Air India has set March 2011 as the outer deadline to join the Star Alliance, the world’s largest commercial pact among carriers, Chairman Arvind Jadhav said here late on Friday.

This is the first time since an invitation was extended in Beijing in late 2007 that the Indian carrier has set a specific time frame to become a member of Star Alliance, which now has 27 members with Brazil’s TAM Airlines formally joining it on Friday.

“We are targeting December internally, but will officially join in the first quarter of 2011,” Jadhav told IANS on the margins of an event to induct TAM into the Star Alliance network, even as he acknowledged that Jet Airways was in talks to join the pact.

“India is a growing market. So it can have more than one member. The market is bound to grow. But we have made it clear to Star Alliance that Jet Airways should join after us as we would like to have the first mover advantage.” Jadhav added.

The strength of Star Alliance is apparent. Its now counts 27 member carriers, offering more than 21,050 daily flights to 1,167 destinations in 181 countries. It also offers passengers a seamless network and 990 lounges across the globe.

Air India was invited by Lufthansa, the driving force of the pact, to join the alliance in late 2007 in Beijing. But a delayed software integration after the merger of Indian Airlines into Air India pushed the carrier’s plans to join the pact earlier.

A common airline code within Air India is essential for merging it with the systems of the member carriers of Star Alliance to ensure seamless integration of frequent flyer programmes, ticketing and on-through connections, among other issues.

Last month, the National Aviation Company of India (NACIL), the parent company of Air India, awarded a $190-million contract over 10 years to specialist travel trade major SITA to provide its software-based passenger services system on a turnkey basis.

The contract stipulates a single airline code for now defunct Indian Airlines (IC) and Air India (AI) within 300 days and will eventually help in integrating it with other systems to enable the carrier enter the Star Alliance pact as a full-time member.

“Implementation of the system will complete the merger of Air India with former carrier Indian Airlines. It also will enable us to align the processes and systems to meet Star Alliance standards. The IC code was anyway weak and we had to change it,” said Jadhav.

Star Alliance officials also explained that systems integration is a major challenge, as it has over 80 requirements. But most of it has been fulfilled by Air India.

“We expect to get a single code by October. Integration of systems between New Delhi and Mumbai will follow,” Jadhav said, adding SITA will also design an online booking engine, a departure control system, check-in and automated boarding control, baggage system and a frequent flyer programme.

The two airlines currently run on two different systems - Speedwing for Indian Airlines and Unisys-based system for Air India - which will need to be integrated for a seamless migration to proceed.

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