Air India could join the Star Alliance as early as June this year, according to a new timeline shared by none other than Star Alliance CEO Mark Schwab.
"Without giving a specific date, one can say that we will complete all the ground work and formalities of Air India’s entry into the Star Alliance club by this summer" Schwab told journalists during a press briefing in Mumbai.
"After that, they will be ready to join straight away."
Schwab also hinted that another Indian airline could soon join the Star Alliance family, although he allowed that no such discussions were currently taking place.
Asked if India's new Tata-Singapore Airlines joint venture was be a prospective candidate – considering that Singapore Airlines is one of Star's mostly prized members – Schwab suggested that Tatat-SIngapore Airlines should start operating first, then cryptically added that "it is not necessarily an obvious choice... we will have to see who adds value to the Alliance."
Second time's the charm
This will be Air India's second chance to join the Star Alliance group as the airline coalition scrambles for a large piece of the growing Indian air travel market.
The Indian airline first signed on to Star Alliance in December 2007 but the process ground to a halt after almost four years, with the airline's application for membership suspended in July 2011.
Now it's "all systems go" once again.
Rohit NandanAir India, which earlier this year began Australia's first Boeing 787 service between Sydney and Melbourne and New Delhi, has already upgraded its IT systems to be compatible with those of other Star members, one of the larger hurdles faced by any airline joining any alliance.
A lot of the work that was done for joining Star Alliance, like upgrading the IT systems, needed to be done anyway to become a modern airline" explained Rohit Nandan, Air India's chairman and managing director.
“We are satisfied with the changes made by Air India in the last year" Schwab said. "Star Alliance has also changed some membership requirements, and all our 28 members have voted unanimously in favour of Air India."
However, Air India must still align some 75 "core values" related to passenger services to bring them up to Star Alliance standards.
"As for our customer experience, I believe there is always room for improvement" Nandan admitted.
Star eyes more Indian travellers
Nearly 37 million international passengers travel to and from India each year, with a third of those passengers flying on Air India and Jet Airways, Air India's local competitor which late last year sold a 24% stake to Etihad.
Star Alliance is reported to have only a 13% share of the country's total international traffic, with rivals OneWorld and SkyTeam holding 8% each.
The remainder belongs to international airlines which are not affiliated with any of the three alliance families.
Finding an Indian partner has been troublesome for alliances.
Oneworld had pinned its hopes on high-flyer Kingfisher, which as recently as December 2011 enjoyed the the second largest share in India's domestic air travel market, but suspended the airline's membership application in early 2012 as the airline's growing losses exceeded US$1 billion.
Following a series of shut-downs, strikes and employee lock-outs, Kingfisher's aviation licence was withdrawn in October 12 and its international flying rights and domestic slots scrapped by Indian aviation authorities in February 2013.
Follow Australian Business Traveller on Twitter: we're @AusBT
About David Flynn
David Flynn is the editor of Australian Business Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.