American Isn’t As Weak in Asia As You Might Think

American, Delta, United

Many people have used the excuse that since US Airways doesn’t bring American what it really needs, more Asian service, it’s not a worthwhile merger. Naturally, I disagree that not having much in Asia is a reason to abort a merger, but that’s not the point of this post. The point here is to show that American is not actually as weak in Asia as you might think. In fact, it has the ability to be competitive with Delta, though certainly behind powerhouse United.

Let’s start with a simple chart. These are the number of weekly flights this summer from the Continental US to Asia for the big three US airlines, including their joint venture partners.

Continental US to Asia Weekly Flights

This isn’t all of the Asian service offered by each airline, so let me explain why I’ve broken it out this way. First, I’ve left off the substantial Delta and United operations that go from Tokyo to secondary cities in Asia. That would make Delta way bigger than American, but I don’t think it matters. American can get that benefit through its joint venture partner JAL. (United also gets that through ANA besides its own Tokyo hub.)

Second, I’m only looking at flights between the Continental US and Asia nonstop. I’m talking specifically about the Continental US, because both Delta and United have flights between Honolulu and Asia. Those are primarily focused on Asian travelers on holiday so it’s not really relevant to determining how well US carriers serve Asia for their US-based travelers.

Lastly, I’m including joint venture flights operated by ANA under United and by JAL under American, because since it’s a joint venture, those flights should be considered their own. Sure, there is work to be done before the experience is seamless, but the path is there.

With that in mind, here’s how the current landscape looks.
US Gateways to Asia for US Carriers

Asian Destinations for US Carriers
Sorry for all the airline/airport code abbreviations, but I couldn’t fit the full names on these maps. So what stands out here? American clearly provides the least utility, but it has good promise with JAL and in particular, the 787.

King United
United is the undisputed champion when it comes to flying between the US and Asia, and much of that is due to its hub in San Francisco. That has the ability to support flights to secondary markets that don’t work from many other places. United is also the only US carrier to fly from the US to Hong Kong nonstop, though of course, American codeshares with Cathay Pacific.

United has deeper penetration into China on its own airplanes with flights from more gateways. There is another strength in that United flies from 10 mainland cities to Tokyo to feed that hub. Overall, with over 200 weekly flights between the US and Asia this summer, United (including ANA) is nearly double its next competitor and can provide the most single stop itineraries between the US and Asia.

Then there’s Delta. Delta has two real strengths here. One is Detroit, which has an auto industry that can support flights to cities like Nagoya. That hub provides great connectivity from the eastern US. Then in the West, Delta has done a good job of blanketing the west coast with flights to Tokyo in order to feed those people through that hub to places within Asia. With 112 119 weekly flights, it’s a very solid performance considering it’s doing all the flying itself.

Lastly, there’s American. You might be surprised to know that with its joint venture partner JAL, American has only one two fewer flights per day as compared to Delta between the Continental US and Asia. Not what you expected, right? Me neither, to be honest.

American’s Mix of Good and Bad
If you look at the Asian map, American and JAL have good service to Tokyo with options from 7 cities (though one, SFO, is to Haneda without connections), and it’s getting better every day. When JAL gets more 787s (and they aren’t grounded), we’ll see more service like we see to Boston and San Diego. I have to assume Phoenix will likely see a 787 after the merger, opening up a lot of connecting options.

Other cities in the US can support that airplane too. It could also mean flights from bigger US cities to smaller Japanese cities like Osaka or Nagoya. And then, JAL can take those people and connect them through Asia. This will significantly improve American’s ability to get people in big cities to Asia with one stop. And the combination with US Airways will give a lot more two-stop options to secondary Asian cities from small cities through the West and East.

Where does American have weaknesses? China is really the biggest one I see. It has three daily flights from the Continental US to China but United has 7 8 (10 11 if you include Hong Kong) and it has an alliance partner in Air China. Delta has fewer, but it also has alliance partners in China Eastern and China Southern. American is effectively frozen out, and I’m not sure how to get back in. (Yeah, Hainan is there, but that’s pretty tiny. And Cathay is great for Hong Kong, but it’s a huge backtrack to get into mainland China.)

