China Airlines - 1971 History Booklet

In celebration of China Airlines' opening of the first Transpacific service into Ontario, California this week, I've posted these scans of a 1971 company history - still a government-controlled entity at this point. CI had launched flights to San Francisco from Taipei via Tokyo in February 1970, and to Los Angeles via Tokyo and Honolulu in April 1971. The Boeing 707 jets used did not have the range to make California nonstop, but even if so the short runways at Taipei's Songhsan Airport would never have supported the long takeoff run that would have been necessary.

These scans are from the collection of my good friend and fellow aviation history buff Arthur Na. Click on each panel for a bigger view!

CI would need to pick up an extra 707 after this brochure was printed to be able to cover the Los Angeles route: with how the flights were scheduled, each 707 could make 3-1/2 roundtrips to the USA and back per week. By Fall 1971, San Francisco was served six times weekly, and Los Angeles had four weekly departures.

For good measure, here are scans of the Transpacific services from CI's August 1, 1971 timetable (eastbound and westbound). Passengers arriving Taiwan from the California flights had to spend the night in Taipei to make onward connections because of how late the aircraft arrived; but eastbound Transpacific services left mid-day so passengers from around the region could make same-day connections, and in fact the San Francisco flight originated in Hong Kong using the same aircraft all the way through.

Korean Air - Emergence of a Global Carrier - 1976

KoreanAirLines_schedule_cover_19760401.PNG

First Steps Across the North Pacific

South Korea’s reconstruction after the ravages of World War II and the Korean War took decades, and while there were two launches of an official state airline (KNA in 1947 and the first version of KAL in 1962) the networks they built were fleeting and unprofitable, reaching Japan and Hong Kong only inconsistently until 1965 and 1967. Foreign traffic to Korea in the 1960s was carried primarily by Northwest and Pan Am, Japan Air Lines and Cathay Pacific.

In 1969, the government in Seoul handed the assets of Korean Air to the Hanjin Group. This chaebol was already well-established in ocean shipping and road transportation, owned a company that built hotels, ports, and roads, and owned another company that ran fuel and ground-handling operations at all the country’s airports. Hanjin’s management had big plans for their airline, as well as the talent and funding to execute them.

Hanjin quickly added high-capacity YS-11 turboprops and Boeing 720 four-engine jets to the small Korean Air fleet of Fokker F-27 commuter propliners and DC-9-30 short-range jets. They also grew their route network south to Vietnam and Thailand, and increased links to Japan.

   
  
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    Photo by Steve Fitzgerald via Wikimedia Commons, GNU 1.2 license

Photo by Steve Fitzgerald via Wikimedia Commons, GNU 1.2 license

In 1971, KAL added the long-range Boeing 707-320, first in its cargo version (as Korea's manufacturing boom had moved into full gear) and then the passenger version. They started cargo flights to Los Angeles in April 1971, and passenger flights in April 1972, routing via Tokyo and Honolulu. 

The initial service ran twice a week, but demand for both seats and cargo space was so strong that it had gone to daily frequency by the next year. Still the demand could not be met, so Hanjin put in orders for the Queen of the Skies, Boeing's 747, and put them on the Los Angeles run in 1973.

   
  
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    Photo by Michael Gilland via Wikimedia Commons, GNU 1.2 license

Photo by Michael Gilland via Wikimedia Commons, GNU 1.2 license

Challenge to Asia's Traditional Hub Network

Those early-build 747s, and the 707-320s and Douglas DC-8-63s in the KAL fleet in the early 1970s were state-of-the-art aircraft for their time, but their range was insufficient for long-range services to Asia. Flights to and from Europe had to go all the way around China and the Soviet Union, so those services usually made two or more stops; somewhere in Southeast Asia and somewhere in the Middle East. Flights to California from the Southern Pacific had to stop at Honolulu for fuel, and across the North Pacific, only Tokyo's location was close enough to allow for nonstops to California. Even then, Northwest and Pan Am needed to use Anchorage, Alaska as a fuel stop on their runs from Chicago and New York City to Tokyo.

Another reason why Tokyo was Northeast Asia's dominant hub was the treaty obligation Japan had not just to the United States, but all the World War II Allies, to allow those countries' airlines to use Japan not just as a stop-over point on their way somewhere else, but also to be able to sell tickets from Japan to "somewhere else". For Korean Air, this meant they could sell not just Seoul-Tokyo, Seoul-Honolulu, and Seoul-Los Angeles, but also Tokyo-Honolulu and Tokyo-Los Angeles: this ensured full flights and steady profits.

The catch to the Tokyo stopover, though, was that flights coming in from one direction had to be balanced by flights going onward in the same direction. This wasn't a problem for Northwest, who could run aircraft in from Seattle, Chicago, California, and Hawaii and then out to a similar number of destinations on the other side of Japan. But it did limit Korean Air, who only had Seoul as a major outbound origin point of Transpacific traffic.

And this was a problem for fast-growing Korean Air, who really wanted to increase frequency to California, and also to open up service to Europe. The only solution was to bypass the Tokyo hub.

Click to expand image.

So for California, in addition to the Seoul-Tokyo-Honolulu-LAX flight, Korean Air added a 747 nonstop Seoul-Honolulu which also continued on to LAX. By April 1976, this allowed KAL to serve Los Angeles with passenger flights 10 times per week.

