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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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

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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:

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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.

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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.

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.

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.

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(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

United - acquisition of Pan Am's Pacific Division 1986

Composite image; Pan Am DC-10 by Aero Icarus via Flickr, CC 2.0 license, and United DC-10 by Alain Durand, GNU 1.2 license

Composite image; Pan Am DC-10 by Aero Icarus via Flickr, CC 2.0 license, and United DC-10 by Alain Durand, GNU 1.2 license

A tale of two airlines

By late 1984, it was clear that Pan Am’s strategic blunders were not going to be fixed by a recovering economy: it had paid far too high a price to acquire Miami-based National Airlines for domestic routes that did nothing to feed its New York-JFK hub, and couldn’t even effectively feed its South American services. The airline was saddled with first-generation, fuel-hog jumbo 747s and 747SPs it couldn’t fill except at highly discounted fares, against high fuel prices and interest rates.

Delta, Northwest, and American were now competitors across the Atlantic, and flying from their respective fortress hubs where they could collect and re-route passengers much more effectively than Pan Am could through New York. On its historic Latin American services, Eastern picked up the former Braniff routes when Pan Am could neither pay nor get government approval, and had swiftly integrated them into its massive Miami hub.

On the Pacific side, Northwest had already exceeded Pan Am’s lift into Tokyo; United had been given flights to Tokyo and Hong Kong; and Japan Air Lines, Korean Air, and Singapore Airlines were not only adding capacity to the USA, but doing so with a level of service and seating comfort that Pan Am had not invested in.

Image by Roger W via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Image by Roger W via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Pan Am was bleeding cash and had sold off its InterContinental Hotels chain and its iconic Manhattan office tower, but its debt obligations were still daunting. And a ground-services strike in early 1985 consumed nearly all the cash Pan Am had on hand. The situation at their New York headquarters was desperate.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, United Airlines’ top management was full of confidence: revenue for the largely-domestic carrier was steadily climbing, as was profitability. They had successfully introduced a fleet of new, fuel-efficient Boeing 767 widebody jets and this was allowing them to phase out old-generation DC-8s and improve their margins at the same time.

Profits from operations meant United had a more-open wallet by lenders, and Chairman Richard Ferris was pulling together a plan to employ that leverage to create a vertically-integrated travel company: using United’s reservations system Apollo, and the Western International Hotel brand they already owned (now called Westin), he acquired more hotels and the Hertz rental car chain – with the goal of owning every step of a traveler’s journey. We would call it a “big data” strategy today – Apollo was one of the biggest computer networks on the planet in the 1980s and had strong penetration in the nation’s travel agencies, and Ferris’ theory was that a one-stop shop would allow United to win a higher percentage of big corporate travel contracts because Apollo could help those companies better track and control their travel expenses.

The corporate name was supposed to be a fusion of "allegiant" and "aegis", and what either of those two concepts had to do with travel no one really understood... 

The corporate name was supposed to be a fusion of "allegiant" and "aegis", and what either of those two concepts had to do with travel no one really understood... 

1983 route map - note the co-promotion of Westin Hotels

Yet United’s management still felt vulnerable: while it was the largest U.S. domestic carrier, it had nearly no high-margin/high-prestige international service, outside of its two Asian routes. The U.S. government had still not approved any of United’s other requests for Pacific and Atlantic routes, and so it found itself feeding its competitors, especially at its San Francisco and Los Angeles hubs.

 

Pan Am's Pacific system in 1982-1984

Pan Am's Pacific system in 1982-1984

Let’s make a deal

So when Ed Acker of Pan Am called Ferris in February 1985, both sides were hungry for a deal. Ferris, in fact, had been proposing an asset purchase for three years. Negotiations went on in secret for a month; neither sides’ creditors or investors were aware until the deal was announced at a joint press conference in April. Wall Street “was taken by surprise” but analysts quickly said both airlines would benefit.

