With Four More Tokyo/Haneda Slots, Delta Could Pull Out of Its Ever-Shrinking Narita Hub Entirely

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.

The Tokyo 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.

Mainland US
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.

Intra-Asia
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.

Beach
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.

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Gary Leff
Guest

“The 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.”

But Delta says US airlines aren’t government-supported, only Gulf carriers are. Subsidies aren’t just dollars, they’re guns.

Eric Morris
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Eric Morris

Thank you for speaking the truth, Gary. Apparently it hurts many people that read this blog.

Andy
Member
Andy

The down votes aren’t about people being upset, they’re about the total irrelevance of this comment to the post at hand. Being this up on one of the numerous posts cranky has made about the subsidy debate, not here where we want to read about Narita, Haneda, and intra Asia flying.

Eric Morris
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Eric Morris

Gary quoted directly from the article. Apparently the down voters have a very strict definition of relevance. I guess the “strict constructionists” write the majority opinions here.

Nick
Guest
Nick

Are you really comparing the current subsidies EK, EY and QR receive to the US occupation of Japan in the 1940’s? Both airlines who were the direct benefits aren’t even around anymore. There are some legitimate complaints about US subsidies but I think you’re stretching pretty far here.

ChuckMO
Guest

A slight correction Brett. The Tokyo hubs of NW and PA date back to the end of WW2, but Narita Airport itself did not open until 1978.

tvmccabe
Member
tvmccabe

It is interesting that many years ago United started to deemphaze NRT with more non stops from the US skipping Marita. Bejing and Hong Kong non stops clearly changed the market as Cathay non stops started to pull all the Hong Kong connecting traffic off of the Tokyo trips. NW and then Delta took too long to respond. Amazing to see DL may exit Narita

SEA Flyer
Member
SEA Flyer

At one time DL (or perhaps pre-merger NW) flew SEA-HND as well as SEA-NRT. Why did it drop the SEA-HND flight rather than the SEA-NRT flight? I figured at the time that it needed the NRT traffic to support the hub.

Jimmy
Guest

That PDX-NRT flight sure is the odd one out. It’s pretty clear that PDX can support a flight to Asia even with minimal feed on either end, but it would make a lot more sense if it were an Alaska partner like JAL or Korean operating that flight.

Bill from DC
Guest
Bill from DC

Could KAL run a PDX-ICN flight that code shared with DL and AS? If so, that seems like a winner.

Alex Hill
Member
Alex Hill

AS doesn’t put their code on partner long haul flights, but otherwise yes. KE could fly to PDX and put their code on AS flights out of PDX. But I have trouble seeing that; DL clearly doesn’t want their joint venture partners partnering with AS instead of keeping the revenue inside the JV.

Doug Swalen
Guest
Doug Swalen

I get a laugh every time Palau gets called a “beach” destination…because anyone who has been there can tell you the few beaches that do exist at resorts are chiefly man-made and hard as a rock. The soft sand natural beaches are mostly located well away from civilization and you have to be boated out there on day trips or you rent a car and head up the Babeldaob coast. Palau isn’t like Saipan, Guam, and Hawaii with natural beaches right at the resorts.

RGCox
Guest
RGCox

It’s all about the sun!

Wandering Aramean
Guest

It isn’t just landing slots at Haneda. There’s also the Japan-US bilateral that limits total operations from Haneda to US markets. Delta’s Narita operation isn’t going anywhere unless the bilateral changes or Delta decides to slash Tokyo service.

As for PDX shifting to ICN, I thought much of that demand was O/D to Japan, not onward into Asia. DL doesn’t really provide great connections except to that handful of destinations.

dan tana
Guest
dan tana

I took pictures at the NRT-NWA hub with 20 747’s parked at the gates for the FUGU bank…the number of passengers flying in and out of NRT has actually increased every year…just that DL currently has put 11 of their 12 eggs in domestic flying vs international flying…the other day I counted 42 international destinations DL has discontinued in the last decade

Bill from DC
Guest
Bill from DC

FUGU?

dan tana
Guest
dan tana

fugu is a japanese fish that if over-cooked you die…if under-cooked you die…fugu bank was the 2 hr period…where all the nrt connexions were made

hsano
Member
hsano

Fugu is the Japanese word for blowfish. It derives from fuku, the Japanese verb “to blow”. I understand the fugu neurotoxin can give one a buzz if properly prepared. If improperly prepared, it can kill you.

727Seattle
Guest
727Seattle

I recall some nw-nw flights allowed passengers to transfer via connected skybridge links – no need to step into the terminal.

kevinaalexander
Member
kevinaalexander

FUGU was poetry in motion. Long live the Red Tail.

DesertGhost
Guest
DesertGhost

I’m not in the know about these things, but I have to wonder when four new slots are going to become available; and if Delta can secure all four, which I seriously doubt it will.

PeteyNice
Guest

I don’t think Delta needs four more slots. I think one or two would be sufficient, depending on what you wanted to do with HNL.

Minneapolis and Portland are better served with the connection opportunities in ICN. Delta currently only flies to Seoul and Narita as Asian destinations from Atlanta. I don’t see dropping direct Tokyo service as a big loss there.

At the end of the day, Delta only needs to fly to Tokyo from Detroit, Seattle, and LA. This would require one additional slot. Two if you also threw HNL in there too.

