Star Alliance is only as strong as its members. Nevertheless, stealth lounge access changes further sharpen the argument that alliances are losing relevance.
I’m not sure what you think of when you think of Star Alliance (or oneworld or SkyTeam for that matter). Do you picture an office that makes decisions on behalf of its member carriers? A bureaucratic rulemaking body that sets systemwide policies?
For better or for worse, that is not the case. Decisions are made collectively by members, but like the Security Council at the United Nations, some member carriers hold more sway than others. You think TAP Air Portugal or Air India is going to tell Lufthansa and United what to do? Like many treaties, obligations are best (and only) enforced through diplomacy, not a standing army or monetary fine.
Which leads us to our lounge problem.
United Cuts Third-Party Lounge Access For Star Alliance Gold Members
On United’s lounge access page, a new banner appears at the top:
“Beginning January 1, 2020, you’ll only be able to visit most of our partner lounges if you’re traveling in United Polaris® business class. Use the tool below to see where these lounges are located and if you can visit them on an upcoming trip.”
This represents an instant and unannounced devaluation for United Star Alliance Gold members, who previously had been invited to visit contract lounges in places like Mumbai (with a great GVK lounge) when no Star Alliance Gold lounge was present.
Star Alliance Changes Lounge Access Language To Match United
This policy change directly violated Star Alliance lounge access rules, which held:
“At airports where neither a Star Alliance branded lounge nor a Star Alliance member carrier offers a lounge, third party lounges are contracted by some of our member airlines. As a Star Alliance Gold customer travelling on a Star Alliance member airlines operated flight from such airports, you have access to these third party contract lounges, if the member airline you are travelling on has a contract with this lounge.”
Could not be clearer, right?
But that language has now been updated:
“At airports where neither a Star Alliance branded lounge nor a Star Alliance member carrier offers a lounge, third party lounges are contracted by some of our member airlines. As a Star Alliance Gold customer travelling on a Star Alliance member airlines operated flight from such airports, you may have access to these third party contract lounges. Please refer to the Lounge Finder to identify which lounges you may have access to, according to the policy of each airline.”
The Results, Not The Process, Ultimately Matter Most
I’ve reached out to Star Alliance for comment and received no response, so let’s not make assumptions yet. I see two possible circumstances.
#1: Did Star Alliance Simply Kowtow To United’s Unilateral Decision?
The prima facie case is that United changed the language and Star Alliance decided to match it to avoid its largest member being out of compliance. It was a shady, customer-unfriendly move that undermines the value of the alliance.
#2 Did United Jump The Gun On Publishing What Had Jointly Been Decided As A Systemwide Lounge Access Change?
But it could be that the Star Alliance member carriers sat down together and decided jointly to make these changes. Perhaps United just released the news earlier than planned. Is it possible? I suppose. But the change went into effect on 01/01. It would seem like if this was a join plan for rollout in 2020, other carriers or Star Alliance would have also announced it at the same time as United.
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Ultimately, whether #1 or #2 (or something else) occurred does not matter: the results are the same. Star Alliance Gold status is worth less and this fundamental promise of lounge access as a Star Alliance Gold member no matter the class of service seems to be waning.
Take Icleland for example. I was looking into a Greenland/Iceland trip this summer and specifically considering United’s flight from Keflavík (KEF) to Newark (EWR). It’s such a short flight that economy class is acceptable, especially when the Icleandair Saga Lounge is such a pleasant place to eat and drink before your flight. But now I would no longer have access to the lounge unless I flew in business class. It just rubs me the wrong way. I know I am not the only one.
Whatever the circumstances behind this policy change, it is a negative one. It was one thing for United to go rogue (if they went rogue), but for Star Alliance to secretly update its lounge access rules in a way that represents a devaluation is simply rendering it more irrelevant. That’s the truly sad development.