And for Europe, in March 1975 KAL started a Seoul-Anchorage-Paris passenger run twice per week with 707 equipment. This was the critical move: while Anchorage wasn't itself a passenger traffic source, it was on the North American continent and on the Great Circle Route not just to Los Angeles but even New York City. Also notice on the route map above that KAL was already using Anchorage as an enroute stop for cargo service to California.

 International services on Korean Air from Seoul in the April 1976 timetable.

International services on Korean Air from Seoul in the April 1976 timetable.

KoreanAirLines_DC10_1970s.PNG

With the April 1976 timetable, KAL introduced new Douglas DC-10-30 widebody jets for long-range service. And KAL by that point also had on order new variants of the Boeing 747: the ultra-long range 747SP, and the improved 747-200.

These would allow service to New York to begin in March 1979 via Alaska, and at long last, nonstop service from Seoul to Los Angeles in September 1979. Korean Air had the equipment, personnel, and experience to fully-exploit the North Pacific routing and establish a true alternative to the Tokyo hub for North American traffic.

KAL used those DC-10s and 747s to dramatically open new service to the Middle East as well, starting Bangkok-Bahrain flights shortly after this timetable published, and ultimately seven destinations there by the early 1980s, as the Hanjin Group scored airport construction contracts across the region, and needed Korean labor to build them.

KoreanAirLines_schedule_cover_24Feb1981.jpg

Here's how far KAL had reached by early 1981.

By the mid-1990s, Korean Air had also covered the Americas, with passenger flights to 11 destinations in the USA, Canada, and even Brazil!

Underscoring the importance of the North Pacific routing, Korean Air reached an agreement in 2017 with Delta Air Lines (successor to Northwest) to create a joint-venture partnership that will allow Delta to shut down its intra-Asia mini hub at Tokyo.

 

Also see...

Our family-travel airport guide to Seoul-Incheon

What Your Kids Should Eat in Seoul

 

Northwest Orient Airlines’ 747 inaugural service - 1970

The Queen of the Skies was made for routes like these

December 2017 marks the end of scheduled 747 service for Delta Air Lines, and with the final aircraft in its fleet making a farewell tour, it’s appropriate to take a look back at how merger partner Northwest Airlines began service with this type back in 1970.

Northwest Orient, as they were styling themselves, had placed orders for ten of the all-new Boeing 747-100 in 1966, not long after Pan Am had launched the type, and they started receiving their jets only a few months after Pan Am, as well. All ten were delivered in 1970-71, and Northwest topped up its order with five more 747-100B longer-range variants to be delivered in 1971.

By 1980 Northwest had started to swap in the newer, more-capable 747-200 (as well as a handful of all-cargo models), and would later go on to be the launch customer for the extended 747-400. The -400s would pass on to Delta when the companies merged, but the remaining -200s were quickly disposed of, as well as the all-cargo subfleet.

Northwest’s system map in Spring 1970 showed a mix of local-service flights across the upper Midwest and Mountain states, with trunkline services among many major Northeast and Great Lakes cities, plus new lines to Florida and California, and of course long-haul service across the Pacific. Minneapolis and Seattle were their main domestic bases, but they also had a significant presence at Chicago, and had even scored Chicago-Hawaii nonstop authority (in competition with United.) NWA was using several types of Boeing 707 and 727, and a dwindling number of Lockheed Electra prop-jets to fly the system.

 Photo by  Ken Fielding  via Wikimedia Commons, CC 3.0 license

Photo by Ken Fielding via Wikimedia Commons, CC 3.0 license

Northwest’s plan was to use the 747 to replace long-range 707s, giving them significantly more cargo and passenger capacity for revenue growth, as a “frequency-driven” model was not appropriate for the traffic demands of that era, not to mention less-capable air-traffic control and more-cramped airports. And by the late 1970s, 707s would be relegated to just flights from Tokyo to its Asian stations.

 From the collection of my good friend, Arthur Na.

From the collection of my good friend, Arthur Na.

Eventually Northwest would place 747s on many domestic routes, so much so that in the early 1980s their radio jingle called them the “wide-cabin airline”. The phase-out of this remarkable aircraft is also a reminder that there used to be a time when even coach service had both comfortable legroom as well as seat width…

NW_timetable_cover_19700426.png

The first aircraft to enter service flew a very light schedule to help train flight crews; just out and back from Minneapolis headquarters to New York City. While the timetable called for a June 15 start date, in fact the first flights didn’t begin until June 22, 1970:

  • Flight 232 left Minneapolis 12:30 pm, arrived New York JFK 3:59 pm
  • Flight 221 left JFK 5:30 pm, arrived MSP 7:19 pm

At July 1, 1970 the pace for that first aircraft picked up, and three more joined the fleet. The aircraft routed in this sequence, taking four days to make a complete circuit, with lots of slack time in Minneapolis for training and familiarization:

Day one

  • Flight 203: Depart JFK 9:00 am, arrive MSP 10:47 am
  • Flight 232: Depart MSP 12:30 pm, arrive JFK 3:59 pm
  • Flight 221: Depart JFK 5:30 pm, arrive MSP 7:19 pm
  • Maintenance & training checks at Minneapolis

Day two

  • Flight 230: Depart MSP 6:15 pm, arrive JFK 9:38 pm

Day three

  • Flight 7: Depart JFK 10:00 am, stop at Chicago 11:17-12:20 pm, stop at Seattle 2:15-3:45 pm, arrive Tokyo 5:35 pm on day 4

