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Delta Turns Away From Tokyo in Favor of Seattle

For many years, Delta and United had very different operational strategies for Asia. United long ago shifted from focusing on its Tokyo hub to overflying Tokyo to points beyond thanks to the strength of its San Francisco hub. Delta never had that key west coast gateway, so it continued to focus on Tokyo… until now. The build-up of the new Seattle hub means Delta is de-emphasizing its Tokyo operation.

Delta Trades Tokyo for Seattle

The economics of all this make perfect sense. If you’re in the US, would you rather first fly to SFO and then get to your final destination with one stop? Or would you rather fly to a Delta gateway in the US, then fly to Tokyo, and then get to your final destination? Naturally, you want the former, and that’s why United’s hub at SFO is so valuable. But Delta never really had that option previously because it didn’t have a west coast hub. What was it going to do, run flights from Salt Lake to Asia? Yeah, right. And of course, a place like Detroit, which does have several nonstop options, is too far east to serve much of the country.

So Delta did the best it could. It flew from the big west coast cities to Tokyo (LA, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle) and then carried people from there to the rest of Asia. That was a Northwest legacy from when the Tokyo hub was won in the spoils of World War II. Back then, it made more sense, but more recently Delta has realized that it wasn’t adequately serving the demand in the US. It was time for a strategy shift.

Delta has rapidly added flights from Seattle to Asia as part of its build-up, growing well beyond the legacy Tokyo flight. There is now a new Tokyo/Haneda flight (we’ll see how long that lasts) to complement the Tokyo/Narita option. You’ll also find nonstop service to Beijing and Shanghai. Most recently, Delta added Seoul/Incheon and Hong Kong. Osaka/Kansai failed (a city United serves from San Francisco), but otherwise, Delta serves the largest cities in Asia just as United does. United’s only other Asian cities from San Francisco are Taipei and Chengdu, both coming online next year. So Delta will serve the big cities it needs. (Delta also has an Amsterdam flight, a Paris flight, and soon, a London flight in the works for those heading over the Atlantic.)

Of course, you can’t just throw a bunch of long haul airplanes in a gateway city and call it a day. Then you’d be Pan Am and you’d be failing miserably. That’s why it always seemed so smart for Delta to tighten up its relationship with Alaska Airlines. Alaska dominates domestic travel from Seattle and can provide perfect feed into Delta to support those international flights.

At least, that’s how it looked originally, but now Delta has decided to put more and more of its own airplanes in the market instead. Outside of its hubs and Honolulu, Delta had never really done much into Seattle domestically. Now, however, Delta is building up its own service in big west coast markets. By next summer, there will be 7 daily flights to LA (which you could call a hub now anyway), 7 to San Francisco, and 5 to Vegas.

There’s no way Delta is going to replace Alaska’s service to so many other key cities from Seattle, but the airline has clearly made the decision that at least on big routes, it wants to own the customer. Look at San Francisco as a great example.

By adding these 7 daily flights, Delta can provide utility to people in San Francisco by sending them through Seattle. In exchange, it can now cancel the nonstop flight from San Francisco to Tokyo. (It goes away March 29 and was probably losing a bunch of money.) This makes Delta more self-sufficient. It also has apparently empowered the airline to kill the codesharing agreement with Korean Air via Incheon once it has its own flights from Seattle. I still think that’s a mistake.

With fewer people needing to go through Narita, Delta can then start to cut back on intra-Asia Tokyo flights. There is no longer a flight to Seoul, or Guangzhou, or Busan…. The remaining intra-Asia flying can largely be categorized into two groups. Group 1 is made up of those cities that are either too far or too weak to justify nonstop service from the US (Bangkok, Manila, Singapore, and Taipei). Group 2 is made up of Pacific islands where there just isn’t enough demand from the US to fly nonstop (Guam, Palau, and Saipan). Other than that, there are only 3 outliers. Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong may do well enough to stand on their own. Or maybe they will disappear as the Seattle hub strengthens.

Naturally, this opens up a lot of questions. What will happen to Delta’s relationship with its Asian partners, especially Korean which it seems to hate. And more importantly here at home, what will this mean for the relationship with Alaska? It’s clear that Delta has settled on a strategy of shrinking Tokyo in favor of Seattle. But what that means for the airline’s partners is still up in the air. For travelers, however, it means more one-stop options.

[Original Tokyo photo via skyearth / Shutterstock.com]
[Original Space Needle photo via Lonnie Gorsline / Shutterstock.com

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