Airline Battle Royale: The Fight for Tokyo’s Coveted Haneda Slot

Delta Air Lines gave up one of its permitted flights to Tokyo Haneda. They didn’t want to try to make Portland work to Haneda’s airport, and the Department of Transportation wouldn’t just let them assign the route to another one of their airports. So there’s a new DOT proceeding to decide who gets the slot.

With limited allowable flights into the close-in airport, those belong to the Department of Transportation to assign to airlines to operate in the ‘public interest’. They aren’t meant to be property rights of the airline. So there’s now a debate in the regulatory docket over whose proposed flight benefits the public most.

  • United wants to fly Houston to Tokyo Haneda. Their joint venture partner ANA already flies this. And United would move its Tokyo Narita flight to Haneda airport – no net increase in flying to Tokyo.

  • American wants to fly New York JFK to Tokyo Haneda. Their joint venture partner JAL already flies this. But it would be a net new flight from New York to Tokyo (a route American doesn’t currently serve).

United Airlines has attacked the American Airlines plan, saying that the DOT should look at connections served rather than the local market to determine consumer benefit. Now that the federal government has broken up its JetBlue partnership, American’s ability to serve connections in the New York market is far more limited. The Department of Justice handed a huge win to United and to Delta in New York by preventing American-JetBlue from becoming a large competitor with their New York duopoly.

According to United, DOT set a precedent in preferring connecting markets to Tokyo Haneda over non-stop ones in their 2019 proceeding originally awarding the routes since that was a justification for denying Las Vegas a Haneda flight.

This makes very little sense.

  • The Department of Transportation might prefer to see local and connecting markets well-served in its initial slot allocation for Tokyo Haneda, to ensure the widest possible group of passengers had convenient access to flights there.

  • Once that initial allocation happened, adding more connecting hubs doesn’t accomplish this same goal – it just siphons away some connections from existing flights. Houston connections don’t add significantly to a market that already offers Dallas, Atlanta, and Chicago connections to Tokyo Haneda.

  • I’d further note that Delta wasn’t really serving connections in Portland, and that’s the route being reassigned. Delta offers Portland flying only to its own hubs, and to joint venture hub Amsterdam. Many of those hubs have their own Tokyo flights already.

United is pretty funny, suggesting American had a huge opportunity in advocating for a Philadelphia or Charlotte to Tokyo Haneda flight – because of connecting potential. Both airports appear to have fewer than 22 local passengers to Tokyo per day whereas New York to Tokyo is a significant market.

There’s certainly no controlling precedent requiring DOT to assign Haneda slots based on connections. They didn’t do that in the case of Delta’s Portland flight in their original proceeding. Doing so now would only redirect connections. And American’s proposal at least offers new service to Tokyo, which United’s does not.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. United lost out an an opportunity to get the slot by offering new service. AA’s argument is strong here.

    Additionally, their argument doesn’t hold water since the connections that they’re promoting out of IAH are not “additional connections to Tokyo since they are just moving their service from NRT to HND.

  2. If I were flying from any of these cities in the USA I would do it on an Asian airline instead of of a USA airline.

  3. These written responses to DOT really are so childish. I’ve seen people defend them on as somehow “professional” and “normal” and maybe they are, but what kind of professional corporate C suite would ever want to be associated with that form of written language seemingly from a P’ed off 12 year old.

  4. United is realizing that they stirred up the whole pot about gaining more HND service and will likely end up empty handed.
    As I have said for years, NRT is becoming increasingly no longer economically viable because the most valuable Tokyo passengers fly from HND so UA wanted to switch its IAD-NRT flight to HND, not add another flight.
    AA, with its small presence at Tokyo on its own metal, saw the opportunity to return to JFK-HND, which it only served w/ a useless nighttime slot which UA was never permitted to even apply for, and will supplement JL’s service which is premium focused.
    Add in that the DOT already told HA that they can take their sweet time to use all of their HND frequencies and UA will come up empty handed if the DOT gives the nod to AA.

    The AA/UA strategy of depending on their Japanese JV partners for connections via northeast Asia is highly risky precisely because HND is siphoning off the best local Tokyo traffic and is also limited access, leaving NRT open for anyone but w/ low yields.

    DL’s strategy of moving its Tokyo services entirely to HND and its connecting presence to Seoul w/ Korean looks smarter and smarter by the day.

  5. LOL. What a classic essay from Timmy Dunny; looks like he is back yet again to promote DL stock. History says that your statement about DL’s ICN ‘strategy’ is blatently false. Clearly DL’s first preference was not to go with KE and ICN. They tried to woo JL away from AA and failed. Then they tried to do their usual strategy of alienating KE till they went to partner with AA. Then DL woke up realizing that they were stuck with KE and decided to pursue the JV. And now you are trying to paint it completely differently as if it is all DL’s strategy. Give us a break, lol.

