It didn’t take long for the Department of Transportation (DOT) to make a decision on Delta’s motion to allow flexibility for slot usage at Tokyo’s Haneda airport. The ruling was a resounding “no way, y’all” to Delta’s plan, effectively backing most of United’s vision of how things should move forward. The question now is… what will Delta do about it?
I don’t need to spend much time on the backstory, because you can find it here. But I do need to deliver enough backstory to be able to smoothly work my favorite image into the post. You see, the US and Japan have an “open skies” agreement meaning airlines in the US and Japan can fly as much as they want between the two countries… except at Tokyo’s preferred Haneda airport.
Haneda is a busy place, and it’s because it is by far the most convenient airport for Tokyo and Yokohama. Narita to the north suffers from a distance problem, but also and more importantly, a godzilla problem.
And now that I’ve worked that in, I can skip most of the rest of the details. Just know that after two rounds of allocations, Delta has 7 of the daytime slots, United has 5, American 3, and Hawaiian 2 plus the 1 night-time slot.
Of Delta’s 7 slots, it flies five of them today with flights to Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Seattle all doing well enough. Minneapolis/St Paul also flies, but seemingly only begrudingly. The two unflown are Portland (OR) and Honolulu. Those are the ones that Delta proposed could become floaters, allowing Delta to move them to other US gateways.
United’s response was a remarkably verbose and testy “no way, jerks.” It said that these were all doled out to airlines based on the specific gateways, and the decisions might have been different if they weren’t handed out that way. For this reason, it said Delta should have to surrender the slots and there would be a whole route case to determine what the best use would be. United isn’t doing this on principal, of course. It just wants a shot at those slots.
In its ruling, DOT agreed with United fully and completely. In summary:
Allowing carriers to now select at their discretion a different U.S. gateway would defeat
the Department’s rationale for selection of the existing carriers and gateways over other
competing applicants and would undermine the Department’s public interest
determinations made for the benefit of the traveling and shipping public.
DOT went on to systematically pick apart Delta’s entire argument. It started with the 2004 Brazil route case which Delta said created precedent. In that case, however, DOT says there were some slots with no gateways and others that had specific gateways attached. The “disparate treatment of otherwise similarly-situated carriers in the Brazil market” is what DOT said made it consider additional flexibility that wouldn’t necessarily be allowed elsewhere.
Delta went on to say that the fact that Japanese carriers that have joint ventures with US carriers do not have gateway restrictions creates that same two-tiered dynamic as in Brazil. DOT disagrees.
Another argument from Delta was around the 2017 Cuba case where United received flexibility. But as DOT notes, United only got that flexibility after having it included in the proceedings, “thereby giving all parties the opportunity to comment on the merits of the request and submit competing service proposals.” DOT used this to throw Delta’s argument back in its face, saying that the entire proceeding is what Delta’s proposal is lacking in the first place.
So, with that dismantling, the status quo remains. And now what happens? There are options.
Airlines do not need to use their Haneda slots through the summer season which ends on October 28 thanks to COVID-era waivers. But if an airline isn’t planning on having a route running by October 29, it has to inform the DOT by October 1 that it will not be using its authority. Mark that date on your calendar, because if Delta is going to abandon slots, it certainly isn’t likely to give any further advance notice than what’s required.
Delta still has these slots as of today. If it wants to start flying from Honolulu and Portland to Haneda on October 29, it can do that. The flights are currently in the schedule though many days are not showing any seats for sale and those that are appear to be only selling full fare tickets. This is how Delta had those flights in the system before, so we will see if it decides to start selling tickets soon or not.
If it opts to abandon one or both of those routes, then DOT would initiate another route case to determine who gets the slots. One would assume that Hawaiian has its fill of Haneda slots and would probably bow out of this one. But Delta would be likely to petition for either second daily service on its key routes like Atlanta and Los Angeles or possibly even doing its first New York/JFK trip. American would likely try for a second DFW flight. And United has telegraphed all along what it wants. It would like to fly 1x daily from both Houston/IAH and Guam.
What DOT would actually pick from that group remains to be seen. We aren’t there yet. For now, all eyes are on Delta to see if it will take a swing at Honolulu and Portland or not.