ANALYSIS: Airline PR - Air alliance brings all its PR under one wing/Star Alliance has set a precedent for the new wave of airline alliances by opting to apply a joint global communications strategy to the companies operating beneath its umbrella

The emergence of international airline alliances in the last few years has presented communicators in the aviation industry with an unprecedented challenge.

The emergence of international airline alliances in the last few

years has presented communicators in the aviation industry with an

unprecedented challenge.

Star Alliance, the world’s largest such venture, has a membership which

collectively employs 242,000 people, operates more than 8,000 flights a

day to 720 destinations around the world, and carries 214 million

passengers a year. And yet, until the beginning of this year, neither

Star, nor any of the other existing alliances had attempted to manage

their PR through joint press offices.

Several factors finally encouraged Star’s members to invest in joint PR

arrangements. Firstly, with Brazilian carrier Varig, Air New Zealand and

Ansett Australia joining forces with Star, and Japan’s All Nippon

Airlines set to join in October, Star realised that communications for

the expanding partnership would become even more difficult to


Secondly, the alliance needed to actively communicate to the general

public the benefits of using its services.

Star was founded two years ago by Lufthansa, United Airlines, Air

Canada, Scandinavian Airlines System and Thai International. For the

member airlines, the alliance exists because it allows them to sell

flights to destinations which would otherwise be out of bounds because

of political or commercial restrictions.

While the benefits are obvious for the airlines, they are less so for

passengers. One airline may provide a different level of customer

service, even in first class, from another. And service on board and on

the ground in Asia is widely regarded to be of higher quality than in

the US. Star therefore needs to work hard to sell itself to passengers,

and differentiate its services from other alliances when selling to

corporate clients and travel agents.

The benefits it highlights include access to the business lounges of

Star partners, earning and redeeming mileage points on each other’s

frequent flyer programmes, through ticketing to the final destination

and the key area of joint customer service.

The third impetus for joint PR was the need for strong co-ordination in

the event of a crisis, such as a plane crash. If a passenger buys a

ticket with one airline, yet flies on a partner carrier and is involved

in a serious incident on board, who would be responsible?

The move towards joint promotion began in January this year, when

Lufthansa’s Christian Klick was seconded to head the newly-formed Star

media relations unit at the German carrier’s headquarters in Frankfurt,

aided by a colleague from SAS. Apart from handling day-to-day media

enquiries, Klick has responsibility for managing internal press

communications with his airline counterparts across the Star


Klick says that Star presents the biggest corporate challenge in the

aviation industry. ’We’re faced with a large group of companies with

different philosophies and must co-ordinate their communications on a

global scale,’ he says.

Klick has hired a network of PR agencies to assist him.

Fleishman-Hillard was recently appointed in Hong Kong and southern

China, Paris-based Herald Communications covers France, and this week

Kevin Johnston set up Star’s UK press office, in addition to his

existing role of UK media relations manager for United Airlines.

Johnston says his immediate task is to create a brand awareness

programme for Star in the UK, a challenge he relishes in the backyard of

rival British Airways and its Oneworld alliance. ’The perception of

alliances is not as strong as one would like, perhaps because people

don’t fully understand the benefits of them,’ he explains.

Klick will not go into details of the crisis protocol. It is understood

that any Star carrier involved in an incident takes the lead in handling

media queries, but the support will be provided by partner airlines if

the flight in question is a joint marketing service.

BA and its global partners in the Oneworld alliance have similar


’The general rule is that the operating carrier will take the lead, but

partner airlines will provide appropriate levels of support, bearing in

mind that passengers from all over the world could be travelling on the

particular flight in question,’ says Michael Blunt, BA’s head of

alliance communications.

A leading travel industry PR specialist warns that cultural and

corporate differences will be the biggest challenges facing the Star


She says: ’The real difficulty will be in co-ordination and agreeing on

things. For instance, when to make a statement, how to make a statement

and what to say. It is a huge task trying to get so many players to buy

into a single message.’

None of the other alliances have established joint PR arrangements to

the extent that Star is now attempting, and they will be watching

closely to see if the idea succeeds. The task facing Star may be huge,

but if alliances want customers to buy into the idea of a jointly

provided service, they are going to have to start by buying into the

concept of joint communications.

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