Delta Threatens MSP-NRT: This Time It’s Personal

Delta is threatening to cancel Minneapolis-Tokyo Narita service, reports the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The piece includes ominous statements from Delta that Minnesota political groups should mobilize against US-Japan agreements that would further open up Tokyo Haneda in a way Delta sees counter to its interest, with the implication that without doing Delta’s political bidding, the flagship route will be lost:

If the expansion of Tokyo’s Haneda airport goes through, Delta would likely lose many Tokyo passengers to other carriers, making Narita unprofitable for the Atlanta-based airline, [Delta spokesman] Hirst said [at a meeting of the Metropolitan Airports Commission]. “It’s not just parochial for Delta,” he said. “It [affects] every point on the map that comes into and out of Narita.”

He urged the commission to apply swift and aggressive pressure to the Minnesota congressional delegation and the U.S. Department of Transportation before the two governments meet again Feb. 9.

Northwest Orient’s MSP-NRT was the US’s first commercial service to Japan. I grew up in Minnesota and in my student and early work years in China, I came to adore that route. I knew my economy seats on the 747-400, I knew my spot at the Northwest World Club in Narita, I could parrot back the the Japanese PA announcements in the airport, “North-a-west-a koku…”

NRT Sky Club

When Delta consumed Northwest, the historic roots in Asia were left to wither. The NWA brand was strong through the region, particularly in Japan. Delta briefly showed interest in a failed attempt to woo then-bankrupt JAL to SkyTeam, then retreated from the region again with focus on Europe and Latin America.

The Delta Asia hub at NRT has been dwindling, with fewer flights and ever more expensive pricing. In my business trips from New York to China the past three years I only once got coveted spots on JFK-NRT or MSP-NRT because Delta was pricing them dramatically higher than options through Detroit, and later, Seattle. Yeah, I really want to fly a on 737 JFK-SEA to pick up an Asia flight.

I spoke with Delta representatives last year who were surprised that connecting in Seattle was not appealing to me. First the planes, which then only one JFK-SEA, and pretty much nothing else domestically to Seattle, was on a lie-flat business class. Then having two medium-longish flights rather than one long, one short. Third, Narita is a great place to be stranded if it comes to that. Delightful town and temple.

Practically, getting over to Asia in a big swoop and then having many more options in case of irregular options is important for my business commitments. On the return, I always try to avoid US port of first entry hassle for a connection. Delta’s view is the opposite.

The 747-400, Delta’s best business class seat, has also been accelerated into retirement.

Delta 747-400

Delta’s attempt to revive Japan’s Skymark has been a no-go, it cannot get along with arguably the best SkyTeam Airline, Korean Air, and so now it turns to China Eastern and Shanghai as a potential Asia hub.

No airport in Mainland China can currently function well as an international hub. China’s airports are among the most delayed in the world due to traffic, weather, and political and military meddling. Though improving, none handle irregular operations well, even for Chinese speakers. You wait and wait and only get an update when a passenger riot starts. My last flight out of there was Shanghai-Saigon, delayed 5 hours till 2 am, unable to get any updates even from the China Eastern lounge, other than “no update, wait.”

Delta’s arrogance to everyone it deals with is the most frustrating part. Sure it is riding high, but with low fuel prices even United had a profit and India’s SpiceJet came back from the brink.

I am still a Delta Diamond with 206,469 rollover MQMs, though have not flown then in half a year. They are making money hand over first in a model that both as a passenger and frequent flyer program member is increasingly against my interests.

Most of all, I hate Delta’s attitude, dishonesty and deception. Whether shaking down airport officials in Minnesota or deliberately trying to make it impossible for its customers to be well informed. For a traveler, airline affinity is a personal, emotional relationship. Many of the changes Delta has made to SkyMiles, for instance go way beyond any business imperative and seem intended to see how much they can hurt their customers and still get away with it.

I am voting with my dollars and butt as best I can. It is sad to see even these last bits of airline heritage slip away. Hit me at home and it gets personal!

In a not unrelated note, I am glad to see resumption of AA’s MSP-LGA service, and the climb down from absurd airfares on that route.

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  • Ted

    F* delta and please leave msp

  • Tom

    I can’t wait for the downturn. I hope they bleed and bleed.

