If you like the game “death by a thousand cuts,” then you’ll love what Delta has been doing at Tokyo’s Narita Airport. With the creation of the joint venture with Korean and the opening up of Haneda, we all knew that Delta’s Narita hub was on its death bed. But the most recent cuts to the airline’s most-profitable beach markets were actually a surprise to me in that I figured they would be the last Narita routes standing. I was wrong, and now the way I figure it, Delta is four Haneda slots away from pulling out of Narita entirely.
Narita hub has a long history dating back to the end of World War II. In the spoils of war, Northwest (and Pan Am) won the right to use Tokyo as a hub for flying into Asia. Their airplanes couldn’t get much further from the US at the time, so this was a huge advantage for serving the continent. A lot has changed since that time. Longer-range aircraft meant that Northwest (and Delta post-merger) could overfly the Narita hub and get passengers from the US to important Asian cities without a stop. That was a big blow to the hub.
Things accelerated when Haneda was opened up for limited US flights. Haneda is closer to Tokyo and the nearby second-largest Japanese city of Yokohama, is strongly preferred by Japanese travelers, and avoids that perilous journey into the city past Godzilla’s home.
Delta never got enough Haneda slots to move the entirety of its remaining Narita operation, so it moved the flights it could, and then let the skeleton of Narita hold on for dear life. Once relations thawed between Delta and its partner Korean, they formed a joint venture which would flow traffic via Incheon instead of Tokyo. The end was clearly near for Narita.
Slowly but surely, routes were cut from Narita. Since I last wrote about this in 2016, Delta cut its flights from Narita to Taipei and will end Shanghai in July. It also stopped flying to Guam last month in the face of a dramatic decrease in demand after the saber-rattling from North Korea. None of these were particularly surprising, but last week’s announcement that Delta’s Palau and Saipan flights would end this May was more shocking.
Delta serves three kinds of routes from Narita.
These are your traditional Narita routes connecting travelers from the US to Tokyo and beyond. Today, thanks to the opening of Haneda, there are only four of these routes left flying: Portland, Seattle, Detroit, and Atlanta.
These are the routes that Americans could connect on to go beyond Tokyo. After Shanghai ends in July, there will only be two of these left. The first is Singapore, a high-dollar market that Delta can’t yet serve nonstop from the US due to aircraft limitations. The other is Manila, a market with more demand from Tokyo itself than from the US. It’s low-yield and has been downgauged significantly from a 747 to a 767 in recent years. I would expect this is living on borrowed time.
The last and seemingly-strongest market segment involves beach markets which are almost entirely for Japanese people looking for some sun. In an interview with CEO Ed Bastian last year, I asked about these particular markets. He said:
Ninety-five percent of the traffic is the local market. We’ve got longstanding relationships in the local market. Delta’s well known within the trade on those [flights]. Historically they’ve been the most profitable part of the Narita operation, the beaches, and I think they will continue to be a sought after destination.
Well, so much for that. With Guam, Saipan, and Palau disappearing, that leaves just one beach market… Honolulu. It’s not just Narita that has Honolulu flights either. You may be surprised to know that Delta also flies to Honolulu from Osaka, Nagoya, and even Fukuoka. But clearly if that was the “most profitable” part of the Narita operation, then the Narita operation is on death’s door.
So now we wait. The way I figure it, Delta is four Haneda slots away from shutting down Narita completely.
If Delta gets four slots, it can then move Atlanta, Seattle, Detroit, and Honolulu over. Once that happens, the Manila and Singapore flights would disappear. I’d imagine Singapore would then be served via Incheon (likely on Korean metal) until Delta decides it can reliably fly a full aircraft from Seattle to Singapore nonstop. Manila would probably just go away, though it would be reachable via Incheon as well for the American that want to go there. Barring some big corporate contract keeping Portland to Narita in place, I wouldn’t be surprised to see that flight shift to Incheon to feed the joint venture with Korean once it’s up and running.
At that point, Narita becomes nothing but a distant memory. What’s most remarkable is that once those Singapore and Manila flights go, then all US use of Japan for fifth freedom flights beyond into Asia will cease. (United, the heir to the Pan Am network, already ended its flying beyond Tokyo thanks to its ANA joint venture.) Those routes served an important purpose when airplanes couldn’t physically fly people nonstop from the US. Now, we’re very close to those simply being a memory. It’s hard to believe that we’re close to a day when Delta/Northwest doesn’t even serve Narita at all.