MIAMI — The Department of Transportation (DOT) ruled Monday that it will evaluate whether Delta Air Lines will be able to keep the slot it uses to operate seasonal flights between Seattle and Tokyo’s Haneda Airport.

On October 25, 2010, the United States and Japan signed a Memorandum of Understanding to make four daily slot pairs available to carriers from each country to provide services between the United States and Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. This was a big deal for US carriers. Although many had a significant presence at Tokyo’s Naritia Airport, Haneda was and still is seen as an “airport of opportunities” thanks to being located closer to the city to Tokyo.

In 2010, Delta was granted two slot pairs at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. The carrier opted to serve Haneda from both Detroit and Los Angeles, but in 2013, Delta moved its Detroit/Haneda slot pair to Seattle. This move came as Delta continued to build a large presence in Seattle and built a large portfolio of international flights; it saw Seattle as its gateway to Asia. 

One year after moving the Detroit/Haneda flight to Seattle, Delta announced that the Seattle/Haneda route would become seasonal. The carrier would not operate flights between the two cities from October 1, 2014 through March 29, 2015. The route change to seasonal was due to poor bookings and a general weakness of US carrier service to Tokyo Haneda. 

One month later, American Airlines filed a motion requesting that the DOT revoke Delta’s daily Seattle/Haneda slot pair. Instead, American wants to see the DOT allow American be awarded a slot pair to operate Los Angeles/Haneda flights. In the report, American points out that Delta is operating the Seattle/Haneda flights seasonally, but it will operate it one week every 90 days which is just enough to ensure that it does not automatically lose the slot pair to the DOT. American also says that Delta over promised the consumer benefit of Seattle/Haneda flights.

Shortly after American filed a notion, Hawaiian also got involved. It asked the DOT to reopen the case where Delta was awarded the Seattle/Haneda slot pair and to modify the dormancy condition that would require Delta to provide year-round service. Hawaiian also asked the DOT to institute a new proceeding to develop a factual record before reallocating the slot pair should they decide to go that route. The carrier also said that it would apply to provide year-round service to Haneda from Los Angeles with full utilization of the slot pair should the DOT consider new applications. Finally, the DOT report says Hawaiian “argues that Delta’s Haneda strategy is not about providing service or competition, but “playing keep away” with valuable air service rights – all to protect Delta’s Narita hub.”

So far, United Airlines has remained quiet. Earlier this year, United started serving Tokyo Haneda from its Asian gateway, San Francisco.

Despite the acquisitions, Delta asserts that its in the clear as it is in full compliance how frequently it must operate the route and that the winter had a very low forecast demand. Additionally, the DOT report says:

“Delta asserts that it has firm plans to resume its Seattle-Haneda service on March 29, 2015. Delta further asserts that the public interest case for Seattle-Haneda authority is even stronger today than when the Department originally allowed Delta to move its Haneda gateway from Detroit to Seattle. Delta argues that the Department’s 2013 decision remains correct and that there is no reason to revisit that case. Delta states that it is working hard to make its Seattle- Haneda service a permanent, year-round success, and that by the start of the next winter season Delta will have the support of 35 additional Delta/Delta Connection flights providing feed into its Seattle hub.”

Delta does go on to question American’s attempt to seek Haneda slots since American relinquished its New York JFK/Haneda slot pair, and when it did so, American did not at that time seek slots to operate Los Angeles/Haneda flights.

Based on the December 15, 2014 ruling, the DOT says:

“In light of Delta’s extensive winter-season Seattle-Haneda service cutbacks, the submissions of American and Hawaiian and the responses thereto, the Department believes that the public interest requires a fresh examination of whether the best use of the Seattle-Haneda opportunity is to allow Delta to retain the slot pair for Seattle-Haneda service, or whether the public interest would be better served by reallocating the slot pair for service from another U.S. city by another U.S. carrier or by Delta.”

Now, the DOT says “parties will be free to argue in favor of maintaining the allocation to Delta for Seattle-Haneda service, or in favor of allocating the slot pair to a different U.S. carrier, or to Delta for a different U.S. city. ”

The DOT is allowing parties to submit applications to an alternative gateway to Haneda. Now, who will submit applications to take over the slot?

It is very likely that American will push for the DOT to award it Delta’s Seattle/Haneda slot pair to operate flights between Los Angeles and Haneda. Although, if awarded, the new flight would overlap Delta’s current flight. Regardless, American is focused on getting the slot pair, and it says that it could start operating the route as soon as next month.

Hawaiian will also likely make a push to be awarded the slot pair.

Will Delta keep its Seattle/Haneda slot pair, or could it relocate it to another city? That remains to be seen, but Delta is focused on keeping the slot pair. One issue with the current slot pair is the timings of the flights in and out of Haneda. Could Delta or another carrier be able to strike a deal to retime the flights to make it better for its customers?

Who will win is the question of the hour. A decision is expected early next year.

Stay tuned…