For about $750 million in cash, United would pick up all of Pan Am’s routes to East Asia and the South Pacific, plus 2,700 staff and 18 aircraft (11 Boeing 747SPs, 6 Lockheed L1011-500s, and one McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30 – though United would give Pan Am 5 747-100s). Given that Pan Am was grossing about $770 million and making about $55 million in profit off its Pacific division, it’s clear that United made a very good deal.

Photo by Pedro Aragão via Wikimedia Commons, CC 3.0 license

Photo by Pedro Aragão via Wikimedia Commons, CC 3.0 license

Pan Am bought some time with the asset sale – on the positive side, they started to bring on Airbus A300s for Caribbean and transcontinental flights, and Airbus A310s for lower-traffic European routes, made a more-serious attempt to build domestic connecting traffic into New York JFK, and started a Washington-New York-Boston air shuttle. On the negative side, they were still carrying too much debt, the fleet was still 747-heavy, and competitors were moving much faster to claim market share. Pan Am would end up selling off its crown jewel of flights and landing rights to London’s Heathrow Airport to United in 1990, but still couldn’t cut its way to viability. After the Lockerbie bombing of a Pan Am 747, the airline attempted to form an alliance with Delta Airlines, but that deal unraveled and the carrier shut down entirely in December 1991.

Pan Am's final route map.

Pan Am's final route map.

United’s management was feeling great about the Pacific deal in April 1985 – but they’d left their pilots without a contract for two years. So in May 1985, the pilots and then the flight attendants went on strike for a month, shutting the carrier down nearly completely. United’s agreement to end the strike did not resolve the issues, but rather created a two-tier contract where newly-hired pilots would never see the wages or benefits that older pilots had earned. Instead of easing labor-management relations, the work environment only grew more tense. The pilots’ union considered Ferris an enemy.

Over the next two years, Wall Street would also find complaints with Ferris’ performance, as his vertical-integration strategy failed to deliver superior returns – leading the pilots’ union to ally with investment fund managers and attempt a takeover of the whole company.  Soon, Hertz and the hotels would be sold off, and Ferris would be out of a job. 

 

The new system

The pilots’ strike was a drain on cash and management attention, leading to delays in closing the deal. However, by February 1986 the Pan Am aircraft, gates, staffing, landing rights, and contracts had all been signed over, and after quick application of decals to the fleet, on February 11 United began operation on its new division.

Photo by FotoNoir via Flickr, CC 2.0 license  

Photo by FotoNoir via Flickr, CC 2.0 license  

Pan Am's former aircraft were given seating updates to match the "Royal Pacific" standard that UA had rolled out when they started Seattle-Tokyo/Hong Kong flights in 1983. (Click for seat maps of the United 747SP - 747-200 - and L1011-500.)

Photo by FotoNoir via Flickr, CC 2.0 license  

Photo by FotoNoir via Flickr, CC 2.0 license  

United would continue to suffer labor pains and incur debt issues in the 1990s despite continued growth and further asset buys from Pan Am, but for this story, the Pacific Division became a point of pride for the company and marked its ascendance to becoming a true global carrier. Through reorganizations, the crisis after 9/11, and the merger with Continental, these routes only grew in importance to the carrier.

March 2017 routes from United's Hemispheres Magazine

United - Transpacific Inaugural April 1983

Executives at United’s headquarters just outside Chicago must have been beyond frustrated in the early 1980s. They were the biggest airline in the U.S., yet for twenty years had been rejected to start international services, time and again. And not having international experience meant they weren’t getting preferential status when new route authorities were opened; a classic catch-22. United had made a big filing with the US Civil Aeronautics Board in the late 1960s to start Asia service, but not only were they rejected, their duopoly with Pan Am to Hawaii was broken apart and they had to compete with Western and Continental on what had been their lucrative Los Angeles/San Francisco-Honolulu traffic!

Northwest Orient and Pan Am had Asia; Pan Am and TWA had Europe and the Mideast; Braniff and Pan Am had Latin America. Braniff, Delta, and even little Air Florida had received European routes in the late 1970s – and Braniff had been granted flights to Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore! When both Braniff and Air Florida had gone out of business, none of the available authorities went to United.

