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Handicapping the Haneda derby

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American is pushing DOT hard, arguing that Delta is squandering “a scarce resource.”

The US Department of Transportation (DOT) is considering whether to reallocate Delta Air Lines’ Seattle-Tokyo Haneda slot pair, setting off a clash between three US airlines over a coveted landing slot at Tokyo’s downtown airport.

Haneda, which is popular with business passengers because of its close-in access to Tokyo, started accepting international flights in 2010. US airlines are allowed to operate four daily round-trip flights to/from Haneda. Three of the four slot pairs are not in question: Delta’s Los Angeles-Haneda service, United Airlines’ San Francisco-Haneda service and Hawaiian Airlines’ Honolulu-Haneda flights.

But Delta’s Seattle service is under question and desired by three airlines: Delta says it wants to keep the route authority even though it is operating it infrequently this winter; American Airlines wants the authority reallocated so that it can launch daily Los Angeles-Haneda service with a Boeing 777-200; and Hawaiian wants it to operate Kona-Haneda Airbus A330-200 flights.

Here’s a handicapping of the derby, with odds for each carrier winning and the cases for and against the airlines’ claims to the Haneda route authority:

Delta (2 to 1): The favorite has to be Delta, if only because I think it is unlikely DOT will want to set a precedent of stripping slots from a carrier.

The case for Delta: Unlike American and United, which have antitrust immunized partnerships with Japanese carriers Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways, respectively, Delta does not have a Japanese partner and therefore it is justified for the Atlanta-based airline to have two of the four Haneda route authorities. Also, Delta has followed the DOT’s dormancy rule technically on Seattle-Haneda and says it plans to operate the route daily starting in March.

The case against Delta: The Seattle-Haneda route replaced Delta’s unsuccessful Detroit-Haneda route and the carrier just hasn’t found a way to operate its second Haneda route authority successfully. Also, the Haneda landing slot is a sought-after resource and should be operated daily; sitting on the route just so, say, American can’t use it to compete head-to-head with Delta on LAX-Haneda service is unacceptable.

American (5 to 1): American is pushing DOT hard, arguing that Delta is squandering “a scarce resource,” which will force the department to define standards for an airline awarded in-demand slots.

The case for American: Unlike Delta and United, it does not have access to Haneda (with its own aircraft) and in fairness each of the three global US airlines should have access to the airport. Also, Delta is simply not regularly using the route authority right now and American will use it daily—and from a market (Los Angeles) with five times more demand for Tokyo service than Seattle.

The case against American: Inconveniently for American management, the airline did originally have one of the four Haneda route authorities, which it used for New York JFK-Haneda flights until December 2013. But American voluntarily dropped the route. It now wants back in. Of course, a lot has changed for American (including its senior leadership) since December 2013, when it merged with US Airways.

Hawaiian (15 to 1): This is the longshot bid. Hawaiian is trying for the third time to get DOT to grant it Kona-Haneda rights.

The case for Hawaiian: The airline says its Honolulu-Haneda flight is “by far” the most successful of the Haneda services operated by US airlines. There is huge demand in Japan for flights to Hawaii, Kona is the second most popular destination in Hawaii for Japanese tourists after Honolulu and there is no direct service from Japan to Kona currently.

The case against Hawaiian: The airline doesn’t operate international flights from anywhere other than Honolulu and its only long-haul service from Kona is to the US West Coast, so it’s hard to justify giving it such a coveted international route. Also, Japan Airlines once flew from Tokyo to Kona but scrapped the route in 2010, calling into question whether direct service between Kona and Japan can be successful.

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