The Leftover Alliance
SkyTeam is the youngest of the three alliances, but despite that, it boasts a relatively large number of members (20). As a result, travelers can fly to most everywhere in the world (sans Oceania) with ease. Access to Europe and Asia is particularly strong, as consumers have a lot of choices. Award availability can also be pretty decent, and some programs, like FlyingBlue of Air France and KLM (and others), have some fantastic bargains, even in the United States. Bear in mind that some refer to SkyTeam as the “leftover alliance,” because some of its carriers are considered second-tier in terms of their service offerings, accommodations, and overall reputations. Be wary of this as you look to fly higher.
- Name: SkyTeam
- Website: www.skyteam.com/en
- Three Notable Members: Delta Airlines, Air France/KLM, Korean Air
- All Members: Aeroflot, Aerolineas Argentinas, AeroMexico, Air Europa, Air France, Alitalia, China Airlines, China Eastern, China Southern, Czech Airlines, Delta Airlines, Garuda Indonesia, Kenya Airways, KLM, Korean Air, Middle East Airlines, Saudia, TAROM, Vietnam Airlines, Xiamen Air
- Loyalty Tiers: (1) SkyTeam Elite Plus, (2) SkyTeam Elite
Three Notable Features
- Strong legacy carriers: SkyTeam was founded when four airlines — Delta, AeroMexico, Air France, and Korean Air — wanted to emulate the successes of Star Alliance and oneworld. They promptly established their own alliance in 2000. Of these members, three of them continue to be among the leaders of international air travel in terms of route networks, operational reliability, and passenger comfort. Delta is the second biggest airline in the United States (in terms of passengers carried), and Air France, since its merger with KLM, competes with Lufthansa for the same title in Europe. Korean Air maintains a strong transit hub out of Seoul-Incheon Airport, and is considered to be a gateway between Asia and the rest of the world. If you live in any of these airlines’ home regions, you can expect to fly on a consistently solid carrier — that’s a blessing!
- Growing Chinese/Southeast Asian presence: Beyond the founding members (plus Garuda Indonesia), there is a noticeable drop-off in the quality of SkyTeam airlines (more on this later). The rapid inclusion of Asian carriers, such as China Airlines, China Eastern, China Southern, Vietnam Airlines, and Xiamen Air, haven’t exactly helped that image (as characterized by *generally* rude service and outdated hard products). However, as these countries and their citizens become increasingly skyfaring, the regional airlines have been developing and expanding rapidly. The aforementioned companies are well on their ways toward developing elite reputations worldwide. For SkyTeam loyalists, they will enjoy greater access to Asia with comfortable accommodations in the years to come.
- Points are easily available: In the United States (and beyond), it is so easy to earn/accrue Program Specific Points on SkyTeam members. Delta has several compelling co-branded credit cards, often with significant signing bonuses, and Air France/KLM accepts Flex Value Points from every major currency (i.e. American Express, Chase, Citi, Starwood). Korean Air only has a couple of transfer partners (i.e. Chase and Starwood), but they make up the difference with a practical and useful award chart. These opportunities, offered by reputable airlines, make for solid higher flyer experiences.
Three Notable Drawbacks
- “SkyPesos”: While Delta may offer its customers a lot of opportunities to accrue SkyMiles, it comes at the expense of routine devaluations and a lack of transparency. As one frustrated commentator once said…
“I’ve never heard of an airline that screws over its loyal customers more than Delta does!”
Indeed, Delta doesn’t do very much to show appreciation of its loyal customers. With no published award charts, the airline can take advantage of unknowing travelers and con them into paying much more than the cost of the actual airfare. Additionally, Delta is known to levy massive fuel surcharges on partner awards unannounced, or worse, simply not offer partner awards. SkyMiles, for instance, cannot be redeemed for first class travel. Because of trends like these, it’s hard to consider SkyMiles as a particularly valuable or practical (point) currency, hence earning the nickname: “SkyPesos.” For such an otherwise strong airline, Delta’s loyalty program leaves a lot to be desired.