Photo by Ralf Manteufel via Wikimedia Commons, GNU 1.2 license

Photo by Ralf Manteufel via Wikimedia Commons, GNU 1.2 license

The Japanese government in the 1970s and 1980s took a dim view of letting US carriers expand services to Tokyo any further; while Japan Air Lines still had the largest single-carrier market share across the Pacific, agreements after World War II allowed both Pan Am and Northwest Orient generous “fifth-freedom” rights to pick passengers and freight up in Japan and take them to other points in Asia, and this put JAL into serious competition on both sides of the island chain. While Japan also had similar rights beyond the USA, it was only used on one route to Brazil, so they did not consider the treaty to be well-balanced.

JAL wanted to fly to additional points in America, but was not keen on the prospect of giving NWA or Pan Am an even greater assortment of cities to fly to Tokyo from as a result of negotiations with the US government. Talks went on for years, until someone had the idea to suggest giving United Airlines a route to Japan. United would not have “fifth-freedom” rights … and United’s massive domestic operation could put NWA and Pan Am at a tactical disadvantage. Both elements appealed to the Japanese side, and it was agreed: United would get a Seattle-Tokyo slot, and JAL would get access to both Seattle and Chicago. And Northwest would go from having a monopoly on the Seattle run to having two strong competitors in one blow.

Once the US government agreed on Japan’s conditions, United lobbied hard to pick up landing rights at Hong Kong, where there was an unused daily frequency after Braniff’s collapse. Hong Kong’s government was agreeable, but United would have to fly there without stopping in Japan.

Photo by clipperarctic via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Photo by clipperarctic via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

United’s fleet of seventeen 747-100s, delivered from 1970-1972, would be stretched thin on services to Hawaii as well as the Tokyo flight, but the airline’s large and more-recently built fleet of DC-10-10s was the “lightweight” version – enough range to handle flights to Hawaii or from California to New York, but not nearly enough to make Japan, much less another four hours’ flying to Hong Kong.

Photo by contri via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Photo by contri via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

The solution came from across the northern border: Vancouver-based carrier CP Air was willing to lease United three longer-range DC-10-30s, and this would be just enough to cover the schedule. Plus, United was quite familiar with the DC-10 so crew training for -30 version would be minimal.

On April 2, 1983, United started its Tokyo service with six weekly nonstops from Seattle/Tacoma, daily except Tuesdays, and on Tuesdays they offered a nonstop from Portland, Oregon, using the 747-100 on all flights. The aircraft would sit at Tokyo-Narita for about four hours before returning to the USA.  Both the outbound and return flights terminated at Chicago-O’Hare.

Click to enlarge this route map

Then on May 28, 1983, United began Seattle-Hong Kong nonstops with daily frequency, with both inbound and outbound flights terminating at New York-JFK. The DC-10-30 would arrive Hong Kong’s Kai Tak airport at 6:15 pm and not depart until 1:45 pm the next day – while HKG was happy to have United fly there, the one-runway airport had severe congestion and these were the best times United could get. But even if UA could get a later landing slot and a morning takeoff slot, they’d still need three aircraft to run the routing, and the arrivals and departures at Seattle worked well for connecting traffic from across United’s system, as they had a large operation at SEA in the 1980s.

