Continental Air Micronesia to Tokyo - 1978

While Pan Am got the credit for developing the "island hopper" route between Hawaii and Asia with flying boats prior to WWII, the route they built did not really serve the people of the central Pacific, as it was too far north of the islands that would come to be known as Micronesia.

After the war Pan Am graduated into long-range propeller and then jet equipment that would allow them to skip central-Pacific stops at places like Midway Island. Northwest of course concentrated on going over the top of the Pacific. Bob Six, the larger-than-life head of Continental, realized in the 1960s this presented an opportunity to build a base of business and extend his airline into Asia (where Continental was doing charters for the U.S. military).

The story has been told in many places about how Continental worked with the local governments in the late 1960s to improve landing strips, and adapted DC-6 and 727 equipment to handle the ocean and beach environments. While profitability was always a challenge, the people of Continental and its Air Micronesia operation showed a true public-service dedication to their community and provided the catalyst for the islands to become a functioning nation. It also gave Continental experience with operations at the far-flung stations of Air Mike's map, which would help that carrier secure long-range flights that still persist today under United's banner.

To that end, a crucial new route was started in January 1978 linking Tokyo's Haneda Airport to the Northern Marianas island of Saipan. Not only was it a valuable pipeline for Micronesian fish and agriculture to reach the Japanese market, it also worked to stimulate vacation tourism from Japan to the Marianas and central Pacific islands. The Saipan-Tokyo route started as daily, with 727-100 equipment.

Later of course you would see JAL, Continental, Northwest, and ANA running multiple jumbo jets each day on this route ... and Continental would go on to serve more cities in Japan than any other U.S. carrier. Every success has to start somewhere.

Excerpts of the January 15, 1978 timetable for Guam, Honolulu, Saipan, and Tokyo are shown below.  Continental had an annoying habit with their 1970s-1980s schedules in that they wouldn't show all the island-to-island Micronesian flight timings - only those to or from Honolulu or Tokyo.

The Continental route map of the 1970s always had too many lines - like many carriers, they showed the routes they were certificated to fly instead of what they actually flew...

I re-drew the map from this timetable to show the real routes Continental operated on 1/15/78:

Guam to Honolulu just 3 times per week...

No connection between Honolulu and Tokyo - the Japan service at this time was strictly dedicated to Micronesian / Marianan local traffic.

Decent arrival time in Tokyo for onward connections & local ground transportation into the city. 

The aircraft remained overnight in Tokyo with a late-morning departure - today we'd consider that a waste of potential flying hours, but the 9:30 am departure did allow for connecting traffic from all over Japan to make this flight.What struck me was that this service went into Haneda Airport - where today it is almost impossible for a US-based carrier to obtain slots. Notice how the Tokyo flight numbers branch out past Saipan - some go southwest to Yap and Palau, while the eastern route links all the way to Johnston Island...

Braniff's Asian Expansion - 1979

 Northdale Middle School 
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    Photo by  Aero Icarus  via Flickr.  CC 2.0 license.

Photo by Aero Icarus via Flickr.  CC 2.0 license.

Far too far ahead of its time, woefully under-supported by the company's route planning, and cursed by starting just as the oil shocks began, Braniff's ill-fated Transpacific expansion was nevertheless stunning and visionary.

Braniff had been a profitable and beloved carrier with a strong portfolio of routes into Mexico and South America, and a well-developed core of domestic services centered on its hub at Dallas/Ft. Worth.  As Deregulation approached in the late 1970s, however, company management thought massive expansion would be the only guarantee that the firm would remain relevant and a survivor in the shakeout to come. They went on a buying spree of Boeing 727-200, 747-200, and 747SP jets - and in 1978-1979 let loose a volley of dozens of new domestic and international routes, many of which connected cities that had never been Braniff strongholds. (Boston to 5 cities in Europe... San Antonio to Phoenix; Denver to Oakland; Birmingham to New York...)

Braniff had much experience flying passenger service in Asia on behalf of the Department of Defense, and had its corporate heart set on winning a DFW-Tokyo nonstop route to complement its newly won (and instantly successful) DFW-London service.