Day four

  • Flight 4: Depart Tokyo 8:20 pm, stop at Seattle 12:50-2:40 pm earlier the same day, stop at Chicago 8:10-9:10 pm, arrive JFK 11:58 pm
 Photo by  clipperarctic  via Wikimedia Commons, CC 2.0 license

Photo by clipperarctic via Wikimedia Commons, CC 2.0 license

The Minneapolis-San Francisco-Honolulu-Tokyo route was added next, starting August 1 with every-other-day service, going to daily on September 1. The six aircraft in the fleet could then route like this:

Day one

  • Flight 9:  Depart Minneapolis 8:15 am, stop at San Francisco 9:50-11:00 am, stop at Honolulu 12:55-2:30 pm, arrive Tokyo 5:10 pm on day 2

Day two

  • Flight 4: Depart Tokyo 8:20 pm, stop at Seattle 12:50-2:40 pm earlier the same day, stop at Chicago 8:10-9:10 pm, arrive JFK 11:58 pm

Day three

  • Flight 203: Depart JFK 9:00 am, arrive MSP 10:47 am
  • Flight 232: Depart MSP 12:30 pm, arrive JFK 3:59 pm
  • Flight 221: Depart JFK 5:30 pm, arrive MSP 7:19 pm
  • Maintenance & training checks at Minneapolis

Day four

  • Flight 230: Depart MSP 6:15 pm, arrive JFK 9:38 pm

Day five

  • Flight 7: Depart JFK 10:00 am, stop at Chicago 11:17-12:20 pm, stop at Seattle 2:15-3:45 pm, arrive Tokyo 5:35 pm on day 6

Day six

  • Flight 10: Depart Tokyo 9:00 pm, stop at Honolulu 9:00-10:45 am earlier the same day, stop at San Francisco 6:20-7:20 pm, arrive MSP 12:35 am on day 1
NW 747 tour wing.png
 The 747-200s and even a couple -100s were painted in the"bowling shoe" livery, which remains my favorite.

The 747-200s and even a couple -100s were painted in the"bowling shoe" livery, which remains my favorite.

Final Resting Places

Delta has preserved one 747-400 at their big museum in Atlanta, and the forward fuselage of Northwest’s first 747, N601US, is on display at the Smithsonian National Air & Space museum in Washington, DC.

 

Also see…

http://www.startribune.com/delta-s-747s-a-vestige-of-northwest-s-heyday-will-visit-minnesota-for-the-final-time/464645563/

 

Our airport guide to Minneapolis/St. Paul

Our article on Northwest Airlines’ “Mall of America” Asian flights

Our Northwest Airlines folder on Pinterest

Delta Air Lines' Asian mini-hub in Portland

 Image by  JKruggel  via Wikimedia Commons, CC 3.0 license

Image by JKruggel via Wikimedia Commons, CC 3.0 license

A clever improvisation

In the second half of the 1980s, management at Delta Air Lines had come to the conclusion that the carrier had to either grow significantly or else be at risk of a hostile takeover. Growth it had to be, and they used the strength of their Atlanta hub to open up new routes across the Atlantic, feeder services throughout the Southeast, and out to nearly every major city in the U.S., including Hawaii.

 By Richard Silagi - http://www.airliners.net/photo/Western-Airlines/McDonnell-Douglas-DC-10-10/1823207/L/, GNU license

By Richard Silagi - http://www.airliners.net/photo/Western-Airlines/McDonnell-Douglas-DC-10-10/1823207/L/, GNU license

But that wasn’t going to be enough: Delta had strength on the East Coast and across the South, but only tendrils to the West. A merger opportunity presented itself with Western Airlines, headquartered in Los Angeles, with a smartly-run mountain-states hub in Salt Lake City, and strong coverage up and down the West Coast, Hawaii, and Mexico. In April 1987 the carriers combined. Delta, however, knew to secure their position as a “top 3” US carrier, they would have to grow even further west…

Ambitions for Asia, but with one big problem

By this time United had acquired Pan Am’s Pacific system, and Northwest Orient was continuing to open up new services (and was on the hunt for acquiring another carrier themselves). Delta was not going to be able to buy their way into a large network like they did with Western, so they were going to have to build it from scratch.

Even in the 1980s, Delta’s Atlanta hub was the largest operation of its sort, easily capable of filling flights to Frankfurt, Paris, and London as the Sunbelt’s industry continued to grow and Florida continued to add attractions and beach developments. Opening a route to Tokyo would certainly be successful – and as Delta would be the official airline for the 1996 Olympics, they had to have an Asian connection to the city.

 Photo by  Aero Icarus  via Wikimedia Commons, CC 2.0 license

Photo by Aero Icarus via Wikimedia Commons, CC 2.0 license

But – the flagship of Delta’s fleet, the three-engined widebody Lockheed L-1011 Tristar, simply did not have the range to get to Asia from Atlanta. Even its high-performance model, the L-1011-500, was best suited for runs to Germany or Hawaii – not nearly far enough. And Lockheed wasn’t going to make a better TriStar for Delta, because they had just quit the civilian airliner market.

So Delta ordered the new McDonnell Douglas MD-11 long-range widebody (itself the ultimate derivative of the venerable DC-10), but those birds wouldn’t start to be available until 1990. Delta needed a solution to open up Transpacific flights, quickly, before American or Continental moved into the market in earnest.

