The airline business has always been awash in trends and fads, but there is one relentless trend that now seems to have moved mountains, and that is the trend toward international alliances.
The trend has been with us for a while, but it had a rocky beginning. Jan Carlzon, who was CEO of SAS during the merger-heavy decade of the 1980s, was fond of saying that the airline industry would inevitably contract and consolidate, leaving a handful of global giants.
He was convinced that SAS could be a survivor only if it became part of a much larger entity. That belief inspired him to pursue numerous alliances and mergers during his tenure, including an ill-fated plan for a four-way merger with KLM, Swissair and Austrian, a bold plan for its day.
To airline observers of a certain age, Carlzon seems, in retrospect, to have been a few decades ahead of his time. SAS eventually joined Lufthansa, United, Air Canada and other carriers in the Star Alliance, now the biggest of the big multicarrier groupings that encircle the globe.
The alliance trend has even inspired Southwest, which wrote the book on being a noninterlining loner, to explore a cross-border relationship with Canada's WestJet.
According to an IATA compilation of 2007 data, two-thirds of global international traffic moves on Star, SkyTeam or Oneworld carriers, and Star alone accounts for more than one-fourth of the total.
Further, 21 of the top 25 carriers in the world are in one of the three alliances, nine of them in Star.
The biggest unaligned carriers tend to be those with exceptionally strong brands or unique niches, such as Ryanair, Virgin Atlantic or Emirates.
For every other airline, alliances are a magnet, either pulling them in or pushing them around.
It is against this backdrop that the Oneworld carriers, led by American and British Airways, are seeking antitrust immunity to fix prices, schedules and capacity and to evolve toward the sort of tightly knit joint venture for which Northwest and KLM are widely envied.
There were times in the last century, and even in this one, when we would have said "no way" to a linkup of such transatlantic titans as American and British Airways. The governments of the world, however, have left the carriers no other option.
They can't merge without running afoul of antiquated nationality laws, and yet they're looking at a future when the biggest presence in U.S.-Europe markets might be a joint venture of Air France, KLM, Northwest and Delta, a four-headed Goliath with antitrust immunity.
Alliance carriers have been saying for years that the future will be shaped not by the competition between individual carriers but between alliances. And so American and BA are staking their futures on the proposition that it is more beneficial for them (and for passengers) if they focus their energies on competing against SkyTeam and Star rather than against each other.
Is this good?
We still have our doubts, but it's hard to make the case that the path chosen by Star and SkyTeam, paved with government protection from antitrust constraints, should be denied to Oneworld.
The concept of a global alliance with antitrust immunity was first put into practice in 1991 by KLM and Northwest. It has operated like a one-way ratchet ever since.
At this point, what's one more turn?