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