Analysis: Delta ends San Francisco – Tokyo Narita; A Casualty of Build-Up in Seattle

by Vinay Bhaskara – Airchive.com Senior Business Correspondent

Delta Air Lines has cancelled its flights between San Francisco and its hub at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport from March 29th, 2014 onwards. The route, a holdover from the historic Asian network of Northwest Airlines, had been operated daily during the summer and five times per week during the winter using Boeing 767-300ER equipment. During the remainder of its operation, the route will have schedules as follow:

Flight Route Depart Arrive Aircraft Frequency
DL 209 SFO-NRT 1325 1640+1 76W 5x weekly
DL 208 NRT-SFO 1555 0955 76W 5x weekly

The timing of this cancellation is particularly interesting because on March 29th, Delta will launch six daily flights between San Francisco and its burgeoning international gateway at Seattle. The new service, seen by many as a shot across the bow of Delta’s code share partner Alaska Airlines, is designed to feed Delta’s slew of new intercontinental routes from Seattle. In June, the carrier launched services from Seattle to Shanghai Pudong and Tokyo Haneda (migrated from its other Asian gateway at Detroit). On March 29th, 2014, Delta will also launch new nonstop services to London – Heathrow in conjunction with new joint venture partner Virgin Atlantic, followed by additional Asian nonstops to Seoul Incheon and Hong Kong in June 2014.

These five intercontinental routes will build on the carrier’s existing routes to Amsterdam, Paris Charles de Gaulle, Tokyo Narita, and Beijing Capital. Delta needs connecting feed for all of these new routes and there are indications that they aren’t getting enough of it from Alaska.

A Delta 767-300ER takes off - Image Credit: Delta Air Lines

A Delta 767-300ER takes off – Image Credit: Delta Air Lines

San Francisco in particular was a good target for additional feed to these destinations. Delta’s competitive position in the San Francisco market is relatively weak, with major Star Alliance hubs on both ends of the route to Narita and a joint venture partnership between United and All Nippon Airways (ANA), who both serve the route. When Northwest first introduced the route in the mid-1980s, it was designed primarily as a way of attracting Japan point of origin traffic to Northwest’s growing hub there.

But in the last decade, Japan-originating traffic has shrunk remarkably, and the route has essentially evolved into a low yield feeder of Delta’s Asian services beyond Narita. The demand decline on the Japanese side has been particularly acute in the past several months as the Yen weakened sharply in under the regime of new Prime minister

Given the existing low yields and demand flow, it makes sense to shift those connections to Seattle. Another factor in the economics of the route could be the cost of maintaining a separate SkyClub in the International Terminal for the route. Delta has another SkyClub in Terminal 1 for its domestic operations, and the costs of operating both likely weighed down the route’s economics.

It should be made clear that the cancellation of this route was not due to Northwest’s merger with Delta. The broader macroeconomic trends would have turned against San Francisco – Narita regardless of the merger. If anything, the merger prolonged this route by providing the combined might of two airlines to boost San Francisco origin demand, and by providing the smallest possible aircraft (the 767) to help boost yields. But it wasn’t enough, and another piece of Northwest’s Asian legacy (though perhaps not as historic as Chicago O’Hare – Tokyo Narita) has been consigned to the history books.

About the author, Vinay Bhaskara

VinayVinay Bhaskara is an aviation correspondent and analyst for Airchive.com based in Chicago, Illinois. He has been covering the industry in some form since 2008, and currently covers the industry for Bangalore Aviation and Aspire Aviation in addition to his duties for Airchive. His area of specialty lies in airline finance and business practices, as well in data analysis. Bhaskara has been an avgeek since his first long haul flight, when his fascination with Delta’s route map birthed a lifelong passion. In his life beyond aviation, Bhaskara is the co-founder of Admissions Hero, a college consulting service tailored towards students seeking acceptance to elite American universities. He also co-authored an SAT prep book and 2 ebooks related to aviation. In what little free time he has, he enjoys watching and playing all types of sports, as well as binge-watching USA Network television shows and Bollywood films. Follow him on Twitter @TheABVinay, connect with him via his Facebook page, or reach him via email at vinay.bhaskara@airchive.com.

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