  • P T

    Well put. Amen. I haven’t flown Delta in three years. My sister, based in MSP, flies constantly for business. She is rarely allowed to fly Delta due to pricing.

  • Joseph

    This is one of the better BA posts that I’ve seen in a while. It actually had some substance to it rather than hawking the same deal that everyone and their brother is.

    On subject with your post it seems that Delta doesn’t care, which is frequently echoed by Delta Points. It’s nice to see that you’ve voted with your wallet. Here’s to hoping the ME3 come to town and eat all of the legacy carrier’s lunch.

  • Cliburn

    I live in MSP and can not agree more.

  • crystal fung

    I understand why you are cursing delta and trust me i hate the attitude delta has shown over the past few years. But Chinese aviation market is growing so rapidly and I believe delta has made the right long term decision. Japan? Sorry I just can’t see any potential increasing market there. Do you really think Chinese air flow control policy will stop people from flying? Come on.

  • Steve

    Wa-wa-wa. That crybaby Richard Anderson reminds me of that kid down the block. You know that guy, the kid that doesn’t get his way all of the time and takes his ball with him. If I can’t play my way, nobody gets to play.

  • RaflW

    This is the type of anti-competitive, anti-consumer abuse of government lobbying that makes me very frustrated as a Delta shareholder and an MSP resident.
    I would love to see AA and other competitors up-gauge their service and frequencies to the west coast so we can connect to better trans-pacific options. If DL pulls out of MSP-NRT, only a few high level corporate types who don’t have to watch tight budgets will be impacted … and some theoretical hit to prestige (and some landing fees) for the Minnesota Airports Commission.

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @crystal fung – I agree that China is a big market and serving that market is important, airlines such as United running service to Chengdu make great sense for China. Dela increasing flights to China, and building out the advatnage SkyTeam has in China should be a great play for the China market.

    The question is what makes a good Asia hub and as I argued, from all my years living in China and frequent ongoing travels there, they have a long way to go before being viable as regional hub airports. Because of the geography, really only Japan, Korea and China makes sense as Asia hubs coming from the Americas. It has been a decade or more on those NRT flights that connecting Chinese passengers outnumber Japanese, and if given the choice, I think many would vote with me to connect in Japan rather than Seattle. China’s air traffic mess absolutely does result in people avoiding anything connecting via China, indeed few airlines have even attempted to run connecting operations. If Delta tries to make Shanghai an Asia hub rather than China feeder, they will certainly have major growing pains.

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @Joseph – now I can’t put out that “How to use the Citi Prestige hotel 4th night free benefit” post I had queued up. 🙂

    Even Spirit building up MSP is welcome to me.

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @RaflW – good news yesterday that AA is starting 2x daily MSP-LAX service, see View from the Wing’s take here.

  • john

    If Smisek got in trouble for offering a benefit to airport officials to encourage favorable treatment, then it seems that the same should go for delta for making threats to airport officials to encourage them to promote delta’s interests in Congress.

  • It’s really disappointing to see the Asia presence that NWA built up being dismantled by Delta.

    Between the finger-wagging in the safety video… kind of cute over here, but probably not to your Japanese business customer, the elimination of multilingual cabin crew based in Narita, and replacing NWA’s Asia catering with Michelle Bernstein, Delta has repeatedly shown ignorance, if not outright contempt for the customers who fly on NWA’s Asia routes. I am not surprised if someone in Atlanta is looking at the numbers and seeing these routes as largely unprofitable; the well-paying customers have likely already left for other carriers.

    If Delta’s aspiration was to become a leading global airline, they did well by acquiring NWA, as NWA had solid service to Asia and had built an almost flawless experience in Europe with KLM. Unfortunately, Delta has squandered both.

  • 02nz

    You’re right about Chinese airports’ unsuitability as hubs. In addition to the congestion/delay problem, few if any are built to accommodate international-to-international transfers in a seamless way – in some cases you have to claim bags, go through (entry) immigration/customs, exit, check-in, go through security, and then (exit) immigration. For Delta there’s also a geography problem – its partners China Eastern and China Southern have hubs in Shanghai and Guangzhou, respectively, whereas Beijing (given its location in the north) is a better-located hub for much of China. Finally, Shanghai has the problem of having the bulk of the international traffic (at PVG) split from most domestic flights (at SHA), making many connections between long-haul flights and the rest of China impractical.