Hoss
Guest
Hoss

This is incorrect. Detroit is the main Asian Gateway (PEK,PVG,NRT,ICN,NGO) from the easy coast. ATL has ICN, NRT and PVG as of next month (July18)

Will Schilling
Guest
Will Schilling

Let’s just say for argument that North Korea steps up more than saber-rattling. Incheon becomes a major target. At this point, completely getting rid of Narita would then backfire because what American traveler would want to risk going through ICN to connect onto KE metal (and you darn well know those would be targets flying in and out of ICN, not to mention any US metal)?

Delta would be wise to hold onto Narita for the time being. I’ve never been a fan of putting your eggs in one basket and that seems to be what’s going on here.

RGCox
Guest
RGCox

Or flight crew

Tim Dunn
Member
Tim Dunn

More N. Korean missiles have overflown Japan than S. Korea.

GringoLoco
Member

Don’t really care what DL does with NRT — just don’t you DARE retire the classic Godzilla map!

JK-SFO
Guest
JK-SFO

As soon as I saw the headline, I knew the map would be making an appearance! Best map ever!

Oz13126
Guest
Oz13126

Well done. Great article.

David
Guest
David

You are so right and so wrong at the same time with this post. You nailed it with the the comment about barring a major corporate contract for PDX-NRT. Of course there is a major corporate contract for this route. Which company is by far the biggest in Oregon? And do you think they travel to Asia a bit? Perhaps this route could transition to ICN in the future, but DL will definitely stay in the PDX-Asia market.

Kyle
Guest
Kyle

Nike

Tim Dunn
Member
Tim Dunn

The subject of Delta’s NRT hub seems to gather a whole lot of emotion – but facts seem to be in short supply. 1. NW knew the NRT hub would not be viable over the long-term which is why they ordered the 787. Because the 787 was delayed, NW never was able to implement any of the changes so the process was left to DL. The reality of other carriers’ nonstop flights overflying Tokyo was well known to NW. 2. NW’s Pacific strategy was built around Tokyo because they didn’t have the market size in the western US to support… Read more »

A Kindred Soul aka Norman L. Wherrett, Jr.
Member
A Kindred Soul aka Norman L. Wherrett, Jr.

Can’t remember. Did Northwest Orient Airlines fly north-Pacific via TYO to MNL….Using what aircraft in 1954?
Pan American World Airways went mid-Pacific to MNL with Stratocruisers.  I lived there in ’54. Dr Norman L Wherrett Jr

kevinaalexander
Member
kevinaalexander

I believed they used DC-6’s?

hsano
Member
hsano

Will the run up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics provide enough additional demand that DL might wait a little before cutting NRT service?

Tim Dunn
Member
Tim Dunn

Delta likely will retain all of its mainland US to Japan flights until they can be accommodated at HND regardless of whether that changes before or after the Olympics. Japan had originally said it wanted to expand HND and push toward its goal of making NRT a heavily low cost carrier airport while all long haul international flights by global carriers would operate from HND. If Delta pulls completely out of NRT, most of the AA/JL and NH/UA flights will likely move as well. Based on the historical formula the US has used for DL getting twice as many US-HND… Read more »

ralf
Guest

as a pdx-based flier I can tell you for sure Nike has a contract for that NRT route. So does Columbia Sportswear that has HQ here too. (Nike employees get biz class tho) but it’s unclear if it’s just an Asia connector (most of Nike’s employees end up in Taiwan or China, not Japan, same with Columbia). Intel has 60k employees in Portland and the mini-tech sector that fueled the PDX Asia Delta hub in the 80s still travel to Japan on the reg. Does Delta see PDX as important intl? They just moved an LHR route to Portland when… Read more »

Tim Dunn
Member
Tim Dunn

The chances are high that DL will convert its PDX-NRT flight to another transpac flight, very possibly to ICN but they aren’t going to make any announcements until the joint venture with KE is approved in both the US and S. Korea (US approval has already been given but S. Korea has not signed off). PDX is an important city to DL with one of the largest non-hub/non-focus city international operations. As in several other medium sized cities where there is no other US carrier longhaul international service, DL uses its international presence in PDX to strength its presence in… Read more »

Tim Dunn
Member
Tim Dunn

Update: In checking DOT data, about half of the traffic and more than half of the revenue on DL’s PDX-NRT flight is NRT terminating traffic, mostly originating in PDX but with some connections from the rest of Delta’s network. DL carries more NRT traffic on its PDX flight than some other US carriers on their NRT flights. There is likely enough traffic to support a standalone PDX-NRT flight; Certainly NH or JL would jump on it if Delta left meaning that DL is likely to hold onto the flight until it can move it to HND and potentially add some… Read more »

ITST
Guest

Hi Tim,
Could you please tell me how I can obtain those DOT data? Thanks in advance.

RGCox
Guest
RGCox

I think of all the Japanese farmers who protested the taking of their farmland to build NRT runways. So now what? A concrete wasteland 35 years later?

Tim Dunn
Member
Tim Dunn

The Japanese government has said that it wants NRT to eventually be the low cost airport for Tokyo including for longhaul international low cost flights while “premium carrier” international flights are to/from HND. JL and NH benefit from their larger hubs at HND while all carriers that use HND benefit from its closer access to downtown Tokyo for higher value local Tokyo traffic.