HSBC Star Alliance Credit Card
Fast track to Star Alliance Gold Status with the HSBC Star Alliance Credit Card and unlock a world of global travel benefits. Fee, charges, min spend, and T&C's apply. Australian Credit License 232595. Apply now
Across 2019-2020, the Oneworld airline alliance excited frequent flyers and business travellers with two landmark promises.
First was the announcement that Oneworld would establish its own network of lounges bearing the Oneworld brand, matching the branded lounge networks of rivals Star Alliance and SkyTeam.
These Oneworld lounges were set to appear in airports “where no single (Oneworld) airline has a massive presence, but we have multiple airlines flying into the same airport,” Oneworld told Executive Traveller at the time.
Then came the promise of points-based upgrades across the entire Oneworld alliance.
The initiative would see travellers able to use their points in the loyalty program of one airline to upgrade into premium economy, business class or first class on any other airline in the Oneworld group.
Each of these was delayed by the global pandemic, of course, but Oneworld says both are now on track as travel rebounds.
“Development of the Oneworld Upgrade programme and branded lounges is actively progressing,” a Oneworld spokesperson has assured Executive Traveller.
“We are looking forward to sharing more details in the coming months including key benefits for customers, making travel with Oneworld member airlines even more rewarding.”
Yes, that’s similar to what Oneworld promised in February 2022, when an alliance spokesperson told Executive Traveller “we are actively progressing in developing the Oneworld upgrades programmes as well as the first Oneworld branded lounge.”
“We anticipate sharing more details later this year, delivering further value for Oneworld member airlines and their customers.”
Of course, it’s not as if the lounge network or alliance-wide upgrade scheme are simple tasks – they take their place in a complicated and changing landscape. Here’s an update on both initiatives.
The concept of Oneworld upgrade program was and remains straightforward: using miles or points from one member’s loyalty program to unlock an upgrade when flying on another Oneworld airline.
Qantas Points, Cathay Pacific AsiaMiles and the increasingly-powerful Avios of British Airways, Iberia and Qatar Airways, for example, would all gain new utility across all 13 Oneworld members.
But wrangling the frequent flyer programs of each airline to build an interweaving upgrade mechanism covering each fare type and travel class is no easy matter.
“If it was really simple, we would have done it before,” Oneworld CEO Rob Gurney told Executive Traveller in 2020, “but I think we've got a pretty clear roadmap of how we're going to get there.”
“There's a lot of work being done in rounding out what the ideal customer offering is, and just as importantly, how it’s executed.”
(It should be noted that after almost seven years in the role, industry veteran Gurney will step down from his CEO post on July 1, 2023.)
Right now, each airline handles its own frequent flyer upgrades a little differently: some allow upgrades to be cleared and confirmed instantly; others require upgrades to be ‘waitlisted’ for consideration closer to departure; and some carriers offer both.
Airlines would also need to balance their stock of available ‘reward seats’ to meet the demand of their own customers along with passengers wielding points from other airlines.
Another complication is which fare types would be eligible for alliance-based upgrades.
For example, rival network Star Alliance has long allowed members of one airline's frequent flyer program to upgrade on flights operated by other Star Alliance airlines, although travellers must book full-fare flexible economy to qualify for business class bump-ups.
There’s also the matter of whether these upgrades can be confirmed instantly upon request, or must be 'waitlisted' for consideration closer to departure.
Qantas polled its own frequent flyers on the concept as far back as 2019, with surveys sketching out options such as setting a minimum for points-based upgrades across airlines at the more expensive standard and flexible economy fares rather than “discount economy or economy sale fares.”
The survey also flagged the possibility of these other-airline upgrades being made available on a last-minute basis as little as “within one day of the scheduled flight.”
As to how many frequent flyer points or miles will be required for each upgrade, that will depend on the traveller's ‘home’ frequent flyer program – in the same way that each frequent flyer scheme sets its own redemption rates for outright flight bookings on partner airlines.
Whether Oneworld’s airlines will adopt a single set of alliance-wide upgrade policies, or operate one set of rules for their own frequent flyers and another rule for members upgrading via other frequent flyer programs, remains to be seen.