The Western US is also going to be a challenge. Delta can either funnel people through Tokyo from big West Coast cities, or it can increasingly send people up through Seattle via Alaska Airlines. United can also do Tokyo or go through the big SFO hub. American has less opportunity there. But with JAL and the 787, that should narrow the gap. And Phoenix will help with smaller cities in the West.

So yes, it’s true that American is far from the leader in Asia, but it’s not nearly as weak as most people think.

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62 comments on “American Isn’t As Weak in Asia As You Might Think

  1. I wonder if as far as the PNW Gateway goes there is space to grow a hub at SeaTac Airport? They’d be able to work off feed from Alaska, since everyone works with that codeshare slut Alaska.

    1. DL and UA also have realized they need to overfly Japan and their partners in China (MU, CZ, CA) and Korea (KE, OZ) allow them to do this. AA doesn’t have this luxury, so their best bet is relying on JAL. I fully expect a DFW-HKG sooner or later with a Cathay codeshare.

      Either way AA cannot be jack of all trades and they have enough on their plate in Latin America and Europe and domestic to not worry too much about Asia.

      1. AA can’t be the jack of all trades, but if as the world’s largest airline, it also has to serve one of the largest and fastest growing markets in a strong and competitive fashion. There is a lot of potential money there, especially from corporate contracts.
        And, as for Europe, other than using BA at LHR to connect, AA/US has a weak position in Europe and might be #3 there too for non-stop destinations. As an NYC based flier, UA (EWR) and DL (JFK) always seem to offer more nonstop connections, though the LHR 1-stop is definitely better than CDG/AMS.
        Latin America is under assault by DL, and B6 and others will be coming quickly. Airlines must deploy assets to new markets ahead of the demand to keep pace with it. AA needs more TPAC partners. Hopefully 787 / a350s can help.

  2. Isn’t Delta starting to use SEA as an Asian gateway now?

    Also, with Malaysian joining the OneWorld Alliance, doesn’t that mean that we can expect AA to being Code sharing? Malaysia isn’t China, but it is in Asia.

        1. What’s wrong with Portland as a gateway?

          Delta had a direct flight to China from Detroit as it originated from LGA as a one stop.

          1. PDX is an option, however its population is not as large as Seattle, plus it does not have as much feed as SEA.

            There is also the possibility that PDX could be a gateway, but I figure its unlikely.

          2. Delta kept the Tokyo Portland intl flight from the Northwest merger, but discontinued service to Amsterdam. The Tokyo flight is a one stop to China.

            Yes, Portland is a smaller market than Seattle, but is far less congested than San Francisco or even Seattle.

    1. “Also, with Malaysian joining the OneWorld Alliance, doesn?t that mean that we can expect AA to being Code sharing? Malaysia isn?t China, but it is in Asia.”

      I’m sure code sharing is in the offing, but KUL involves a serious amount of backtracking to pretty much any other destination within Asia, save for maybe SIN, BKK, and points within India (and even then, unless you live in LA, you’re looking at a 2-stop via LAX and KUL, instead of a one stop via Europe or AUH/DOH/DXB). Limited utility it would seem.

    1. Ryan – Thanks. That is the one flight I missed somehow. Just extends UA’s dominance further.

      As for Delta, there are codeshares with Korean, but I’m not talking about codeshares. I’m only talking about joint venture partners. They have the ability to file fares jointly, work on planning and pricing together, and generally can coordinate things. There are a million codeshares around with various airlines, but I didn’t count those because those are a much looser association. (I’ve rarely found a competitively-priced codeshare via Seoul.)

  3. Surprised to see the relative dearth of destination options from LAX. The “big three” US airlines and their partners only service three airports in two cities nonstop from LAX? Is there anything not represented here? Seems very underwhelming, especially considering there are more destinations available from SEA (DL) and far more from SFO (UA). Is this a real opportunity for AA to ramp up x-pacific service at LAX? Could they have any help with feed at LAX or would they have to rely on their own service?