The U.S. Government did not oblige, despite considerable business and political lobbying.

But instead of using disappointment as a spur to re-examine their strategy, instead Braniff applied for route authorities to Asia out of Los Angeles - and received them. While Braniff had served LAX for many years with nonstops to South America, that city had no connection with the rest of the airline's domestic network until the 1979 expansion - and even then, just by 4 daily nonstops to the DFW hub.

The big unexamined assumption of route planning at the dawn of Deregulation was that domestic carriers would still continue to provide seamless feed to international services, regardless of who the airline was flying the international leg. Revenue-sharing practices at the time would have allowed Braniff's planners to believe that American, United, Western, Hughes Airwest, and TWA would happily promote one-connection services ... even though Braniff was encroaching on all their backyards domestically.

In any case, Braniff's history of strong balance sheets and can-do attitude convinced its bankers ... and in July 1979 they extended their new LAX-Honolulu run out to Guam and Hong Kong. In September they started a nonstop between LAX-Seoul, and in October extended that flight out to Singapore.

The visionary piece I mentioned earlier came from hooking Asia up to Braniff's South America network - using the same aircraft. In the attached scans from Braniff's September 15, 1979 timetable, note how they've scheduled:

  • Singapore - Seoul - Los Angeles - Lima - Sao Paulo/Rio de Janeiro
  • Hong Kong - Guam - Honolulu - Los Angeles - Santiago - Buenos Aires

With a couple roundtrips per week on each of these routes, the aircraft had excellent utilization (for the era). At this point in history, the only other carriers attempting service like this were JAL and VARIG - but Braniff was simply brilliant in hooking all these traffic centers together in one swipe.

You couldn't do this today - tough post-9/11 rules for transit through U.S. airports for foreign nationals (you have to have a U.S. visa to get off the airplane, regardless of whether you're staying in the country or not) have effectively put U.S. carriers out of the business of South America-to-Asia connections. And foreign governments aren't going to grant such liberal traffic rights to a new carrier anymore...

Advertisement in the January 1, 1980 Braniff system timetable

Advertisement in the January 1, 1980 Braniff system timetable

Of course, it wasn't to be. Braniff never garnered the domestic connecting traffic from its competitors, and Northwest and Pan Am out-hustled them on corporate sales on their competing Transpacific services. KAL was just starting its own nonstops from Seoul to L.A., as well - so a lot of capacity was suddenly dropped on the market just in time for the oil shock.  Korea in the 1970s wasn't the economic powerhouse we know today, so it wouldn't have provided a lot of traffic from its side of the Pacific, either. Again, if Braniff could have controlled its own feed out of LAX, things might have been different...

The stubby 747SP had horrible economics when flown half-empty, (same 4 engines for a little more than half the passenger load as the baseline 747-100) and wasn't all that good for freight, either.

By Summer 1980, Singapore had already dropped off the map - and the amazing Great Circle route had morphed into Hong Kong - Seoul - Los Angeles - Santiago - Buenos Aires.  Even then, still an amazing flight - any carrier today would consider it a flagship service.

But by then, the collapsing economy and Braniff's hubris were becoming painfully evident - notice how many routes had already disappeared from the map.  Even the Honolulu - LAX bridge service had been cancelled.  Less than 2 years later, the Braniff fleet would be parked at DFW, Eastern would be flying the South American services, and American would be building an unbreakable fortress hub in Texas with what used to be Braniff's core routes (including the London run.)

Should Braniff have kept their egos in check and been more deliberate and economical with expansion? Well, of course.  737-200s and DC-10s would have been much smarter fleet choices, and they should have concentrated slow but steady route growth out of DFW (and perhaps Miami for South American feed) instead of spreading flights around willy-nilly.

However, that which is beautiful often fades quickly, and without the ego and groupthink from Lemmon Road in Dallas, we may never have seen the gorgeous Halston-era paint schemes on Braniff's fleet - or these amazing Asian routes.

Also see my...

Dallas/Ft. Worth airport guide

Transpacific Flying Pinterest folder