Outside of a few flights to Toronto, Vancouver, Cancun/Cozumel, and the Bahamas, the Tokyo and Hong Kong routes from the Pacific Northwest would be all the prestige international flying United would do for the first half of the 1980s. But in 1985, UA’s management began quiet negotiations with Pan Am that would change the carrier’s fortunes…

 

Also see:

http://m.csmonitor.com/1983/0328/032837.html

and other weninchina resources - - -

Our Transpacific Flying folder on Pinterest

Our Tokyo-Narita airport guide

Our Hong Kong airport guide

Our Seattle/Tacoma airport guide

Our Portland airport guide

Our Chicago O’Hare airport guide

CAAC - Transpacific Inaugural 1981

Ilyushin-12 piston-engine airliner. Photo by Allen Watkin via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Ilyushin-12 piston-engine airliner. Photo by Allen Watkin via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

China’s “frenemy” relationship with the Soviet Union in the 1960s-70s had begun with post-WWII ideological alignment and anti-American solidarity, but was increasingly strained by perceptions that Moscow was lining up with old antagonists in Delhi and Hanoi. Lack of access to Western technology and the loss of home-grown engineering talent meant that China was utterly dependent on Soviet-built transportation equipment: the CAAC airline fleet even in the 1970s was still largely made up of smaller piston-engined propeller planes, with a few 1950s-era turboprops and even fewer first-generation Tupolev and Ilyushin jets.

Antonov-24 turboprop. Photo by GothPhil via Flickr, CC 2.0 license  

Antonov-24 turboprop. Photo by GothPhil via Flickr, CC 2.0 license  

President Nixon’s overtures to the People’s Republic in 1972, plus British and European contacts, gave China’s leaders an opening to change the relationship with Moscow. By the end of that year orders had been placed for 707 long-range jets, and Trident mid-range jets (plus newer long-range Ilyushin-62 jets and Antonov-24 turboprops from Russia). By the mid-1970s, China had the foundations of long-range service in place to Japan, the Mideast, Africa, and Europe, and a reasonably contemporary fleet on its trunk services.

Boeing 707. Photo by wiltshirespotter via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Boeing 707. Photo by wiltshirespotter via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Crossing the Pacific, however, had yet to be accomplished – other Asian economies were starting their remarkable growth period, and the US was increasingly opening its doors for business and migration. Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, and even Singapore had all started or expanded home-carrier air service to America by the mid-to-late-1970s with brand-new wide-body jets made by Boeing and Douglas. While China and the US were still slowly negotiating transportation agreements, the “Asian Tigers” were quickly passing Beijing by: a loss of “face” to be sure, but practically-speaking, a loss of economic power which China could ill-afford.

Photo by Aero Icarus via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Photo by Aero Icarus via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

New management in 1978 at CAAC, the Chinese civil aviation service, finally kicked the bureaucracy into action, getting a treaty with the US finalized, and orders for the newest, long-range Boeing 747SP were in place by the end of the year.

CAAC received its 747s in early 1980 and began nonstops to Paris that spring, followed up with test flights to the US in the fall. Finally, with trained crews in place and support contracts with Pan Am finalized, the first scheduled service from Beijing through Shanghai to San Francisco and New York began on January 7, 1981.

By the time this April 1, 1982 timetable was issued, the service had been extended to Los Angeles, paralleling Pan Am’s route expansion. CAAC would retain this routing for several years, adding an additional weekly frequency to San Francisco but not making major changes until after mid-1985, when the national carrier would be broken up into several regional airlines. CAAC would keep its Beijing hub and most international routes, becoming today’s Air China. The Shanghai division would become today’s China Eastern.

Notice how few flights per week were actually operated in 1982! The Tokyo-Shanghai route was only flown 5 times per week, and there were only 3 nonstops per week on the Tokyo-Beijing route. Paris, London, Bangkok, and Manila were only reached once per week, and there were no flights to Singapore or Australia at this time.

On the domestic-services side, you can see that even on the principal routes CAAC ran very few flights: Beijing-Shanghai was only served 4 times per day; Beijing-Guangzhou not even at 3 times per day, and only 2 daily on the Shanghai-Guangzhou run, with other core routes at well less than daily frequency.

With each regional division controlling its own fleet and choice of routes from 1985 onward, they quickly started competing, building traffic with better service and lower fares, and ordering hundreds of new aircraft.