    1. Demand in East Asia, like India is spread across multiple points.

      We have 8 airlines flying LAX-NRT with onward connections across all three alliances. We have two strong carriers feeding their MASSIVE hubs at ICN that serve numerous regional Chinese and Japanese airports. We have the Chinese carriers (including CZ with A380) to their hubs and Cathay flying 3 daily to one of the best connecting hubs and business markets in the world. To top it off the Philippine and Taiwanese carriers are there as well.

      To say there’s a dearth of options out of LAX is not exactly accurate. However, your point that the US carriers are lacking at LAX is true. UA has loved SFO, DL is loving SEA, and AA is just kinda conservative in Asia.

      1. Sanjeev, as you note, I was just speaking of US airlines and their direct alliance partners. To me, it still seems odd that there is not more direct service from LAX, especially considering the options from DTW, SEA and a few other places that are nowhere near the international gateway that LAX is. Having to go through NRT or other Asian equivalents of Atlanta for Angelenos to get anyplace other than, well, NRT seems strange to me.

        You are certainly correct that much of this is due to the strong presence of Asian carriers that are not present elsewhere in the US; however, my question is still whether USAA can bulk up x-pacific flights from LAX under their own banner.

        1. I think the issues with LAX are:

          1. It has lots of representation from foreign carriers who generally offer a better product.
          2. Geographically, it’s an inconvenient place to connect to north Asia, which is where much of the non-stop traffic is headed.
          3. The airport sucks (see “I Wanna Go Through SFO” on YouTube).

  4. Much of the angst over American’s realtively “weak” position in Asia comes from the “market share before profitability” mindset that has been behind many of the airline industry’s financial woes for decades. Profits aren’t generated by pretty lines on a route map. American has an opportunity to grow in Asia. But it should be growth that contributes to the bottom line, not growth for its own sake.

    1. I agree to a point. I have been a strong advocate on this forum and others for profitable growth not market-share ego trips. However, “lines on the map” do impact corporate contracts and travel which impact the rest of the operation. Also, given the growth curve for asia, airlines need to expand capacity before much of that growth occurs so that they have slots, name recognition, etc. How early, how much capacity, how many routes/daily flights/seats are all a tough balancing act that I don’t pretend to know how to do. But its too simplistic to say only do “profitable growth” as marginal profit does not equal system profit

    2. Are you serious? We’re talking about one of the last untapped air markets in the world of gigantic size besides India that is going to see extreme growth in demand over the next decade and your theory is to take it slow? Access to these airports and routes is going to be fierce and the need for connections and reach are goingn to be essential. You can’t just cherry pick routes and call it a day.

      1. My point is that undisciplined growth can lead to financial ruin. Early in its history, America West expanded to Nagoya, Japan. It lost money hand over fist and that undisciplined growth contributed mightily to HP’s bankruptcy. There was one notorious flight that had two passengers on it. I’m all for growth. I’m not for growth simply to grow. An airline doesn’t have to be everything to everybody.

        1. Undisciplined growth is one thing, but to really reap the benefits of trans-pacific travel will require significant route investment in a comprehensive manner. Would I expect them to all of a sudden start flying to odd places? No. But the route network will have to be something more substantial than hitting the trunk routes.

          I disagree with the logic that an airline can’t be all things to all people. For the large, international legacies that IS their reason for existence. They are not a low cost airline, they are not regional, their bread and butter is shuttling people in long-range international flights with lucrative business and premium service.

  5. You would almost think with UA’s alliance with NH that they would give up more of their NRT hub operation to NH and use their aircraft to either service more nonstop markets from secondary USA cities to NRT, or use their aircraft for more beyond Tokyo flights.

    1. David SF – I’d say we’ll probably see that down the line. Think about how Air France/KLM swaps airplanes with Delta on various routes. For example, Delta flies Philly to Paris but really that’s just because Delta has the right airplane (757) for the market. It has taken years for that relationship to get to this point while the Asian ones are newer. I figure it’ll happen eventually.

      1. Northwest did Philadelphia–Amsterdam and Newark–Amsterdam for KLM ages ago — I flew their DC-10 in 1998.

  6. I think American needs to either strengthen its relationship with CX, or add its own flights to HKG. CX subsidiary KA offers excellent connectivity into mainland primary and secondary markets. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them take advantage of HKG soon, especially with a now competitive (hard) product.