Ah, what SkyMiles giveth, SkyMiles taketh.
- Some reciprocity nightmares: Despite being in a strategic partnership designed to make traveling easier and cheaper for both airlines and customers, SkyTeam airlines sure don’t cooperate particularly well. For example, until very recently, Delta customers on a Korean Air codeshare flight wouldn’t earn a single redeemable mile. Things are getting better, but there’s a long way to go to parity and reciprocity; Star Alliance and oneworld are leaps and bounds ahead of SkyTeam in this sense. Similarly, redeeming one airline’s points for a partner award ticket can be, for lack of a better word, a crapshoot. 65,000 Air France/KLM Flying Blue miles can theoretically be used to fly from North America to Hawaii and back in a Delta flat-bed, but Delta seldom releases any award space. What good is being in an alliance if companies aren’t helping the customers of their partners?
- Too many second-tier airlines: Sure, Air France and Korean offer some of the best first class products in the world, but how else could you use SkyTeam miles? Middle East Airlines? TAROM? Air Europa? You could, but odds are, it’d be difficult to include them in your travel plans because their route maps are small. In addition to that, if you’re going to spend all of your miles on a trip, would you rather redeem them for a sub-par business class experience on Aerolineas Argentinas (an Argentinian SkyTeam carrier)…
…or on Avianca (a Colombian Star Alliance carrier)?
Even though Avianca offers lie-flat seats in a reverse herringbone configuration and on-demand inflight entertainment, and Aerolineas Argentinas offers none of that, the latter costs more than the former.
Three Special Opportunities
- Korean Air’s extensive SkyPass program: SkyPass is one of the best loyalty programs out there. It can be a little bit time consuming to book award flights (you can only reserve for your immediate family, plus you have to provide proof of relationship), but availability in premium cabins is excellent, and there are some sweet spots in the award chart too. Korean Air has one of the best first class products in the business, and higher flyers can spend 80,000 miles for a transpacific route; that’s an incredible value! There are great deals for partner awards too. For example, you can redeem 45,000 SkyPass miles for a round trip ticket from the East Coast to Hawaii in Delta One, or 80,000 for a round trip ticket from anywhere in the United States to Europe on Air France/KLM (or Air Europa or Alitalia, if you’re so inclined). That’s much better than Delta’s rates (minimum 140k SkyMiles for the same route).
- Crossover Awards: If you fly Delta a lot, you have tons of opportunities to generate lots of points from other travel related expenses. Delta is closely linked with Starwood and Lyft and rental car companies and restaurants and online retailers… I could go on and on, but I’m not trying to create an excessively long laundry list. Know that Delta, compared to other American legacy carriers, reigns supreme in this “supplemental earnings” category. While Delta may not have the best values in terms of award redemptions, being able to earn so many SkyMiles eases the sting of having to hand over 240,000 of them for a flight that is valued at a third of that (at 80k).
- Explore Europe and Asia for cheap: SkyTeam has recently been adding lots of new members, especially in Europe and Asia. There is a glut of carriers in both regions, and while that may not make for the best business model, it offers travelers lots of choices. They can shop around for deals (airlines have to compete with one another, after all), and take advantage of unique opportunities to earn status and other privileges (Czech Airline’s OK program is neat — check it out!). Such opportunities aren’t as prevalent in the other alliances.
If you love traveling for cheap, you’ll find a lot of value in SkyTeam’s offerings in Europe and Asia.
As is the case with the other alliances, SkyTeam has its share of strengths and weaknesses. While I prefer Star Alliance instead, that doesn’t mean that SkyTeam is definitely inferior. You probably have different experiences, perspectives, and values than I do; what matters to me may not matter to you and vice versa. The point of this guide is merely to highlight the features that makes SkyTeam unique, and help you better understand how it fits in to higher flying collectively.
Do you have any other tips/things to know about SkyTeam? Add them in the comments!