maligned and rightly so, Aerolíneas Argentinas, still scheduled to join ST, is run by the Argentine government. Which increasingly is directly run with a Peronist heavy hand by Her Royal Highness Evita II, Sra. La Presidenta y Reina de todas soles, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. (That’s not really her title, other than the La Presidenta part. I don’t think it’s her official title. But if it isn’t yet, I’m sure she’s ramming a bill through to change it.)

Already nationalized and running horribly, while La Cristina continues to put the Argentinian economy and Argentine business into La Toilet. These are not the kind of people with whom you want to do business, capisce?

We know that LAN’s North American partner American Airlines, founding member of the now smallest alliance, oneworld (and only member north of Ecuador in the Americas), is going down the tubes fast. Its customers hate it, its employees hate it to the extent that they want dysfunctional US Airways to take it over. Yes, even even though US hasn’t finished its own 7-years-and-counting merger with US West/America West and US East/US Air pilots and flight attendants hating each other. Still better than American.

The well-run, well-connected, multi-country AviancaTaca group would be a major coup for SkyTeam, and they desperately need one in Latin America. It is highly unlikely that they could ever tempt the new LATAM out of both LAN’s oneworld and TAM’s Star Alliance memberships to go jointly to SkyTeam.

That means LATAM either has to stay with LAN being in failing American’s failing oneworld and pull the TAM part into it, even though TAM just spent a boatload of money only a year or two ago to join TAM’s Star Alliance. Or bring the LAN 4/5 of the airline into the far more connected and successful Star Alliance. Which has some reach in Latin American but not nearly enough, but otherwise is globally way better for both airlines and customers compared to the other two alliances. Where LAN/TAM would be a perfect fit, both getting better worldwide feed into LATAM and providing valuable onward outbound connections to the Star Alliance.

United (and its merger partner swallow-from-with creature Continental) and Air Canada bring some North American travel into the LAN/TAM network from all over, beyond that from current USA LAN gateways in LAX, JFK, MIA, and sometimes SFO, and TAM from JFK and MIA.

The gargantuan Star Alliance Lufthansa-centric group brings European travel into them from Lufthansa & Lufty-owned SWISS (yes, SWISS is all caps in their trademark, and yes they fly to and within South America, and yes, I’ve flown them, but only within South America, never when I actually went to Switzerland!) We all like Lufthansa, right? Or at least respect their might. After all, look at their special deal Destination of the Week. *A membership also might facilitate side-deal codeshares and connections to Lufthansa-owned jetBlue (yes, you read that right, Lufthansa-owned to the maximum US law allows) at jetBlue major hubs/gateways JFK, LAX where LAN and TAM also fly. jetBlue isn’t in *A, but they listen to what big daddy Lufty tells them.

Meanwhile still-independent still-flying native-Portuguese TAP Air Portugal also is in *A with a natural fit with the TAM part of LATAM culturally, and a perfect fit geographically with the whole of the Iberian Peninsula. I live in Atlántida when I’m in Uruguay, and have driven all the way up the coast to Brasil. The kind of “It really isn’t Spanish, Jim, at least not as we know it” español which becomes “portuñol” after it stops being the Boston Accent of the Hispanic World, makes it linguistically compatible too.

Southern Hemisphere partners Air New Zealand and South African Airways connecting into South America. Plus added but not competing Central American coverage and connections on Copa, joining Real.Soon.Now. Copa really is joining: they formerly were owned by Continental, used Continental’s OnePass as their own FF program, and thus now use United Mileage Plus as their mileage program. Copa joins *A because they really had to, being so tied to United Continental Holdings. But they quite duplicate/compete with AviancaTaca if Taca group finishes joining Star Alliance. United founded the Star Alliance. United’s Continental used to own Copa. Copa’s planes look almost exactly like Continental (now United) livery. Which one of the two Central American airlines do you think United wants in Star Alliance?

Clearly *A is the perfect fit for LAN/TAM.

But LAN can’t move to Star Alliance if AviancaTaca finishes joining Star Alliance. It’s right in the consent decree they signed with the Chilean court. Oh, wait… AviancaTaca still hasn’t joined…

Just like Tim Tebow went to the NY Jets and became a back-bencher. I’m guessing, and if I had any money and was a betting man, betting, that AviancaTaca group dumps (is dumped by) Star Alliance, and gets a fast-track invite to SkyTeam. They are going to be Peyton Manning’ed any time now.

