The Delta and Korean Air Relationship Begins to Thaw

It seems strange to be talking about any kind of thawing of relations in Korea considering what North Korea has been up to lately, but of course, this is a different kind of thawing. After years of strained relations, it sounds like Delta and Korean Air are on a path to reconciliation. And the first big public step was taken last week when the airlines jointly announced increased codesharing and new service.

Delta and Korean Relationship Thawing

The basics of the announcement are as follows:

  • Delta will begin flying nonstop from Atlanta to Seoul/Incheon daily next June 3. This will be in addition to the flight Korean already operates in the market.
  • Korean will begin codesharing on the new Delta flight as well as on flights beyond Atlanta, Los Angeles, and New York to 115 places in the US and Canada.
  • Korean will put its code on the Delta flights from Atlanta and New York to Sao Paulo. This is useful since Korean is ending its own flight to Sao Paulo (via LA).
  • Delta will put its code on more destinations beyond Seoul, now 32 different places with new destinations including Taipei, Osaka, Singapore, Nagoya and Okinawa.
  • Delta will put its code on Korean’s flights from San Francisco and Houston to Incheon

As you can see, there’s a lot here. But what isn’t here is any kind of joint venture operation or restoration of elite and bonus SkyMiles benefits for people flying on Korean-marketed flights. I would imagine those would be the next steps if this truly a reconciliation. But for now, all we can do is read the tea leaves.

At first I assumed this was transactional, more about solving specific need as opposed to repairing a broader relationship. After all, Delta is pulling down its Tokyo hub and is finding it harder to serve certain places in Asia. At the same time, it wanted to beef up its Atlanta operation to Asia, but it couldn’t do it without more feed. Korean, meanwhile, wanted more feed for its flights in the US.

Upon further review, however, it seems like there could be something deeper here. Most notably, look at Atlanta. This past summer, Korean started by flying a mix of 777s and 747-8s on the route and then went to a mix of 777s and A380s. At the beginning of September, that went down to all 777s, but next year, there is no upgauge back to the A380. Korean is keeping a lid of capacity next summer, just in time for Delta to enter, and this didn’t just happen. That sounds like there were some real, meaningful discussions over time.

You might think this sounds like illegal capacity coordination, but it’s not. Remember, even without a joint venture, Delta and Korean have had anti-trust immunity since 2002. They can talk to each other about anything if they want. They just haven’t wanted to for some time.

Maybe Delta under new CEO Ed Bastian is kinder and gentler? If so, that’s the best news of all. If they’re talking and coming to terms on agreements like this, then that could lead to something greater down the road. Undoubtedly there are most obstacles to be overcome, but you have to at least start talking to get there.

And as a starting point, this is great since there is real benefit for both.

Korean has long made hay flying travelers between the US and China. But the avalanche of new service by Chinese carriers in secondary Chinese markets to the US has to be causing concern. This codeshare is going to help Korean fill more seats (if necessary) by taking people deeper into secondary US cities, or even primary ones. It’s crazy that today, Korean has no codeshare into cities as large as Miami.

And of course, Delta has struggled with finding a way to replace its fading Tokyo hub. Remember, Delta just announced it was canceling service from Tokyo to Osaka and Bangkok. That meant that there would be no way to get to Osaka on a Delta code. (Delta already codeshares to Bangkok with both Korean and China Eastern.)

Now, however, Delta can do it via this Korean codeshare through Incheon. Keep in mind, the only cities that Delta continues to serve from its Tokyo hub in Asia are Manila, Shanghai, Singapore, and Taipei. Those latter two will now be reachable via Incheon on Korean metal as well, just like Osaka. Could this be foreshadowing more Tokyo cuts? Possibly, the relationship really is on the mend.

It would seem to me that the startling inability to earn elite and bonus SkyMiles on Korean flights would be the next hurdle to overcome. If that happens, then the really hard work starts: working on a joint venture. It’s not clear to me that they can get to that point, but chances appear better now than they have been in years.

(Visited 3,442 times, 1 visits today)

Get Posts via Email When They Go Live or in a Weekly Digest

Leave a Reply

32 Comments on "The Delta and Korean Air Relationship Begins to Thaw"

newest oldest most voted

The return flight to ATL seems to be really late to make connections a bit tight…

Neil S.

Do I get MQM and MQD on KE metal if it’s a DL codeshare/flight number?


if you book it as a DL marketed code, you get credit. It is when you book it as KE that the skymiles are utterly neutered.


These things take time to plan, but the timing of these announcements comes pretty quickly after the last of the HND route awards. It may be sinking in that ICN is DL’s best hope for a northeast Asian hub (PVG is a bit too far south to serve the secondary Japan markets).


I believe this sentence should read: “Possibly, if the relationship really is on the mend.”