Photo by Kiefer via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Photo by Kiefer via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Photo by Woodys Aeroimages via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Photo by Woodys Aeroimages via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

The Beijing-Shanghai-San Francisco-New York core route was where both carriers’ crews and administrators earned Trans-pacific experience, and even now Air China’s Beijing-SFO/JFK and China Eastern’s Shanghai-SFO/JFK services are treated as flagship routes, with their newest equipment and in-flight services.

Also see:

http://www.nytimes.com/1981/01/08/us/scheduled-air-service-from-china-to-us-resumes.html

and other weninchina resources - - -

Our Transpacific Flying folder on Pinterest

Our Air China folder on Pinterest

Our China Eastern folder on Pinterest

 

Pan Am - 1981 Return to China

Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons, uploaded by the San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive

Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons, uploaded by the San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive

Pan American World Airways reached China the first time with its “Clipper” flying boats in 1935, and played a key role in organizing domestic air service there in the tenuous pre-war period. But after the 1949 Revolution, American interests were kicked out of the country, and the Communists effectively walled off (pun intended) China from nearly all Western commerce and culture.

President Nixon’s overtures to the People’s Republic in 1972 started tenuous contacts, and in September of that year an order came for ten Boeing 707 jetliners to be operated by CAAC, the national air service. Those aircraft were used on routes to the Mideast, Africa, and Europe, however – it took until 1979 for there to be any agreement on transportation between China and the US, and the first transit was done by cargo ship.

Pan Am had to give up its flights to Taiwan (which was just fine by competitor Northwest Orient), and CAAC had to order, receive, and get trained on new Boeing 747s before service could commence. For CAAC, this started on January 7, 1981, and Pan Am’s service kicked off on January 28.

The first timetable Pan Am put out with the new flights was issued April 26, and is iconic in the #avgeek collecting community. The Great Wall at Badaling had just been restored for tourism, and while it’s clear this photo was taken in fall/winter, what is striking is the utter lack of vegetation – and crowds!

Photo by Aero Icarus via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Photo by Aero Icarus via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Pan Am used the long-range 747SP, which was a customized short-body version of the famous aircraft that could fly the New York-Tokyo leg (or later, Los Angeles-Shanghai) without fuel stops. It was a fuel hog – a big problem when the oil crisis hit - but the best that Boeing could put in the sky with late-1970s technology, and as such it was given the highest prestige. (The standard-size 747-200 would soon offer similar performance with better payload and economics, making accountants and route planners at a number of airlines curse the day their bosses wrote checks to buy the “SP”… and was one of many factors that led to Pan Am’s downfall.)

In the 21st Century, we are used to seeing multiple frequencies per day between American and Chinese business centers, but in 1981 on Pan Am, you had a choice of just four weekly services:

  • A Saturday departure from New York JFK, leaving at 1:15 pm – arriving Tokyo Narita at 3:50 pm on Sunday, then Shanghai Hongqiao at 8:25 pm, and finally Beijing at 11:15 pm.
  • Wednesday and Sunday departures from San Francisco at 2:15 pm, getting into Tokyo at 4:55 on Thursday/Monday, and Beijing at 9:35pm. These two weekly runs did not continue to Shanghai.
  • From September, there was also a Wednesday 1:00 pm departure from Los Angeles, nonstop to Shanghai, arriving Thursday at 6:00 pm, and continuing to Beijing at 9:00 pm.

These scans from the April 26, 1981 schedule show the outbound services available from Beijing and Shanghai:

By no means were these services profitable in the first several years – flights were nowhere near full, as business and immigration connections between the US and China would take time to develop, and both countries were just beginning to come out of economic crises (albeit for different reasons). The 747SP, while paid for, would be an operational money pit for Pan Am well into the 1990s. While Pan Am would eventually get its Pacific services to profitability, their losses on core European services would see the company make another fatal decision when they sold the Pacific division to United Airlines in 1985 for $750 million.

Pan Am’s pioneering work to build relationships in China would ensure United’s success, and today they are the top US carrier across the Pacific, with a strong Star Alliance partner in Air China.