LATAM decides that the Star Alliance is far more worthwhile globally than all those Finnish and Siberian connections via oneworld, and that throwing away TAM’s recent and expensive integration to *A would be a Bad Thing. So they go to Star Alliance. Sure, they lose Cathay Pacific and Qantas. But they get back in return Asiana of Korea, widely considered the best Asian airline, and Singapore Air, considered by themselves and creepy old white guys to be the best Asian airline. Don’t forget our pals the Kiwis on ANZ routes, along with the old “Continental Mike” Micronesia network that United now controls. LAN already runs a Santiago Chile to Auckland NZ route that doesn’t really connect to anything useful once it gets there, in terms of revenue and partnership. But if they join *A, it’s smack in the middle of Air New Zealand’s hub. Plus they get Japan’s ANA, Thailand’s THAI Airways International (another Caps-Lock brand), Air China to mainland China (don’t confuse with China Air, China Southern, or China Eastern), and soon-to-join-*A EVA Air of Taiwan which is already a partner of United and Air China prior to any *A accession. More than makes up for any Asian coverage the LAN side of LATAM might lose by bailing from OW.

Plus they actually get a partner in Canada, something that oneworld hasn’t had in over a decade since Air Canada swallowed the much better Canadien Airlines (ok, Canadian for us Anglophones, once part of the famous Canadian Pacific Railways keiretsu.) My ski instructor at Whistler was also a self-described “trolley dolly” for CP, but 2000 was the end of her flying gig and of oneworld being north of the 49th parallel in the Americas. Except for a random AA flight but nothing major to/from and nothing within Canada. Not only is AC in Canada, AC already has a Toronto to Santiago Chile (LAN largest hub and corporate HQ) with a tag flight onward to Buenos Aires (LAN Argentina hub that also sees TAM, LAN Ecuador, LAN Peru flights). And LAN used to fly to Toronto with a tag on their SCL-JFK.

In fact in Sept 2010 I flew from Raleigh-Durham NC to Spokane Washington by using LAN from JFK to Toronto YYZ. (Don’t ask. Made sense at the time. Renewed expiring LAN kilometers from my last-time-in-2007 LAN flight. Topped off my Alaska Airlines account to an award level by crediting RDU-JFK AA flight to Alaska Airlines, not to AAdvantage. Credited the trans-Canada AC YYZ-Vancouver YVR flight to Continental OnePass to reach an elite status for 2011. The YYZ-Seattle/Tacoma and SEA-GEG Spokane re-upped my Alaska Mileage Plan MVP elite. It really does make sense. Either that or I’m obsessively insane. Flip for it.)

LATAM won’t mind Copa being  in *A, because LAN doesn’t have anything headquartered north of Colombia. They can use the Panama-centric connections on Copa with its own feed from Vegas, LA, DC, NYC, Chicago, Orlando, and Miami. Along with the deep United(ex-Con) integration from all the United hubs to Panama, then on Copa into the LAN/TAM network for bouncing around all of South America.

There’s that little teensy problem of Copa now owning Aero República of Columbia d/b/a Copa Columbia, but they bought them before LAN bought Aires, which just became LAN Colombia. Which, btw, is the one part of LAN that is not part of oneworld and has not announced any plans to join it.

Easy fix. Player to be named later.

updated with more links and more snark 2012-05-14 0353, 0415 UTC.

  • Cody

    On the bit on skyteam getting LATAM. It's not highly unlikely, it's actually impossible. One of the regulators set the condition that LATAM must join one of the existing alliances that LAN/TAM are already a part of. Skyteam is automatically out.

  • markmercer848

    Cody, thanks for your comment. But I'm 99% sure that you are misreading that condition.

    You're misreading "must join ONE" to mean "one of their existing alliances must be their ONLY choice", when in fact "ONE" means "Must be in at most ONE not BOTH" of them. They are entirely free to renounce BOTH alliances, and join a third. (emphasis mine)

    Plus if you re-read my article I'm not saying that LATAM will join SkyTeam. I'm saying that LATAM wants to join Star Alliance and will work behind the scenes to get AviancaTaca into SkyTeam, out of Star.

    But LATAM absolutely is free to join SkyTeam as far as the Chilean regulators are concerned. What they are forbidden to do is to have the LAN part of LATAM stay in oneworld while the TAM part of it stays in Star.

    Here's a link about it: http://travel.usatoday.com/flights/post/2011/09/l… "Chile's antitrust authority has demanded … Latam, renounce either the Oneworld alliance favoured by Chile-based LAN, or the Star Alliance alliance, favoured by Brazil's Tam."

    Here's the original ruling in Spanish: http://www.tdlc.cl/Portal.Base/Web/VerContenido.a
    "(vi) deberán renunciar al menos a una de las dos alianzas globales en que a esa fecha participen LAN y TAM;"
    "have to renounce AT LEAST one of the two global alliances in which LAN and TAM today participate."

    There's nothing preventing them from renouncing both. But that's not the play here. They just need AviancaTaca to renounce Star, and they can probably make that happen by enough backroom deals among the big players in the various alliances.

