Delta Air Lines prepares to say ‘sayonara’ to Narita

Delta Air Lines is close to meeting an objective of dropping Tokyo Narita, where it has had a hub since the airport opened 40 years ago, and instead expand its point to point operation at Tokyo Haneda. The shift, likely to occur 2020, will improve Delta’s position in the local Tokyo market, particularly for corporate and premium passengers.


Highlights:

  • Delta Air Lines has suspended 15 routes from Narita in recent years and will likely suspend its remaining seven Narita routes by the end of 2020;
  • The airline applied last month for six slot pairs at Tokyo Haneda, covering the five US routes it still operates at Narita;
  • Delta intends to drop its Narita hub, which also now includes two routes within Asia, and instead focus on serving Japan using Haneda while relying on connections via Seoul on JV partner Korean Air for Southeast Asia.

The US major currently operates seven routes from Narita – Atlanta, Detroit, Honolulu, Manila, Portland, Seattle and Singapore. It resumed serving Haneda in 2011 using an initial batch of new Haneda slots and currently operates from Haneda to Los Angeles and Minneapolis.

The airline’s predecessor Northwest Airlines had a hub at Haneda before Narita opened in 1978. Northwest and subsequently Delta have since had a hub at Narita, using Narita to connect Asia with the US (including US territories in the Pacific).

However, Delta in recent years has gradually been reducing its Narita operation. Suspended routes from Narita over the last eight years include: Bangkok (2016), Beijing (2014), Busan (2012), Guam (2018), Hong Kong (2014), Los Angeles (2016), Minneapolis (2016), New York JFK (2016), Palau (2018), Saipan (2018), Salt Lake City (2011), San Francisco (2014), Seoul Incheon (2013), Shanghai Pudong (2018) and Taipei (2017).

Last month, Delta applied to the US DOT for six of 12 newly available Haneda slot pairs for US airlines. Delta is proposing daily flights from Haneda to Atlanta, Detroit, Portland and Seattle and a double daily service from Haneda to Honolulu.

Three other airlines have applied for a combined 13 Haneda slot pairs: four by American Airlines, three by Hawaiian Airlines and six by United Airlines. Therefore, when including Delta’s application there are seven fewer slot pairs available than requested. Delta could have an edge because American and United have a much bigger presence in Tokyo through their JV partnerships with Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways while Hawaiian’s application is limited to one route.

Delta has a new JV with Korean Air and has made no secret of its intention to drop the Narita hub and instead offer US-Asia connections via Seoul Incheon while using Haneda to serve the local US-Japan market. The ideal scenario for Delta is to move its remaining Narita-US flights to Haneda and use Seoul to serve its two remaining beyond points (Manila and Singapore).

If it does not get all six requested slot pairs, Delta will likely have to make do with a slightly smaller Tokyo-US operation as it would not make sense to maintain a small number of flights at Narita. Honolulu is perhaps the least likely request to be approved but Delta can use Korean to maintain its presence in the Tokyo-Honolulu market as Korean operates from Narita to Honolulu using fifth freedom rights.

The new slots at Haneda for US airlines are being made available at the start of the summer 2020 season – or a few months prior to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Delta could therefore pull out of Narita when the 2020 summer schedule begins in late March 2020. Or perhaps Delta could wait until after the Olympics which would give it an opportunity to run extra Tokyo flights for the period of the event.

Losing Delta is a blow for Narita given Delta (or Northwest) was one of Narita’s largest airlines for nearly four decades. However, moving to Haneda is positive for Delta’s Japan-US passengers, particularly business and corporate passengers, given the convenience of Haneda. While some US corporates would prefer the option of Delta metal to Southeast Asia, the much larger array of options on Korean Air via Seoul is appealing.