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American's loyalty members may no longer have to worry about the mixed messages coming from China Southern and its plans to join the Oneworld Alliance. With a new partnership, frequent flyers on both carriers will now be able to reap benefits — with or without China Southern playing a role in Oneworld.

Despite repeated claims from all sides that China Southern has no interest in joining the Oneworld alliance, American Airlines and Asia’s largest carrier are moving forward with a frequent flyer partnership. The new arrangement announced Wednesday will allow American’s AAdvantage and China Southern’s Sky Pearl Club members the ability to earn and redeem miles on each other’s flights.

Mileage earning for passengers will go into effect March 21, and online availability is planned for later this year. In the meantime, phone reservations agents at American are already reporting the ability to book China Southern flights through Sabre, its booking system. An earn chart, which shows how China Southern fares will earn miles in American’s loyalty program, has also been posted to American’s site.

American and China Southern’s partnership comes at a time in which Oneworld has been cool on formally pulling the Asian carrier fully into the alliance — though it’s not clear which side the hesitation is coming from. At Oneworld’s 20th anniversary in February, Ron Gurney, CEO of Oneworld shared that the alliance had “no plans” to add the carrier in full. Instead, he suggested that China Southern might join Oneworld as a Connect partner, a new type of “alliance light” that allows passengers to connect onto partners and still earn benefits.

The relationship announced between American and China Southern on Wednesday is more thorough than that. In addition to the ability to earn and spend miles reciprocally, loyalty members can book flights directly through the other carrier’s website and still reap benefits. In other words, the relationship is almost like having an alliance partner without having China Southern in the alliance.

To be clear, many expected some sort of deeper relationship to bear fruit after American bought a stake in China Southern in 2017. Only a year after that investment, China Southern bowed out of the Skyteam alliance, leading many to speculate that it planned to join Oneworld. Ever since Gurney’s comments and the big push around Oneworld Connect, however, that enthusiasm seems to have faded.

That doesn’t mean that China Southern may not eventually end up joining Oneworld. Both airlines and alliances have famously been coy about when new members are coming onboard and China Southern will need to tread lightly in the back yard of Cathay Pacific, another major Oneworld carrier based out of Hong Kong. At the very least, AAdvantage members anxious to fly deeper into China will now get minimal frequent flyer benefits. Other Oneworld passengers will have to wait.

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Tags: american airlines, china southern, oneworld

Photo credit: A China Southern A380 takes off on December 16, 2017, 278972 / 278972

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