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.

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  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.

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  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

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!

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  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.

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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

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...

Thai Airways - April 1983

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    Photo by Christian Volpati via Wikimedia Commons, GNU 1.2 license

Photo by Christian Volpati via Wikimedia Commons, GNU 1.2 license

While home-grown service from Thailand to North America (San Francisco) did sort of begin in 1947 with DC-4s by the company POAS, albeit not on a regular schedule, that company was gone by 1951.

But, in 1951, after some merger activity, the carrier we would know as Thai Airways would come to exist. They were able to maintain a link with Tokyo with DC-4 equipment but had trouble getting anything more sophisticated into their fleet. In the late 1950s they tried to form a management alliance with Northwest Airlines - but the US government didn't want NWA to expand past Hong Kong and compete with their favored airline Pan Am. But in 1959 Thai was able to find an able partner with SAS - Scandinavian Airlines, who was able to provide management assistance and most importantly engineering and sourcing help for newer, advanced aircraft. We can look back at this relationship now and see the seed of today's Star Alliance - both carriers were early members.

By 1962 Thai was operating jet equipment, and by the late 60s had established a respectable network across East Asia, hubbing at Bangkok. But while Thai extended its routes to Europe and Australia in the early 70s, Tokyo remained their eastern terminal.  A short lived-service to Los Angeles via Honolulu and Tokyo ran in the mid-70s by erstwhile competitor Air Siam, but that company was unstable and ended up causing a political crisis at home which ended up with the government owning a big chunk of Thai International and TG having all international traffic rights.

So by the late 1970s with stability at home and new DC-10s, Airbus A300s, and 747s joining the fleet, Thai began massive route expansion. In March 1980 they finally made the jump from Tokyo to Seattle. This flight, operated by 747s, originally continued on to Los Angeles, but was soon switched to end at Dallas/Ft. Worth - a significant and pioneering link as this was DFW's first Transpacific service.

In the attached schedule scans (courtesy of the collection of my good friend Arthur Na), effective April 1, 1983, we see flight TG741 leaving Dallas/Ft.Worth on Monday, Thursday, and Saturday at 10:45 am, passing through Seattle/Tacoma 12:25 - 1:25 pm, Tokyo Narita the next day at 3:10 - 4:10 pm, and finally arriving Bangkok at 8:20 pm on Tuesday-Friday-Sunday. 

The reverse schedule leaves Bangkok at 10:30 am on Wednesday-Friday-Sunday and gets to DFW at 6:25 pm the same day (thanks to the International Date Line.)  The timings at Dallas and Seattle were superb for onward connections all over the United States.

While the arrival and departure times at Bangkok were certainly convenient for North American travelers wanting to get in or out of the Thai capital, TG had virtually nothing to offer for same-day flight connections to other Southeast Asian regional destinations - you would have to stay an extra night there when traveling to or from somewhere else.

By the late 1990s, Thai had left Seattle and DFW, making Los Angeles their North American terminal, served via Tokyo and also Osaka.

In the mid 2000s, Thai acquired ultra-long-range Airbus A340-500s and started nonstops from Bangkok to Los Angeles and New York JFK. While there was sound strategic network logic in the move, the 345 required too many payload compromises to perform the flights safely and the company could not fill enough seats at a high enough premium to justify the service.  (Singapore Airlines tried the same strategy and also failed at it.)

After pulling the A340-500 out of service, Thai resumed LAX flights via Seoul with Boeing 777 equipment.  However, the carrier ultimately dropped Los Angeles and North America completely in October 2015. While Thai, like most of the legacy carriers in Southeast Asia, has struggled with intense local competition, the relentless pressure by the "Middle East 3" on traffic to Europe and Australia, and the uneven economies of East Asia, it is nevertheless sad to see a well-regarded and friendly carrier leave the skies over the Pacific.

Braniff's Asian Expansion - 1979

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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