  6. AA and UA’s first place strategy wasn’t to have a joint venture hub at a limited access airport but the Japanese are doing their own thing in growing access to HND which makes local Tokyo traffic less and less valuable at NRT. It isn’t hard to see that the economics of NRT deteriorate as each new route is added from HND.
    As I have also noted, UA desperately wants to hold onto its position as having the only US carrier service from NYC to East Asia. If DL had gone for another HND flight to replace its PDX flight, they could have easily won JFK but they clearly see the strong dollar and weak yen as not being worth committing another two aircraft to JFK-HND when there are better alternatives.
    Now AA will take the JFK-HND flight which strengthens oneworld. Delta will add JFK-ICN eventually. They still are either waiting for the EU and US to approve the merger between Korean and Asiana and not adding routes where Korean and Asiana overlap makes sense. DL is going to add a 2nd ATL-ICN flight on its own metal next summer so the growth of ICN is coming.

    UA is going to have to fly nonstop deeper and deeper into East Asia on its own metal in order to hold onto its size as DL grows its presence at ICN, still has as many HND flights on its own metal as UA, and all 3 US airlines are the same size to China as long as the Chinese government caps access. DL is rapidly growing in the South Pacific which makes UA’s dominance across the Pacific more costly to maintain.

    UA’s loss of the ex-DL HND slot is a strategic success by both AA and DL and a clear loss for UA. As much as some want to spin it otherwise, that is reality.

  7. Neither proposal is that great. AA is slightly better only because it doesn’t harm American access to Narita and northeast Tokyo region. Not everyone is going to central Tokyo.

  8. @Tim,

    I flew DL26 (ICN-ATL) 11 days ago & it was flat out awful, at least in Economy.

    The food was mostly inedible.

    And except for 2-3 flight attendants who were “old school Delta” good, the rest were robotic & unremarkable.

    Flew KE 86 (JFK-ICN; plus KE 621/22 ICN-MNL-ICN) & there’s no comparison between the two airlines in terms of paxex, with KE hands down the better airline by a wide margin.

    If anything, Delta was so bad, I’d go out of my way to avoid it for long haul economy it was so bad.

    Maybe Delta is better in D1 & Premium Select, but for economy it was, as noted, flat out awful & best avoided.

    So, frankly, flyers are better off taking KE metal whenever possible.

    Only thing that Delta has going for it over KE right now is the inflight WiFi, which KE sadly lacks.

    Other than that, KE is the much better bet for long haul flights.

    Sorry, Delta, but you really should be ashamed for international long haul paxex as bad as DL26 was when took it earlier this month.

  9. @Howard Miller, precisely why I said to fly on Asian airlines whenever possible. In fact, I would say to even route your trip in the USA to get to the Asian airline to fly to Asia.

  10. @jns,

    Agree. I don’t expect the US airlines to be as good as the world’s leading foreign carriers, but I was truly shocked & disappointed at just how bad Delta’s international long haul economy was.

    Not just bad – appallingly bad. 🙁

  11. Tim, UA has the best of both worlds. A healthy number of slots to HND for local demand and great regional connections, particularly to flights within Japan.

    They also have plenty of options to NRT, which also serves the local market while providing plenty of connections to longer distance flights in Asia that are not offered as widely from HND.

    All that on top of the options offered by JV partner NH.

    Their position in Japan is enviable, no matter how you look at it.

  12. @KS, you left out the Delta is going to funnel traffic to China Eastern period where they were going to send everyone through Shanghai because they didn’t have any investment in KE but do in MU. Those were a few fun months.

  13. Howard,
    I won’t disagree that KE has a better economy product that DL but the same is equally true about AA vs. JL and UA vs. NH.
    But let’s keep in mind that the Asian carriers got interested in JVs w/ their American partners much later than European carriers and they did it because they saw the power of the US hubs to transfer traffic throughout the US and also to get traffic from US carriers to distribute throughout Asia.
    Part of the reason why DL and KE weren’t close for years even though they are both founding members of Skyteam is because KE, like many Asian carriers do to US carriers, undercut DL on connections through DL’s then-NRT hub. Now that DL is no longer flying intra-Asia flights on its own metal, DL, like UA and AA, goes for the local market in the countries it serves in Asia and leaves the intra-Asia competition to KE.
    KE does not offer a premium economy cabin right now – although they will and Delta One Suites on the factory delivered DL A350-900s and A330-900s (nearly all of DL’s TPAC fleet) is a higher quality product than AA or UA and most of what is on KE’s fleet.
    Quality is subjective but I have never found DL’s longhaul international coach product as bad as you describe – although it can often be described as scripted (little FA subjectivity in delivery), at times rushed, and acceptable but not objectionable. I will accept that you and others can see things differently but the same or worse can be said about AA and UA longhaul service.

    AA and UA both have JVs with Japanese carriers and have unlimited access to NRT – which is becoming less and less viable as a local Tokyo market airport – while HND is limited access and will stay that way until the Japanese government spends the money to dramatically expand HND. DL simply shifted its connecting traffic away from Japan to S. Korea which is still a decent-sized market, one where KE and DL have room to expand and will control even more of the market whether the Asiana merger goes through or not, and also where DL still has a comparable size at HND on its own metal to UA.
    I fully expect you and others to tout UA’s advantages in the Pacific – but they simply are not in Japan, S. Korea or China but rather because of UA’s larger position from TPE and south along the Pacific rim.

