Our Editorial: Keep Detroit-Tokyo air connection open

The Detroit News

Detroit Metropolitan Airport, and its status as a major international hub for Delta Air Lines, is one of Michigan’s biggest business assets and an impressive tool in recruiting new jobs and investment dollars to the state. But a key link from Detroit to Tokyo is at risk of being broken in negotiations between the U.S. and Japan over airport access.

Delta, the largest carrier at Metro, flies daily to Tokyo from six U.S. cities, including Detroit. From there, the passengers who boarded in the continental United States can fly on to six other Asian destinations.

For southeast Michigan, the service has been vital to the many Japanese auto suppliers and research and development operations in the region.

But Delta says an amending of the Open Skies Agreement with Japan would limit its ability to compete with rivals United and American, both of which have partnerships with Japanese airlines.

At issue is Japan’s desire to open its Haneda Airport International in downtown Tokyo to daytime foreign flights. Delta’s hub is at the less attractively located Narita International Airport, nearly 50 miles from the city’s center. Allowing United and American to fly daytime routes to Haneda, while Delta is stuck at Narita, would likely siphon off passengers and make those Delta flights difficult to sustain.

That will cost jobs in Detroit and other Delta gateway cities. Delta says Michigan-based companies used the Detroit-to-Tokyo route 10,000 times last year, and 64 percent of passengers who landed in Narita connected to one of the other Asian cities served by the flights.

And a majority of the fliers from Detroit to Tokyo connected to Metro from other U.S. cities, highlighting the importance for Detroit of being a hub airport.

Delta says under the discussions, which include the U.S. State and Transportation departments, it would get just one or two of the new daytime gates at Narita, while the Japanese partners of United and American would get eight to 10. It estimates its share of the mainland U.S. to Tokyo market would drop to 8 percent from 22 percent.

So while the Open Skies Agreement is intended to foster greater competition and keep countries from unduly favoring native airlines, it will have the opposite effect in this case.

Delta’s weakened position will allow United and American to control the market and give it greater flexibility to move up fares.

Those airlines would favor routes that originate in New York and Los Angeles, rather than Detroit, Atlanta and Minneapolis, the Delta hubs.

Delta does not have a Japanese joint venture partner, which leaves it at a competitive disadvantage.

With Haneda opening daytime international gates, Delta would prefer to move its Japan hub there, for the convenience of its customers.

The Obama administration, in the interest of fair competition, should insist that the U.S. airlines be treated equally before this agreement is finalized.