   
  
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    Photo by  Dean Morley  via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Photo by Dean Morley via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Options from the West

Not only was Delta constrained by the capabilities of its fleet, it was also constrained by the location of its new Western Airlines assets:

  • Los Angeles had ideal local demand for Transpacific service, and could use the many Delta/Western flights to feed connecting traffic. And the L-1011-500 might be just able to make Tokyo or Seoul (perhaps with a brief refueling stop in Alaska.) But there were no government-issued route authorities available to Japan or Korea in the late 1980s: United and Northwest had already claimed all the new slots and were using 747 equipment that could fly them nonstop.
  • Salt Lake City, while smaller, nevertheless had an excellent ability to corral connecting traffic. But its high elevation meant the TriStar had no chance of reaching Asia.
  • Seattle was a major terminal point for the combined carrier, but Northwest and United dominated all the possible routes westward.
  • Portland? United had just given up its once-per-week flight from Portland to Tokyo-Narita in favor of beefing up its Seattle service, so there was no westward competition… and a TriStar leaving PDX would have enough range to make Japan or Korea.
PDX-entrance-underglass.JPG

PDX marks the spot

Portland in the late 1980s was a city in transition, moving from its regional economy and industrial and agricultural base to its globally-connected future of arts and crafts, technology, music and sports gear, and cuisine. It wasn’t yet the “spirit of the ‘90s” boomtown but it was growing – and being in the Pacific Northwest, of course it had a significant Asian population and important business ties to Japan, Korea, and China.

DL-WA-merger_at_PDX-map.png

The combined Delta and Western route network that served Portland also happened to have ideally-timed connecting flights from all the carrier’s hubs, as well as San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, and Anchorage.

Even before the merger with Western was consummated in April, on March 2, 1987 Delta started 5-per-week nonstops from Portland to Tokyo-Narita with the L-1011-500, with the flight originating in Atlanta.

DL_timetable-cover_19861215.png
DL_timetable-ad-1987-Tokyo.png

That seemed to work

Delta was immediately pleased with the small, elegant “scissor hub” operation at PDX: they occupied a handful of gates at the end of Concourse D and Customs processing for inbound passengers was literally one floor below. Travelers could go through immigration and be back on their airplane bound for hubs at Atlanta, Cincinnati, Dallas, or Salt Lake in far less time than it would have taken to handle them at Los Angeles or San Francisco.  As predicted, the route was successful.

Delta had no ambition to turn Portland into a massive hub; Salt Lake City was already built up and handled intra-western connections at a low cost, plus Portland was too far north to capture California-to-Midwest/East Coast traffic. All it needed to do was pipeline Asian passengers and freight onward to Delta’s primary hubs, at a modest investment.

DL_timetable-cover_19871215.png

A second Transpacific route was opened in December 1987, to Seoul, also with the TriStar. At first the Tokyo flight simply continued on to Korea, but was made a nonstop in its own right in 1988. With two routes, the timing of arrivals and departures at PDX was re-tuned so that the Seoul run came in and out almost wingtip-to-wingtip with the Tokyo flight.

DL_timetable-cover_19880701.png
DL_timetable-cover_19891215.png
DL_timetable-ad-1989-Bangkok.png

Encouraged by success to Korea, Delta extended the route from Seoul to Taipei in July 1988, and from Taipei to Bangkok in December 1989, taking advantage of unused route authorities. Finally in 1991, they launched a Portland-Nagoya, Japan nonstop.

DL-transpac-PDX-1991-map.png
DL-PDX-hub-diagram-1991.png

The disappointing MD-11 (was good for Portland)

Delta put its new MD-11s on the Asian routes as soon as they were delivered, and by 1993 the TriStars were on their way out of the Pacific (though it took them until 2001 to finally be retired by Delta.) The extra freight capacity on the new aircraft was appreciated and profitable, and the relatively-shorter hops across the Pacific from Portland were ideal for training the crews who would take the MD-11 on the anticipated super-long-range flights.

Except the MD-11 never met its promised performance. Too heavy and underpowered when fully loaded to attain the range of a new 747-400 despite its smaller capacity, nearly every airline who bought it immediately started looking for a replacement. If Delta wanted to fly nonstop from Atlanta to Tokyo, they’d have to do so with severe constraints on how heavy they could load it.

Which meant Delta would not be dismantling Portland right away, despite other challenges that airline was facing in the 1990s:

  • Retreat from its large base at Chicago O’Hare in the early 1990s
  • Acquiring many European routes (including a mini-hub at Frankfurt, Germany) as well as the Boston-New York-Washington shuttle, from defunct Pan Am – the Frankfurt hub would close in 1997
  • A fumbled attempt to build a low-cost “airline within an airline”, Delta Express, to handle tourist routes into Florida from Eastern and Midwestern cities.
  • Big construction projects at the Cincinnati and Dallas/Ft. Worth hubs
  • Southwest Airlines expanding in force along the West Coast and at Salt Lake City, depressing yields throughout the former Western Airlines territory
  • Actually getting authorities and landing slots to run Los Angeles – Tokyo, as well as Los Angeles – (Anchorage fuel stop) – Hong Kong

Delta was getting to be a very big airline and was facing big-organization challenges, but they did appreciate that Portland was still an efficient and passenger-pleasing element of their Pacific strategy. So the carrier invested modestly to build additional gates and a premium lounge, and even put their MD-11 maintenance base there. From a modest 4-gate beginning, Delta was operating 20 gates at PDX by 1998.