    SkyTeam isn't great, but SkyTeam with no real Latin American competitor is better for AviancaTaca than Star Alliance with United's little hermano Copa right there in both Central America (Panama) and in Colombia as a direct competitor. AviancaTaca doesn't want to become the US Airways of Star Alliance or the pre-merger Continental of SkyTeam – the little airline surrounded by partners who are actually major direct, same-market competitors. That's what they will be if they go ahead with joining Star.

  • Cody

    I can't find where I read that they can only be in one of their existing alliances. Anyway, I do agree that skyteam is highly unlikely. Not only because of the lack of current ties, but because of the overlap this would create in argentina. LAN's loyalty to oneworld is the biggest question and biggest hurdle in regards to your scenario. Oneworld isn't doing so great, but Star Alliance and Skyteam are also having trouble as well, it's just the market right now. I regards to COPA and Avianca/Taca, it's definitely not a match made in heaven, but Star has overlap elsewhere and the two companies seem to be willing to give each other the cold shoulder to both be in star. One thing's for sure, LATAM holds alot of the cards right now. Wherever they fall will dictate a number of moves across the globe.

  • markmercer848

    That "markmercer848" comment is also from me, Mark, "fuzzy", Your Humble Host. I don't quite have all the IntenseDebate vs Native WordPress comment features 100% in sync yet. Or I do, but don't quite "get" how they interact. That's my WordPress.com login, whilst this is a self-hosted blog using WordPress, and IntenseDebate.

    Think of it kinda like a codeshare flight :-)

  • AndrewYYZ

    Fuzzy Mark, this is the best article I've read on the upcoming "release the Crackin" LATAM.
    Your feedback please: I always felt the key hing issue is LA's reletionship with AA. AA is the giant of transport USA <-> Latin America. If LATAM feels they can work with AA, they will stay oneworld. IF they feel they can take AA's business, I think it will go to Star.
    Also another rumour, the new LATAM may drop all alliances for now, and start a new partnership with EK. Remember, alliances need LATAM, not the otherway around.
    thanks again!
    AndrewYYZ

    • markmercer848

      "Release the Crackin' LATAM" lol!

      But yes, it is a giant waiting to be unleashed. The still-growing BRICs economy with Brasil at its heart and its only Americas location – with air transport pretty much locked up by LATAM – certainly for the widebody container-capable fleet. LAN and TAM have A340s and 767s aplenty. Their latin american competition has a few (Avianca) to none (everybody else, ok, not counting pathetic Aerolineas Argentina.)

      A lot of my wild-assed speculation here is based exactly on American Airlines being weak. AA's "cornerstone" strategy of mostly hub-only at the USA corners and Chicago is failing. Their labor unions hate them. They don't have a clean way out of Chapter 11 reorganization bankruptcy other than a purchase by US Airways, and who knows what regulators and the bankruptcy court might require them to dump in order to get approval. Plus, 7 years after the US Airways acquisition by America West, US Airways is still two separate, hate-each-other, airlines from the perspective of labor arrangements and crew scheduling. It will take years and years to integrate American into it.

      Star is much weaker in Latin America than oneworld is, precisely because oneworld has LAN, and oneworld has American providing lift into but not between Latin American points. Yet American doesn't do anything unique there, it just adds lift. LAN itself gets you to their Lima and Santiago hubs from NYC, LAX, MIA, and SFO. To Buenos Aires from Miami on LAN Argentina (4M). TAM gets you to Sao Paolo GRU, Rio de Jainero GIG, and whatever the code is for the capital, Brasilia, from US gateways in Miami, Orlando, and JFK.

      United Continental Holdings flights both from sUA and sCO operations provide more than enough AA-replacement. nuUA goes to LIM, EZE, BOG, GRU, GIG (sometimes direct, sometimes a tag). I don't know if the UA/Lufthansa/Air Canada transatlantic Joint Venture with antitrust immunity applies to North-South America flights, but AC goes to LAN hub SCL from YYZ and has a tag flight onto EZE to provide more North America lift to both Santiago and Buenos Aires. They also go to Lima. Put that all together and *A provides a huge amount of connection and through-ticketing (codeshare or not) revenue opportunity to LAN to get people and cargo all around Latin America and onward to Oceania while remaining in the Southern Hemisphere. I think SAA connects to South Africa from either GRU or Brasilia as well. So this fills major gaps in Star's southern hemisphere "ozone hole" while giving LATAM huge opportunities.

      Look at it South to North now: UA/AC provides much more North America connectivity for LATAM customers than does the combo of AA and non-oneworld codeshare/EQM partner Alaska Airlines.

      The EK thought is fascinating. But the big mideast carriers don't help with full global connectivity, and don't fill the same niche as the 3 global alliances. Especially for a Latin American airline that needs a lot of Europe, Asia, and North America connectivity from partners. I could see them doing something with EK but I don't see it as an alternative to being in one of the big alliances.

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