  14. When USA airlines were forced to move from Narita to Haneda, they were not happy about it. Times have changed. In the old days, flying on Northwest from LAX to BKK via Narita was my standard flight. Then Delta took over Northwest and everything changed. I started flying EVA through Taiwan.

  15. I’m a little surprised that American didn’t try out Miami to Haneda. I bet MIA would have offered a lot of incentives for the first flight to Asia, AA could get gobs of connecting traffic, and with service to a new city approval would be a cinch. If it didn’t work out after a couple of years they could drop the route.

  16. Frank,
    DL has chosen to use all of its few available China frequencies so it still sees value in using its China Eastern relationship for connections w/in China. Since US carriers cannot have JVs w/ Chinese carriers, there is no incentive for DL to connect non-China traffic through China. UA’s partner is stronger in Bejing so they are splitting service between PEK and PVG. AA, once again, has the wrong partner in the wrong places which have no US carrier service.

    Mikey b’s comment is what matters the most here. AA is adding service to a much larger local market and is additive to JL’s service – which makes it a threat to UA – while UA is simply moving a flight from NRT to HND = which completely supports the reality that the value of NRT as a connecting hub continues to deteriorate where there is service to HND. NRT is better for connections beyond Tokyo but has less value in the local market.

    The reality is also that DL’s presence in Japan – part of the DL/KE JV – plus DL/KE’s presence in S. Korea is larger and has more growth potential than AA/JL or UA/NH in Japan plus S. Korea. All 3 US airlines are the same size to China so the difference in Asia size comes not from Japan/S. Korea/China but elsewhere in East Asia.

  17. AAs problem is they moved too much of their domestic network to LGA and JFK is primarily international. Getting across town is a burden and expensive to connect although AA happily sells the connection.

    Simple solution, run an AAirside shuttle between the airports for connecting passengers. They’re already doing it in other markets that are too small to support air service. The same exact thing would work in New York and make connecting at JFK to domestic far less of a chore.

  18. Sadly, although UA IAH-HND would offer a whole lot of new connections from Latin America to and from HND, and would certainly benefit Latin America and Japan more than JFK would, the DoT doesn’t really care about the benefits to non-Americans 🙁

  19. Tory: There already is manor connections for “non Americans” through DFW, like a 3 hour drive and 1 hour flight from Houston. Gimme a BREAK. Also, the “US Department of Transportation” is just that: for the UNITED STATES and it’s citizens. Every country in the world can negotiate it’s own slots and flights to Japan. Not sure what Your on about complaining about the US DOT “not caring about non citizens”. Yeah, Your right: They (and we) don’t.

    Timmy: Just stop. DL clearly has been left our in the cold on this one and cam continue to gamble with its East Asian strategy if it wants to. We don’t care. AA is going to win this round.

  20. Benny,
    You may stick a “y” on the end of your name but I don’t.
    No, Delta is not left out in the cold. It still has the same number of slots at HND on its own metal as UA.
    And if you want to include JV flights, then the same is true at ICN for KE as well as KE’s flights from ICN to every other Japanese airport except for HND which is not part of the DL-KE JV. And DL is growing its own presence at ATL per reports with a second daily flight to ATL – even while it waits for a decision on the Asiana-Korean merger and then it will add even more. ICN is to DL what NRT is to AA and UA except S. Korea is a larger and more valuable local market than NRT alone. Korean is simply a larger airline across the Pacific than ANA or JAL.

    And it is AA that will win the HND flight and UA will lose its position as the only US carrier from NYC to East Asia with AA service to Tokyo – which compliments JL’s double daily premium configured service to HND – and then DL’s service to ICN which will come.

    DL grew its Pacific network at a rate as fast as United this summer; they see the same opportunities as UA does. And DL execs are still saying that further expansion is coming in the Pacific including MEL and TPE as well as India likely from JFK and/or ATL. and even though UA is now profitable across the Pacific, DL is making 1.8X more money per seat mile across the Pacific than UA.

    As much as you want to think otherwise, it is not DL that is left out. In this route case, it will likely be UA that doesn’t grow in Japan or NE Asia.

  21. Benny,
    and to add to my assessment that United recognizes that Narita is becoming less and less viable as a hub, they have discontinued (or not restarted) their HNL-NRT flight while DL restarted HNL-HND despite the weak yen which is depressing tourism from Japan to the US. ANA is using its A380 from NRT to HNL which pressures fares from the least desirable airport.
    Add in UA’s proposal to shift its IAH-NRT flight to HND and it is clear that DL was right 5 years ago to jump on the ball to move its Tokyo service to HND and leave NRT and UA is clearly also seeing that two airports in the same metro area cannot support equal average fares when one of them is much further from the city center than the other.
    In contrast to Tokyo, many other metro areas have closed or limited access to the “close in” airport when a more distant one was built; Tokyo is now reversing its policy which did just the opposite for several decades but never allowed NRT to be fully developed.

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