DL-PDX-map-1998.png
PDX-end-of-D-concourse.JPG

With Delta’s attention focused on Europe in the mid-90s, the links to Anchorage, Bangkok, and Taipei were cut, but a flight to New York was added. In 1998 they added Boston and Las Vegas domestic service, plus a new route to Fukuoka, Japan, and announced service to Osaka, as well.

DL_timetable-cover-19980601.png
DL-transpac-PDX-1998-map.png
DL-PDX-hub-diagram-1998.png
 MD-11 landing at Narita Airport.   
  
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  Photo by  saku_y  via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

MD-11 landing at Narita Airport. Photo by saku_y via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

And they were confident enough in their Japanese traffic to start Atlanta-Tokyo nonstops with the MD-11, even though it would have to fly with weight restrictions. That meant Atlanta had double-daily service to Tokyo in Summer 1998; one nonstop and one flight via Portland.

(Don’t just blame it on) the Asian economic crisis or September 11

Despite Southeast Asia’s severe recession, originally caused by exchange rate manipulation in Thailand in 1997, Delta was still doing good passenger and freight business well into 1998 – and was confident enough in their own forecasts to add extra flights as described above.

But by Fall 1998 the crisis had moved well beyond Southeast Asia and pushed South Korea, Japan, China and Hong Kong into economic free-fall: outbound tourism evaporated and imports of US foods, energy, and manufactured goods collapsed.

In response, Delta cut its Osaka route before it even started, and stopped running the one-stop service from Atlanta to Tokyo – instead, shifting the one-stop flight to their second-largest hub, Cincinnati.

Those cuts weren’t sufficient to keep Transpacific service viable, however, as the “dot-com crash” in the USA started to gather momentum. In April 1999, Delta had to drop its Portland-Seoul and Portland-Fukuoka flights, leaving it with just Tokyo and Nagoya nonstops. Domestic service to technology center Boston was also dropped then.

The loss of technology jobs in Portland, coupled with the hit to freight volume as Japanese consumers stopped buying expensive (to them) Oregon blueberries, Washington apples, and Pacific-coast salmon, meant that PDX itself could no longer contribute strong local traffic to Asian flights.

Even by 1998, Delta had stopped running a full schedule of flights between Portland and Los Angeles, keeping only one round-trip between the cities; Southwest and Alaska Airlines had captured much of the volume up and down the West Coast by then. Delta was not operating LAX as a hub at this time and essentially abandoned many of the shorter-range legacy Western Airlines routes it picked up in the merger. Likewise, Delta had downgraded the Portland-San Francisco and Portland-Vancouver services from a full-size 727 to the cramped 50-seat Canadair Regional Jet. This meant there was less feed available from the coastal cities to connect onto the Asian flights.

While the concept of airline alliances was still in its early stage in the late 1990s, Delta had struck up an arrangement with Korean Air for joint sales on that carrier’s Seoul-Chicago-Atlanta and Seoul-New York-Washington services, cushioning the impact on Delta’s network of dropping its flight to Korea. But Delta did not have any partners to connect with at Tokyo-Narita (a problem that never was solved even after the merger with Northwest), and this too made it more difficult to sell seats on the run to Portland.

DL_777-at-ATL-2006.JPG

Another indirect strike against the Portland operation was Delta’s introduction in late 1999 of its replacement for the MD-11: the Boeing 777-200. Initially Delta put these aircraft on services to Europe, but its capability to fly Atlanta-Tokyo nonstop with a full load meant the clock would be running out for the Portland scissor hub.

ATL-DL_MD11_at_gate_RonAllen-scheme.png

MD-11 maintenance was relocated to Atlanta, and in September 2000 the announcement was made that the PDX flights to Nagoya and Tokyo would be ending with the April 1, 2001 schedule update, and the city would just be a “spoke” for its hubs at Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Cincinnati, and Dallas/Ft. Worth. So even before 9/11 and its devastating impact on the world’s air travel, Portland was already off the international grid.

Back on the map, for now

 Photo by  Cory Barnes  via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Photo by Cory Barnes via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

After the world’s economy had shaken off the Asian currency crisis and post-9/11 shock, freight and passenger demand started to pick up again over the North Pacific. But it would be Northwest Airlines who would re-start service from Portland to Tokyo, where that airline had a mini-hub at Narita. NWA used its new-generation A330, starting in April 2004. This service has continued through the present day, although when Northwest and Delta merged, Delta assigned one of their slightly smaller, long-range 767-300 aircraft to the route.

PDX_DL-763atgate.JPG

However, with Delta starting to dismantle its Tokyo-Narita operation, and adding significant Transpacific capacity out of Seattle, the Portland service is once again at risk. Will the route remain viable in Delta’s eyes on the basis of local passenger and cargo demand? Will Delta’s joint-venture partner Korean Air start service to Seoul, giving Delta rationale to drop the Tokyo flight? Or will one of the Japanese carriers decide to move onto the route?

 Photo by  Andrew Nash  via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Photo by Andrew Nash via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Northwest Airlines’ “Mall of America” Asian flights

 The original North Entrance and mall logo, from the 1990s

The original North Entrance and mall logo, from the 1990s

Bringing the whole world together under one roof in the late 1990s

Minnesota’s economy had always counted on tourism; as soon as the riverboats and railroads had arrived, resorts and vacation properties opened to take advantage of the state’s many lakes and forests, clean air, four-season outdoor activities, and peaceful quiet.