  7. Codeshares and JV partners are a good idea in theory but they still aren’t anywhere close to seamless. Far from it. A lot has to happen before those can be considered at all similar to the home metal operations. Just try to get an upgrade if you think otherwise.

    Don’t forget about the SFO-TPE service; that isn’t listed on the Asia map.

    And having the few extra cities really does matter. Makes a big difference in passenger convenience.

    American has some service. They meet the “bare minimum” standards. But they aren’t much beyond that at all.

    1. I agree with WA’s comment. Relying on service via a JV partner has significant drawbacks. Often schedules aren’t well-aligned, and often you cannot get boarding passes on the JV partner until you reach their hub, and you may have to wait in lines at a transfer counter, which can risk a connection or mean you have last choice on seats. You generally don’t get elite benefits like upgrades and priority in the event of IRROPs. Sometimes fares are higher. There is a whole host of reasons why flights on a JV partner are inferior to staying on UA or DL metal. So AA is much farther behind UA and DL in Asia then your chart would indicate. Frankly, AA is suprisingly weak in Europe, too, beyond London. There are many cities served by UA and DL which are missing in AA’s route map, and LHR is such an awful connecting hub. It’s really only South America where AA has the dominant route system.

    2. Wandering Aramean – While joint ventures are far from perfect today, they will only improve with time. The key is that they have joint pricing and planning capabilities so they really can figure out where people want to go and get them there. I do not include codeshares at all here unless they are part of a joint venture, because those are different.

      So sure, there aren’t joint upgrades with JAL today, but American does have that to some extent with BA and Iberia. Again, it’s not the same as American metal, but it’s going in the right direction. I stand by my methodology even though it’s clearly not identical to having your own metal.

      Also, Taipei was included in the US map but it was accidentally left off the Asia one (despite the dot being there). I have fixed it.

      1. Bad form to reply to myself, but I had another couple thoughts here for Wandering Aramean.

        I assume that you’re coming from a United perspective on this. There is no way that American is going to be able to compete with United for Asian dominance. It’s just not even close and it won’t happen. But think about this from a Delta perspective.

        With JAL, American has a very similar number of nonstops over to Asia. I know, upgrades are your big concern, right? But Delta only lets you upgrade from Y, B, or M fares. So you’re paying usually in the $4,000 roundtrip range to even be able to upgrade. So really, upgrades become far less important in comparison with Delta.

      2. I second the point about upgrades (and generally JVs not being the same as an airline’s own metal). Of course things like routes and schedules are (far) more important, but limitations on upgrades are particularly vexing for AA. They have the most generous upgrade policy and getting stuck on JAL is a real limitation. United suffers less from this problem–and Delta not really at all, given the upgrades are largely useless.

  8. Cranky, I think that your post misses the point.

    When I travel internationally (especially trans-ocean), I want to travel on the metal of my Elite Status Program. Why? Because I can get upgrades (use my SWUs or equivalent), full mileage (sometimes the partner flights are not true codeshares, so the mileage earnings are less than 100%), etc.

    I live in the SF Bay Area (about equidistant between SFO and SJC) and was for many years a loyal AA flier (especially when SJC was a hub/focus city, both before and after the Reno Air acquisition), even becoming a Lifetime Platinum. But after the dotcom bubble burst, AA began dismantling SJC as a hub, cutting non-stops to places such as London, Taipei (if I recall correctly), and the last straw for me, Tokyo.

    Since then, I have moved most of my business to United, because I can travel non-stop on United Metal to Europe, Asia, Mexico, etc.

    Can you show the total Asia flights analysis for each of the three, but separating big 3 metal versus partner flights?

    1. AP – Sure, I can break it down excluding other metal. Delta, of course, remains with 119 weekly flights since they have no joint venture. United drops from 222 to 161. American drops from 105 to 70.