Photo by Steve Fitzgerald via Wikimedia Commons, GNU 1.2 license

Photo by Steve Fitzgerald via Wikimedia Commons, GNU 1.2 license

Inter-Island Airways - June 1931

Well before Juan Trippe had the business audacity and deep connections with the US government to build a network of island terminals to start Pan American’s famous China Clipper service from San Francisco – Honolulu – Manila – Hong Kong, there was a realization in the territory of Hawaii that air travel would provide the crucial speed and hopefully safety to tie the island chain together: ships of the era needed a day and a half to transit between the Big Island and Oahu amid strong wind and changeable weather.

Several attempts were made in the early 1920s to begin commercial service, but the craft were unreliable and could not carry an economical load. It took the Inter-Island Steamship Company, one of the two big lines serving the Islands, to put serious capital and talented people behind figuring out how to make flying work.

The Army and Navy were at odds with each other about where and what kinds of airfields to build and where across the territory, so the Inter-Island team decided to go with an aircraft that could land on water as well as paved runways: the 8-passenger Sikorsky S-38 amphibian, already in use with Pan American in the Caribbean, Northwest on the St. Paul-Duluth run, and Canadian operators.

Illustration from an Inter-Island Airways schedule, from the Ron Davies timetable collection, housed at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. The S-38 is shown on the ground being boarded, and flying in the top right. At some stops, however, passengers had to travel to shore via canoe!

Illustration from an Inter-Island Airways schedule, from the Ron Davies timetable collection, housed at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. The S-38 is shown on the ground being boarded, and flying in the top right. At some stops, however, passengers had to travel to shore via canoe!

The airline’s first official passenger flight was on November 11, 1929 on the Oahu-Maui-Hilo trunk line – not long after the stock market crash and beginning of the Depression. The steamship company was able to absorb operating losses from the airline while it built operational experience and finally earned its essential US Mail contract in 1934. Recovery in tourism – especially with Pan Am’s Clipper service cutting four days’ travel time from the mainland - plus the military buildup in the Islands and guaranteed mail income led to profitability and the acquisition of larger and more capable Sikorsky S-43 flying boats in 1935.

From my own collection, scan of the Official Airline Guide

From my own collection, scan of the Official Airline Guide

In this June 1931 timetable we can see the entire system being covered with just two aircraft:

  • A morning run daily from Honolulu out to Hilo, where the aircraft would sit for four hours. The return flight would land in Oahu at 4:45pm.
  • A morning run twice a week from Honolulu west to Kauai, turning around and getting back to Oahu before lunch. At 2 pm, the craft would handle the Honolulu- Molokai- Maui run, returning before 5 pm.

This schedule gave plenty of operational flexibility and, importantly, all-daylight operations. Navigational radio beacons were not in place at the time, and these aircraft could not fly above tropical weather. Also too, landing in ocean waves and taxiing reef-protected harbors were not (and are still not) wise to do at night.

After World War II, the company (now named Hawaiian Airlines) was flying DC-3 landplanes and graduated to Convair 340s in the 1950s, and turboprops and DC-9 jets in the 1960s. Finally in the mid-1980s, Hawaiian entered the Hawaii-California market.

Hawaiian Air A330 at Honolulu

Hawaiian Air A330 at Honolulu

From the mid-2000s, Hawaiian has become the largest inter-Island carrier as well as the leading airline to the Mainland US. They now also fly to other South Pacific islands, Australia and New Zealand, as well as Japan, Korea, and China - the realization of Pan Am's 1930s vision of linking the entire Pacific together via Honolulu.

 

Excellent resources to learn more about Hawaii's aviation history:

http://aviation.hawaii.gov/pioneer-airlines/inter-island-airwayshawaiian-airlines/

https://evols.library.manoa.hawaii.edu/bitstream/10524/623/2/JL37203.pdf

Also see:

Our Hawaii folder at Pinterest

Our Honolulu airport guide

Our Asian-history exploration of Lahaina, Maui