Nisswa-LowerCullen-lakescene.JPG

Even into the 1980s, most tourists to the North came by automobile from nearby states; while Minnesotans love to travel abroad and to overwinter in ‘snowbird’ destinations, the perception of the state as an icy tundra by people on the coasts and in the South made it difficult to attract more inbound visitors from beyond the Midwest.

Minneapolis-sunset-over-river.jpg

Those who did make it “up north” discovered Minnesota had world-class cultural venues like the Guthrie Theater, Minnesota Orchestra, and Minneapolis Institute of Art; extensive lake-country resorts like Lutsen, Grand View Lodge, Madden’s, and Breezy Point; big casinos on Native lands; sports – not just the Vikings, Twins, and Timberwolves but also youth soccer and hockey everywhere; excellent zoos; top-notch universities; a good-sized amusement park; parklands everywhere; and excellent shopping … but the state lacked one “iconic attraction” that everyone coming through would need to see.

With the construction of the Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis, and hockey’s North Stars relocating to Dallas, the suburb of Bloomington suddenly had several square miles of prime real estate no longer needed for sports stadiums – right at the corner of two major freeways, and literally at the edge of the airport.

MOA-end-of-runway-MSP.JPG

Debates raged through the 1980s about what to do with the property, but in the end a company called Triple Five, who had developed the giant West Edmonton Mall in Canada, was tapped to develop at the time would be America’s largest shopping center.

MOA-ferris-wheel.JPG

In August 1992, the Mall of America opened, and Minnesota had its must-see equivalent to the Golden Gate Bridge or Times Square. With a compact but full-featured amusement park in the center, mini-golf course, movie theater, aquarium, four anchor department stores on the corners, and three full rings of stores around the sides, it was easy for families to spend a full day there, and its prime location made it an irresistible stopover for folks on cross-country drives or having long connections at the airport.

MOA-north-entrance-Aug-2017.JPG

And despite predictions of its irrelevancy and predictions of failure, the MOA thrived by mixing entertainment with retail. In 2016 over 40 million visits were made there, and the complex has been remodeled and expanded, adding hotels and even an office tower, with additional expansion phases in the works.

 The Mall of America features concerts, cultural festivals, and enthusiast gatherings throughout the year.

The Mall of America features concerts, cultural festivals, and enthusiast gatherings throughout the year.

With worldwide attention came the realization that food and clothing were quite affordable in Minnesota, and that the Twin Cities were packed with attractions and activities to easily fill a long weekend or even a full week’s vacation. Northwest Airlines, the dominant carrier at Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport and an early sponsor of the Mall of America, offered domestic vacation packages which proved quite popular in the mid-to-late 1990s. This led to Northwest offering package tours to overseas visitors…

 

 

Even in the early 1950s, Northwest was running flights from their headquarters in Minneapolis all the way out to their mini-hub operation in Tokyo, but those were multi-stop flights and passengers had to clear Customs in West Coast cities. These through-flights between MSP and Tokyo came and went through the 1970s and 1980s (sometimes running through California, Hawaii, or Seattle), but after NWA’s 1986 merger with Republic, they made Flight 7 (westbound) and Flight 8 (eastbound) a daily 747 service via Seattle.

   
  
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    Photo by  Andrew W. Sieber  via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Photo by Andrew W. Sieber via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Even though Minneapolis was its major hub, NWA had been running a Tokyo-Chicago nonstop since the 1970s and they were reluctant to give up that prestige route, because if they did, surely United or American would pick up the lucrative Transpacific traffic from their respective O’Hare hubs. And United had become a serious competitor, after buying Pan Am’s Pacific routes.

But after the Mall of America opened and had started demonstrating its ability to draw tourists from beyond the Midwest – and with the construction of a dedicated Customs facility in the main terminal of MSP Airport – the time had come for Northwest to combine two of its strongest network elements and finally begin nonstops to Asia.

MSP-two_NW_747_at_gate.png

This would allow Northwest to offer package tours to shoppers and families with the promise of not having to connect from international to domestic flights in confusing Los Angeles or San Francisco, with a quick and easy Customs line and short light-rail hop from the MSP Airport to the Mall of America.

The flights

NW-transpac-MSP-1990s-map.png
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From November 1995, Northwest started a Saturday-only nonstop in both directions to its Tokyo hub, supplementing Flights 7/8 via Seattle. Westbound, this was Flight 19, leaving MSP at 1:30 pm and arriving Narita at 5:05 pm Sunday.  Eastbound, Flight 20 left Narita at 3:05 pm and arrived MSP at 1:00 pm the same day.

By September 1996, it was clear this service had met its objectives as Northwest increased its frequency to three nonstops per week, and finally to daily by December 1996. Flights 19/20 were also extended out to Singapore, allowing same-plane service from Minnesota all the way to Southeast Asia.

