The End Has Arrived: Delta Will Leave Tokyo/Narita Next Spring

It sounds cliché, but it’s true. We have reached the end of an era, one that dates back to the spoils of World War II. Assuming the government’s slot awards at Tokyo’s Haneda airport are finalized (there’s no reason to think that won’t happen), Delta will officially pull out of Tokyo/Narita airport entirely next spring. This not only marks the end of Delta’s Tokyo hub, but it also means the end of US airline fifth freedom flying in Japan.

In the wake of World War II, US airlines were tasked with being able to help rebuild air systems in Japan as well as in other losing countries like Germany. Northwest and Pan Am moved in and took advantage of fifth freedom rights — the ability to carry passengers between Japan and countries that weren’t the US. Both airlines built substantial operations. Pan Am’s was sold to United in the 1980s while Northwest’s became a part of Delta when the two airlines merged a decade ago.

These fifth freedom flights in Germany ended years ago as airlines restructured their networks, but in Japan, they soldiered on, largely because of the vast distance across the ocean. The introduction of new widebodies like the 787 helped to increase point-to-point flying over the Pacific. United started adding more flights from San Francisco that bypassed Tokyo, so remaining Narita flights started to wither. In the last couple years, United canceled its last flight beyond Tokyo into Asia.

Delta tried to do the same but its new and growing Seattle hub doesn’t support all the important markets the way that San Francisco does for United. So Tokyo remained an important hub for Delta, despite its declining status since the dawn of this decade. (You can read more about the .)

In 2010, the Japanese government opened a limited number of slots for flights from the US into Tokyo’s Haneda airport. Haneda is more convenient for people in Tokyo (not to mention Yokohama) and is the preferred airport for business travelers. Also, as we all know, it lacks one key obstruction that blocks the path between Narita and Tokyo…

Those initial Haneda slots could only operate at night, and there were very few of them, but their mere existence marked the beginning of Narita’s eventual decline. Over time, more slots came available and airlines were allowed to fly during daylight hours. Delta wanted to move its entire hub over to Haneda, but it was never going to get that many slots to actually do so. American and United developed joint ventures with Japan Airlines and ANA respectively, so they were able to use Haneda as a hub thanks to the local airlines having extensive operations there. As a last gasp, Delta tried to take over failing Skymark, but ANA won that battle too.

Knowing that a Narita hub would eventually be unsustainable and a Haneda hub wasn’t achievable, the cuts began. This was accelerated every time new slots became available at Haneda. The fate was sealed when Delta and Korean signed their joint venture, making Seoul/Incheon Delta’s primary Asian focus.

Delta currently has slots to fly from Los Angeles and Minneapolis to Haneda. When the new awards are finalized for next summer, Delta will be able to move Honolulu, Portland, Seattle, Detroit, and Atlanta service over from Narita as well. That would leave two measly flights from Narita to Singapore and Manila. Those are quite obviously not going to work when Delta has no flights from the US to them. It was just a matter of when the cuts would come.

It is now official that the flight to Singapore ends September 21. But, surprise!, Manila will still have Delta service. It won’t be operating from Narita or from the US, but instead Delta will take its Manila flight and move it over to Incheon. Why? That’s a great question.

Delta has long had a lot of seats via Tokyo to Manila. That was one of the airline’s last 747 routes before the airplane was retired. It’s generally a low-yield market with a lot of volume. I had assumed a fair bit of that was coming from Japanese travelers, but if Delta thinks it can still support the service out of Incheon, then it must be more US-focused traffic than anything else. (That being said, I confirmed that Delta does have the ability to carry local traffic between Incheon and Manila.)

Korean does have two flights a day in that market, but they don’t match up well with US flight connections. Presumably this Delta flight will be a good third daily option that connects perfectly, but the details haven’t been released.

That flight won’t begin until next spring when the other flights move over to Haneda. When that happens, it will be the end of scheduled US airline passenger service between Japan and a third country.

Though Delta is leaving, not every US airline is following completely. Narita is becoming a more leisure-focused airport which is why United will continue Guam and both United and Hawaiian will still fly to Honolulu. American and United will also keep some service from their hubs, because there aren’t enough slots to move the entire operation to Haneda. That service can continue to be bolstered by the route networks of joint venture partners JAL and ANA anyway.

Is this a sad occasion? Not at all. It may be nostalgic, but everyone should be happier flying into Haneda and connecting via Incheon if they’re Delta loyalists. The only really sad thing about all this is that the conclusion of Delta’s Narita operations probably means my Godzilla map is nearing retirement. It’s been one heck of a run.

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