      I think San Francisco is a special case in that American really can’t serve anyone well in the Bay Area. Even with JAL, the only nonstop is to Haneda so there are no connections. (The terrible schedules dictated by the Japanese government force that issue.)

      Of course it makes sense that you would move your business to United because they fly nonstop everywhere. But that’s a unique case. American isn’t trying to build up its presence in the Bay Area.

      I understand that upgrades are an issue and they’re going to need to figure that out over time. But even if they allowed upgrades on JAL, you still aren’t going to switch back to American because of United’s dominance with nonstop options in the Bay Area. It might be a different story, however, if you were in another city where the choice wasn’t as clear cut.

  9. “I?ve left off the substantial Delta and United operations that go from Tokyo to secondary cities in Asia.”

    Isn’t that a little unfair? I always thought the DL/UA hub at NRT was a great system. There are probably only a few US-Asia routes that could sustain a non-stop service, particularly to the secondary Asian cities, but the hub allows convenient one-stop connections with good timings for a large number of passengers. AC feeds most of its non-Chinese Asian traffic into UA at NRT.

    1. Arcanum – Doesn’t seem unfair to me. You can get those same options on American going via Narita connecting to JAL just as you can with United connecting to ANA. They are able to jointly plan and price to make sure that the connections that have high demand are readily available with good connecting times.

  10. If I read correctly, some code shares are counted in this exercise and some are not. There’s a DL/KAL code share non stop to ICN from Dulles (IAD).

  11. I think you are “forgetting” Delta’s Skyteam partner Korean Airlines, who have 9 directs between US cities and Incheon. It is a great hub that offers excellent access to China and Asia.

    1. This focused on the actual airline themselves or JV partners, Korean doesn’t have a joint venture with Delta although there was talk of them deepening ties.

    1. Terry – Let me make something very clear. I don’t write objectively. This is an opinion blog. If you want news, there are plenty of other places to go for that. This blog is here solely for me to give my opinion on what’s happening.

  12. Didn’t see any mention of India here. Of course, with the exception of UA’s EWR-DEL and EWR-BOM service, everyone else has jettisoned their non-stops to India. Do you think USAA might look at that as an opportunity if/when the 787 gets added to the fleet? Or will we instead see new service to DOH, either on USAA metal or Qatar, and see that built up into a (much needed) alternative to DXB?

    1. MeanMeosh – True, I didn’t look at India here. The nonstops have not done very well. Could there possibly be a 787 to go nonstop from the US on the New American? Maybe, but it seems to me that it probably isn’t that high on the list. There are ample good connections via Europe and the Middle East that don’t lose a lot of time in the process. But yeah, it might be somewhere on the list.

  13. Thank you everyone for pointing out some of the mistakes on the map. I have fixed:
    *Added Seattle-Shanghai for Delta on both maps
    *Added Chicago-Shanghai for United on both maps
    *Added San Francisco-Taipei for United on the Asia map (it was already on the US one)

  14. Only one US carrier into TPE? that should change. Can the 787 or A350 do LAX/SFO-SGN or KLL or SIN?

    Did AA ever do Australia when they had the 747SP?

    1. yo – Well, Delta still has a flight from Narita to Taipei, but yes, only one US carrier flies nonstop.

      As for the 787, it can probably do some of those. Boeing claims a range of 7,650 to 8,200nm. SFO to Ho Chi Minh is shortest at 6,811nm. Both Kuala Lumpur and Singapore are about 7,350nm.

    2. Hawaiian will also be starting HNL-TPE in July. But their HNL base isn’t well positioned to take passengers from the mainland to TPE, you can add several hundred miles to you trip to stop in HNL versus going nonstop from or connecting on the west coast, so I don’t think they’ll be a major player in the mainland-TPE market. Though HA’s primary business is Hawaii O&D traffic anyway.

  15. CF, has American with its JV with JAL surpassed Delta after its build up from DFW? Also, do you expect them to ever catch up to United?

    1. Karl – I don’t think they have. I’ve also come to learn that the Japanese JVs aren’t quite as strong as others. It sounds like there is less cooperation than you see over the Atlantic. American is still a distant third in actual presence and I’d be surprised if it ever rose to the level of a United.

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