 Northwest Airlines publicity photo

Northwest Airlines publicity photo

1997 was Northwest’s 50th anniversary of service to Asia, and they made a big celebration of it across their system with banners, parties, and special aircraft paint schemes. They started service to Mumbai and Delhi in India, and they also added two more Transpacific flights out of Minneapolis:

NW_timetable-cover_19970406.png

Osaka nonstops began in April 1997 with 3-per-week service, using Boeing 747-200 equipment. Westbound, this was Flight 95, departing MSP at 9:20 am and landing at Kansai Airport 1:40 pm the next day. Eastbound, Flight 24 left at 1:50 pm and arrived MSP at 11:45 am the same day.

NW_timetable-cover_19970904.png

And finally, nonstops to Hong Kong (the longest route in their system at that time), using a brand-new 747-400, began in October 1997, again with 3-per-week service. Westbound Flight 97 left MSP at 12:45 pm, arriving HKG at 5:15 pm the next day. Eastbound Flight 98 departed Hong Kong at 10:00 am and arrived MSP at 10:30 am the same day.

   
  
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    Photo by  Aero Icarus  via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Photo by Aero Icarus via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

As exciting and groundbreaking as these services were, however, they would not last.

Why did the flights end?

Certainly not because of any decline in the popularity of the Mall of America, or any general decline in the economy: this was still before the events of September 11, 2001, and business and tourism in the US was thriving.

Rather, it was the success Northwest was having from its long-term investments that caused these routes to be cut, plus planning for the airline’s future, and deploying its assets where it could earn the best return:

  • Northwest’s giant new terminal at Detroit was nearing completion and would open in early 2002 – a mile-long concourse, purpose-built to funnel Asian and European jumbo-jet traffic efficiently and at low cost onto short-haul hops to the major population centers of the Great Lakes and Northeast USA. The Minneapolis airport could only handle a handful of DC-10 and 747 arrivals, whereas Detroit would be able to tackle a dozen at one time, if need be.
  • Their fleet of then-brand-new Boeing 747-400 jets was coming fully on stream. These birds truly excelled at long-haul flying; the farther the better. And they were exceptional at lifting belly cargo – where Northwest could earn excellent returns in service to the auto industry around Detroit. Minneapolis did not have the depth of nearby cargo customers.
  • The 747-400 fleet was able to start replacing the older, fully-depreciated 747-200s. The -200 series was a miracle aircraft in the early 1980s, making flights like New York-Tokyo a profitable journey, but it was less fuel-efficient and needed more maintenance than its new sibling, and required a 3-person flight crew. The -400 only needed two pilots on the flight deck, and could carry considerably more.  NWA decided not to invest in upgrading its -200 fleet and actually started retiring some of them. Without up-to-date seating (especially in the front of the cabin) and electronics, the -200s were eventually relegated to routes that did not have heavy premium traffic: the tourist-heavy runs between Japan and Hawaii.

So Northwest’s fleet plan, real estate investments, and crucial freight business were optimized around Detroit. And the airline wanted to put its new long-haul aircraft on routes where they could sell a lot of high-fare seats and full pallets of cargo, because those two elements were key to profit. People taking shopping trips may have been numerous, but they were not the kind of customer who would buy a high-profit-margin World Business Class fare.

There were other factors, as well:

The Hong Kong route ended by November 1998: that city’s new airport had just opened in July of that year, and was still having teething troubles which made life difficult and unpredictable for all carriers, but especially those with only one or two daily flights. NWA’s daily morning departure to Tokyo from Hong Kong at 9 am did mean staff could be utilized for its 10 am, 3-day-a-week Minneapolis departure – but the arrival times could not have been more awkward: Tokyo landed at 10 pm, but Minneapolis pulled in at 5 pm, which meant NWA needed to schedule two different staff shifts. And it meant the aircraft handling the MSP run sat on the ground for seventeen hours! These two problems made cutting the route inevitable.

Osaka had different circumstances: NWA was attempting to create a mini-hub at that city’s giant offshore Kansai Airport, adding nonstops from Los Angeles, Detroit, and Seattle to its existing service from Hawaii, and then adding Minneapolis. Northwest was by far the largest non-Japanese carrier at Kansai in the late 1990s – but it did not have extensive traffic rights to fly beyond Osaka to other markets like China, unlike their setup at Tokyo’s Narita Airport. The only place Northwest flew onward to from Osaka was Manila, Philippines – while that city generated a lot of traffic to and from America, the country’s poor economy meant its customers were traveling on heavily-discounted fares.

   
  
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    Photo by  Contri  via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Photo by Contri via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

NWA did forge a code-share alliance with Japan Air System, that country’s #3 domestic airline, which eventually saw NW flight numbers applied to runs from Osaka to key cities like Fukuoka and Sapporo. This could have become a more-significant partnership: Northwest had no ability to offer connections to other Japanese cities through Narita, but with JAS at Osaka, the entire country was available. Plus, JAS was making plans for international expansion and this could also have fed Northwest’s flights to the USA.

That hope ended abruptly at the turn of the century when JAS decided its shareholders would get a better return by merging the company with another airline – and as Japanese law said only a Japanese company could own an airline, that meant either All Nippon Airways or Japan Air Lines (both fierce competitors against Northwest) would win the prize, with JAL eventually taking over JAS.

Kansai Airport’s high costs of handling aircraft did not help the situation, and the massive slowdown in Japan’s economy meant fewer tourists were interested in flying to America to buy clothes, food, and presents. Ultimately, Northwest’s Osaka strategy fell apart and the city was reconnected to Tokyo with a single-aisle aircraft for connections and onward service to Guam.

