A more recent development is the airline alliance, which became prevalent in the late 1990s. These alliances can act as virtual mergers to get around government restrictions. Alliances of airlines such as Star Alliance, Oneworld, and SkyTeam coordinate their passenger service programs (such as lounges and frequent-flyer programs), offer special interline tickets, and often engage in extensive codesharing (sometimes systemwide). These are increasingly integrated business combinations—sometimes including cross-equity arrangements—in which products, service standards, schedules, and airport facilities are standardized and combined for higher efficiency. One of the first airlines to start an alliance with another airline was KLM, who partnered with Northwest Airlines. Both airlines later entered the SkyTeam alliance after the fusion of KLM and Air France in 2004.
Analysis of the 1992–1996 period shows that every player in the air transport chain is far more profitable than the airlines, who collect and pass through fees and revenues to them from ticket sales. While airlines as a whole earned 6% return on capital employed (2–3.5% less than the cost of capital), airports earned 10%, catering companies 10–13%, handling companies 11–14%, aircraft lessors 15%, aircraft manufacturers 16%, and global distribution companies more than 30%. (Source: Spinetta, 2000, quoted in Doganis, 2002)
In view of the congestion apparent at many international airports, the ownership of slots at certain airports (the right to take-off or land an aircraft at a particular time of day or night) has become a significant tradable asset for many airlines. Clearly take-off slots at popular times of the day can be critical in attracting the more profitable business traveler to a given airline's flight and in establishing a competitive advantage against a competing airline.
Ultimately, the federal government provided $4.6 billion in one-time, subject-to-income-tax cash payments to 427 U.S. air carriers, with no provision for repayment, essentially a gift from the taxpayers. (Passenger carriers operating scheduled service received approximately $4 billion, subject to tax.) In addition, the ATSB approved loan guarantees to six airlines totaling approximately $1.6 billion. Data from the U.S. Treasury Department show that the government recouped the $1.6 billion and a profit of $339 million from the fees, interest and purchase of discounted airline stock associated with loan guarantees.