ATL-ICN is about 300 miles farther than ATL-NRT, and as far as flights continuing to china, thailand, and wherever else in SE asia, it seems like ICN is a no-big-deal replacement for NRT.

interesting moves here. as a DL flyer lets hope the mileage earning gets to where it needs to be

David SF eastbay

Seems DL figured out Japan doesn’t care if DL dismantles it’s NRT hub so it needs to suck up to KE now to better compete with UA and AA in the Asia market.


Could the increase in codesharing have anything to do with the pilots negotiations? Trying to eliminate some long haul flying even with the flights from ATL. Their Tokyo pull down has to net them a TRANSPAC net loss in flying.

Nick Barnard

I’m also curious how much, if any financial weakness on KE’s side is driving this.

They’re in the same group as Hanjin shipping, which just recently filed for bankruptcy. While I’m not sure of the exact nature of the financial interlocking, it might be affecting KE in some way that they’d want to adjust their commercial strategy.


while we know Delta plays hardball with its friends and competitors, looking at Virgin among others would lead me to believe a closer partnership is still a net positive. While it may not be fun to answer to Atlanta, the track record shows benefits for those that get close…


It’s too early to see the longer term effects, but KE is out $54 million to help shore up Hanjin Shipping’s operations.

Doug Swalen
Your parsing of how bad off Delta’s Tokyo hub is…is curious. I guess if you want to get technical about what constitutes Asia and what doesn’t, leaving out Guam and Koror off the list of Asia service from Narita might be accurate from a hair splitter’s point of view but it does mean that instead of saying that Delta still serves six cities from Narita, it only serves four. And Koror has been upgraded from seasonal to full time. Granted, most biz class passengers aren’t going to be interested in flying Delta metal to Koror (unless their business is scuba… Read more »

DTW seems conspicuously absent from this announcement… particularly DTW-GRU.

Quote-“It’s crazy that today, Korean has no codeshare into cities as large as Miami.” I have flown KE to Manila from Miami and FLL a few times in the past few years. They have partnered with Delta (outbound/inbound through Atlanta-2012), JetBlue (outbound through JFK 2013-15) and American (inbound through Atlanta 2013-15). All miles were earned through KE’s Skypass Program. I purchase tickets using travel agents that are bulk ticket consolidators. After the freezing of relations in early 2013, you van see the KE has adapted using other airlines in the USA that are not members of Skyteam. Not planning on… Read more »

I wonder if DL is starting to question if MU and PVG can actually fill some of the voids left when NRT is finally de-hubbed. Whether that’s MU operation, the lack of progress for Open Skies with China, timing of the de-hubbing, etc??.

I would think that SEA and LAX could pick up some of the pieces left by NRT, and wouldn’t ICN pick up the rest (even better than PVG)?

Tim Dunn
1. Joint ventures so far haven’t changed the competitive environment to East Asia even where they exist. Delta is still number 2 behind United and ahead of American in network size, average fares, cities served with its own metal. Even with a JV/JBA, American is a distant number 3 to Japan 2. No carriers have been growing between the US and Japan and the gradual opening of Haneda is certain to continue if not accelerate that trend. Delta now has more mainland US to Haneda access than American or United and data for existing Haneda flights shows that Delta will… Read more »
In Tokushima

DL flies to Osaka/Kansai from Honolulu, so while connection times may not be optimal, one can fly from the US mainland on DL flights from various cities to Osaka that way.

Gary Bisbee

Korean Air is an Alaska partner. Could that be the reason for the thaw?

Tim Dunn
Alaska has a codeshare and FFP relationship with virtually every airline that operates longhaul international flights from Seattle including Delta. Airline members of alliances generally cannot cross alliance lines (there are exceptions) but Alaska like JetBlue is not part of any alliance and feeds airlines of many alliances as well as those outside of alliances. Korean’s practice could have been an issue for Delta and it is possible that Delta is requiring Korean to remove its code from Alaska flights… don’t know but not an unreasonable request. As to the comment below regarding pricing via the Middle East, that is… Read more »
Alex Kim

Interestingly enough, if you check AtlantaSingapore or Shanghai flights for the Summer of 2017, cheapest (and usually the best) connections will be via Qatar Airways or Turkish airlines.
So transpacific flights are no longer the only option


Korean air has a weird elite system, requiring 30k miles from its own metal and 20k from everything else (skyteam and other partner airlines, credit card, chase UR transfer). DL is playing fair in that KE mile is worth as much as credit card points, and that’s what KE has been doing so far. KE needs to do some action, for instance, 30k of KE own and DL combined, and 20k all others. Only then DL would move.


As for Hanjin, the bankrupcy mainly just dumps the debt obligations onto the government – it does not directly affect KE