NWA ran the Minneapolis-Osaka route into October 1998, and brought it back for the summer in 1999 and 2000. The events of 9/11/01, and the JAL-JAS merger, ensured it would not ever be repeated.

Service between Minneapolis and Tokyo-Narita, however, remained steady with a daily nonstop, and even went to double-daily in the mid-2000s. However, Northwest’s bankruptcy in 2006 and merger with Delta in 2008 would bring changes…

Future Asian service for Minneapolis/St. Paul?

Delta’s decision to de-hub the former Northwest complex at Tokyo-Narita was probably inevitable, but the impact on access to Asia for the Twin Cities was severe. As of Summer 2017, Delta maintains a daily nonstop to Tokyo’s downtown airport, Haneda, but the Boeing 777-200 aircraft used on that service is excessive, considering that Delta does not offer any onward connections from Haneda and does not even coordinate service with its SkyTeam alliance partners there (Korean Air offers service to the “downtown” Seoul airport, Gimpo; China Airlines flies to the “downtown” Taipei airport, Taoyuan; China Eastern flies to Shanghai’s “downtown” airport, Hongqiao.) Delta has to fill that 777 with local traffic from the Upper Midwest and Tokyoites wanting to travel to the North Country.

Delta-777200-landing-MSP.jpg

(Haneda is quite convenient for getting in and out of Tokyo, but it isn’t connected to the Japanese high-speed rail network, so no chance of through-ticketing with Japan Rail…)

 What could have been: Northwest Airlines publicity illustration

What could have been: Northwest Airlines publicity illustration

If Delta had re-committed to Northwest’s order for Boeing 787-8 Dreamliners, that aircraft would be perfectly sized for the Haneda operation, but those orders were cancelled. Delta might choose to use their newer longer-range Airbus A330-300s just coming on line (or new A330-900s on order) for potentially better economics than the 777; the worry is that Delta will decide to deploy either aircraft type on other routes and simply discontinue Tokyo service from MSP altogether. At this point Delta has both sought to reassure the Twin Cities of its commitment to Asian service, but at the same time has vociferously complained to the US and Japanese governments about how landing slots at Haneda have been assigned.

 Image by  byeangel  via Flickr; CC 2.0 license

Image by byeangel via Flickr; CC 2.0 license

The near-term hope in 2017-2018 comes from the joint-venture agreement that Delta has signed with Korean Air; that company has aggressively opened service to North America. Local business and tourism leaders are hoping to see service to Seoul’s main airport, Incheon – either on Delta or Korean Air metal. Incheon offers several connecting banks to dozens of cities in China, Japan, and Southeast Asia, far surpassing anything that Northwest was able to offer in the 1990s.

In the longer-run, the Twin Cities would like to see more US-China route authorities become available. This may allow a SkyTeam carrier like China Eastern to come in from Shanghai, or Xiamen Air to begin service from another point on the mainland. Taiwan does not have restrictions on the number of flights to the USA, so it might be possible to attract Taipei-based SkyTeam member China Airlines – but they would need to have a tighter relationship with Delta than they do now to draw heavy connecting traffic through MSP.

The chances of a Star Alliance carrier (United, with Air China, Asiana, EVA Air, and All Nippon) or one from Oneworld (American, with Japan Airlines and Cathay Pacific) landing at MSP are frankly slim. Both alliances have massive hubs at nearby Chicago O’Hare, and any flights directly to Minnesota would work against their interest of flying very full and very large aircraft into Chicago.

 Image by  byeangel  via Flickr; CC 2.0 license

Image by byeangel via Flickr; CC 2.0 license

MSP may hope to draw service from the new generation of budget carriers in Asia, such as a Hong Kong Airlines or a Jin Air, as they take delivery of longer-range airplanes: their business models may be best-suited for bringing over planeloads of tourists for Minnesota’s winter activities, summer resorts, and of course shopping.

Hong Kong Airlines and Capital Airlines (based in Tianjin) are both owned by the HNA conglomerate – who also owns Minneapolis-based Radisson Hotels – who happens to have a large hotel attached to the Mall of America! There might be new packaged flight & lodging deals for shoppers and families from China yet in Minnesota’s future…

Also see…

http://triplefive.com/en/pages/moa/tourism-facts

http://specialtyretail.com/news/mall-of-america-caters-to-international-visitors/

http://www.chinatopix.com/articles/17894/20141021/mall-america-lures-chinese-shoppers-retail-tourism-minnesota.htm

http://mspmag.com/shop-and-style/what-if-mall-of-america-didn-t-exist/

https://www.mediapost.com/publications/article/250459/mall-of-america-caters-to-international-visitors.html?edition=

http://www.startribune.com/mall-of-america-looks-6-000-miles-away-for-more-shoppers/279637882/

https://www.minnpost.com/business/2014/05/how-mall-america-hopes-lure-chinese-worlds-most-lucrative-tourist

http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/2014-06/03/content_17557887.htm

 

and other weninchina resources - - -

Our airport guide to Minneapolis/St. Paul

Our airport guide to Detroit

Our airport guide to Seoul-Incheon

Our airport guide to Tokyo-Narita

Our airport guide to Hong Kong

 

Saint Paul’s “Little Mekong” district, from our Chinatowns series

Our Minneapolis/St. Paul folder on Pinterest

Our Northwest Airlines folder on Pinterest

Our China Eastern Airlines folder on Pinterest

Our Korean Air folder on Pinterest