Last updated: 03:17 PM ET, Thu February 04 2016

Can the Government Keep Delta from Dropping a Flight?

Airlines & Airports | Delta Air Lines | Josh Lew | February 04, 2016

Can the Government Keep Delta from Dropping a Flight?

Photo courtesy of Delta

The governor and two senators from Minnesota will soon be in talks with the U.S. Department of Transportation. The subject: a warning by Delta Airlines that it may soon drop service between Minneapolis Saint Paul International (MSP) and Tokyo Narita. Governor Mark Dayton and Senators Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar have also sent a letter to the White House asking for a meeting to discuss the issue and, ideally, to find a solution that will see Delta keep the flight on its schedule. 

Why is the government getting involved?

Actually, the politicians are on Delta’s side. This is not an effort to force Delta to keep the flight. The situation is this: Japan is talking with U.S. authorities about moving some U.S. international flights from Narita to Haneda Airport, which is closer to the center of Tokyo. Delta has always been against the move, which would see 10 slots open at Haneda for American carriers. American Airlines and United Airlines both have allies in Japan (American works with JAL and United with ANA), so, according to Delta, they would be able to take advantage of the move, while Delta, which has no partner airline in Japan, would be stuck at far-off Narita and unable to compete. 

As a result, some of its smaller capacity routes, like MSP-Narita, would no longer be profitable.

Delta has said that it is appreciative of the support for the Dayton and the Senators: “Delta appreciates the support from elected officials, business leaders and community representatives in Minnesota. We are hopeful their efforts will reverse the direction of negotiations.”

READ MORE: Delta's Bid For Share of Japanese Airline Rejected

An important business connection

Minnesota’s largest corporations, including 17 Fortune 500 companies, are against the move as well. They would lose a direct link to one of the world’s largest economies if the Delta service stopped. Corporate representatives have no doubt been in contact with the state’s politicians who are, in turn, taking the issue to Washington.

Sen. Klobuchar told reporters she was concerned about the effect the move could have on the local economy, though she also tried to make the point that this was a regional issue as well as a local one: “We keep our companies in the middle of the country because we can say we have a good education system, a good quality of life and a good transportation system. The administration should be taking extra care in making sure that these cities in the middle of America and midsize cities keep their transportation networks strong.”

Two sides to the story

Minnesota and Delta's main argument is this: because of the Open Skies agreement, Haneda should be fully opened to U.S. carriers (as opposed to the limited number of slots that are currently on offer). If the airport cannot do this, Delta suggests that Japan should simply stick to the current setup, with Narita seeing the bulk of transcontinental flights.

READ MORE: Inside Japan's Robot Hotel

United and American, who are better positioned to take advantage of the move to Haneda, are understandably on the other side of the argument. They are of the opinion that a move to Haneda would be beneficial to U.S. travelers. It would put them closer to the center of Tokyo and also give them easier access to domestic connections that could take them to other parts of Japan.

From the Japanese viewpoint, there is a practical argument against fully opening Haneda to overseas carriers: the airport simply does not have the space to become a major international hub. This is the reason why only a limited number of slots are a part of the current negotiations between Tokyo and Washington.  

Whatever the outcome of the lobbying, one side will claim that the government negotiated a fair deal and the other side will claim that politicians interfered more than they should have instead of just allowing airlines to give their customers what they want. 

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