And after everything is finalised behind the scenes – including how the airlines will compensate each other when upgrades are processed – the final step becomes educating the members of each Oneworld frequent flyer program about the new upgrade system and how it’ll work for them.
“How can we explain it simply, and how can it be delivered efficiently and effectively?” are just some of the considerations Oneworld will face in the rollout process, Gurney explained.
What it “looks like through the lens of the customer” is also important, as is the need to balance the complex economics for airlines in the background, with simplicity in the foreground for frequent flyers.
Still, at the time he allowed “I think we’ve got pretty good alignment across our member airlines around how this is going to work.”
Making this work could become a task for the new Oneworld CEO, or it might simple have been consigned to the too-hard-for-now basket while airlines struggle to regain a flight path to their pre-pandemic trajectory and profits.
The Oneworld lounge network
Oneworld is well-regarded by frequent flyers, especially for the perks of its Emerald status when it comes to accessing first class airline lounges.
But the group has long lagged rivals Star Alliance and SkyTeam in opening its own Oneworld-branded lounges in strategic locations, to be shared by eligible passengers on all member airlines.
2019 was supposed to be the year that all changed, with plans for Oneworld to establish its own network of lounges.
“The idea is that we develop these where no single airline has a massive presence, but we have multiple airlines flying into the same airport, maybe with daily flight,” Gurney told Executive Traveller when the initiative was first revealed.
“So while collectivity we (as Oneworld) have a lot of flights, no single airline could justify the cost of the lounge.”
The first Oneworld lounge was supposed to open in late 2019, and Gurney revealed “we’ve actually got three (locations) we are pursuing, we just haven’t decided what the first one is going to be – it could be any one of those (three).”
Moscow's Domodedovo Airport was later revealed as hosting the debutante Oneworld lounge with an opening date set for 2020, although it wasn’t made clear how the Oneworld-branded space would co-exist with the flagship business class lounge of Moscow-based alliance member S7 Airlines (which has since has its membership suspended due to the Russian-Ukraine war).
However, long before Gurney could cut a thick red ribbon with a pair of over-sized prop scissors, the pandemic arrived and plans for the Moscow lounge were put on hold.
In late 2020, Gurney noted “it’s still the plan to have Moscow as a lounge, but whether it'll be the first one or not, I think it is an open question.”
A range of other possible locations for Oneworld lounges have been suggested over recent years, including the Berlin Brandenburg airport, Seoul’s Terminal 1 and Sao Paulo Terminal 3, along with a rumoured take-over and rebranding of the Qantas business class lounge at Los Angeles (which of course never happened).
Gurney has previously made an ambitious forecast that the network of Oneworld lounges could reach double digits.
“Developing a program like this is only valuable if you can get some economy of scale around it, so we think there are double digit numbers of opportunities globally,” he outlined to Executive Traveller in early 2019.
Those projections were buoyed by new airports and new or redeveloped terminals which could allow all Oneworld member airlines to co-locate of facilities including check-in desks and departure gates, similar to London Heathrow’s Star Alliance Terminal 2.
“Oneworld aims to bring its member airlines operating at all airports worldwide together under one roof, to smooth transfers for passengers connecting between different carriers’ flights, wherever the opportunities are available and wherever it makes sense,” Gurney explains.
Wherever and whenever they arise, the Oneworld lounges will be an integrated "premium lounge with a very high-quality experience,” Gurney told Executive Traveller.
They’d welcome business and first class passengers departing on all Oneworld airlines, as well as top-tier frequent flyers holding each member airline’s equivalent of Oneworld Emerald and Sapphire status.
However, Gurney allowed that “if there are airports that have a particularly high concentration of first class passengers” a seperate first class lounge would be considered.
The closest to a true Oneworld lounge that currently exists is the business class lounge at Los Angeles' Tom Bradley International Airport, which was launched as a joint project between Qantas, British Airways and Cathay Pacific and is managed by Qantas.
Elsewhere, Oneworld member airlines have forged ahead with their own lounges: a good example being Singapore, where Changi Terminal 1 boasts four lounges operated by British Airways, Qantas and Qatar Airways. At least that gives travellers both the luxury of choice and some pleasurable lounge-hopping before their flight.