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Entries in US - Japan Open Skies (1)

Wednesday
Jan132010

A Battle for JAL or the Threat of Competition?

In this post, I’m going to pick sides in the mighty contest for the JAL bride.

But before we begin, let’s dispense with some business.

First, let the record show that I have long been a fan of Delta Air Lines on many fronts, particularly how it went about its merger with Northwest.  I applauded the strategy CEO Richard Anderson led in demonstrating the benefits of an “end to end merger” versus the old model merger with “significant network overlap.” It is interesting to me how Delta is suggesting to the world that getting immunity for a relationship with JAL will be fairly easy.

Second, I was recently asked by to present at a one-day seminar on the subject of anti-trust immunity hosted by American’s legal counsel Jones Day.  I am not retained by American in this matter, but the airline did cover my travel expenses.

My views are my own. And they are based on a very firm foundation of data.

Now, let’s talk about alliances.

The North Pacific Market

In the U.S. – Asia market, the two most important Asian gateways are Tokyo Narita and Seoul Incheon.  And just as airlines compete, gateways compete for the same traffic. Tokyo and Seoul offer services that can facilitate 10.4 million U.S. – Asia passengers a year.  Of those, 10 million passengers can be accommodated by either Tokyo or Seoul, while only 400,000 are uniquely served through Tokyo’s Narita gateway.

Airlines form alliances to partner with other airlines and more effectively participate in traffic flows between world regions. Alliances permit a carrier to leverage its own network across its partner’s network to create benefits that would not otherwise be logistically possible or economically viable. 

Now Japan Airlines is the “it” airline in a global contest to win its favor and woo it from one alliance to another.  The troubled airline’s current partners in the oneworld alliance are determined suitors in their effort to keep JAL happy at home, while Delta is playing the part of home wrecker, posing and making promises that the opportunities are greater for JAL as part of the SkyTeam alliance.

If I am Delta…..

I would be pursuing JAL as well.  Why?  Because Delta has the most to lose from any new competition into the U.S. – Japan/U.S. – North Pacific marketplace.  Why?  Because of the extraordinary rights Delta has to fly beyond Tokyo and Japan and carry traffic that originates in Japan.  Why?  Because the route rights granted to Northwest (Orient) in 1952 came at a time when Japan was dependant on the U.S. in its post war recovery.

The bilateral agreement in place between the U.S. and Japan has been largely unchanged since 1952.   Both sides have thought the pact unfair, but little progress was made until 2009.  To Japan, the bilateral was imbalanced, with too many NRT slots held by U.S. airlines using them to provide local intra-Asian service.  To the U.S., the bilateral was viewed as anticompetitive as it restricted frequencies, favoring incumbents and preventing market-driven price discounts.  Those incumbents are Northwest and United, which bought the rights from the late, great Pan Am.

What complicates the DAL’s JAL play is that Delta in effect already owns most of the rights of a Japanese flag carrier as a result of the 1952 bilateral agreement.  Along with its immunized relationship with Korean Airlines, Delta already enjoys a commanding market position in what promises to be one of fastest growing markets over the next 20 years – the North Pacific.   

Those route rights now held by Delta as a result of its merger with Northwest give the carrier significant market power.  Those route rights have over the past six decades enabled Delta to build a U.S. – Asia network via Tokyo that could only be rivaled by United.

Only now, under an Open Skies pact between the U.S. and Japan, can that incumbent status be truly challenged.

Oberstar and the Fear Mongers Sure are Quiet

As this story unfolds, one thing we’re not hearing is the usual braying from Congress’ self proclaimed, air travel consumer protection cop James Oberstar.  Is it because the situation involves his former hometown airline?  Or is it because the Congressman is just waiting to pounce?  In either case, the man who has previously been quick to try to apply regulatory and legislative “solutions” to the airline industry’s complex challenges is atypically quiet.

As regular readers know, I am no fan of the Minnesota Congressman’s approach to competition in the industry.  But as we approach a situation in which the term “duopoly” will describe inter-alliance competition should Delta and JAL form a partnership in Japan – his silence is, well, deafening.

Today, American + JAL at Tokyo, Northwest/Delta at Tokyo and Delta + Korean at Seoul are competing for U.S. – Asia traffic.  There are 413 city pair markets in that region that involve 19 overlapping Asian markets served by each Tokyo and Seoul that have at least 5 passengers per day each way.  Currently, 83 percent of those 413 city pair markets either originate in or are destined to points behind a U.S. gateway to one of those 19 points beyond the two Asia gateways. 

It is these markets that represent a competitive disadvantage to the non-immunized alliances today – chief among them  American’s oneworld.  These markets also represent true opportunity for the immunized alliances of tomorrow – those, that is, that would now be permitted by the U.S. – Japan Open Skies Accord – and that’s what has the incumbent airlines looking nervously over their shoulders at the prospect of new competition.

Today both STAR and oneworld are limited in their ability to compete for this traffic by a lack of immunity with their Japanese partners.  Northwest/Delta, on the other hand, can coordinate schedules and set fares for traffic connecting over Tokyo Narita (as a result of the agreement negotiated with Japan in 1952) and for traffic connecting over Seoul with its Korean Airlines partner.

In fact, on 98 percent of the 413 city pairs we’re discussing, either Delta/Korean or Northwest/Delta or both “immunized” combinations have a larger share of this critical connecting traffic than does American + JAL. 

This ability to generate traffic and offer passengers a choice of carrier and gateway is just one of the important benefits that accrue to airlines and consumers as a result of a relationship that allows immunized alliance airlines to coordinate schedules and set fares.

Today Delta’s U.S. domestic network is roughly 2.5 share points larger than American’s, yet it is able to connect disproportionately more traffic from the U.S. to Asia.  Network economics suggests that this relationship does not make sense unless one considers the power of immunity.

The Threat of Competition

Today, both oneworld and STAR compete for the same traffic against SkyTeam.  Today there is certain symmetry among the three global alliances for U.S. – Japan traffic and U.S. – Asia traffic.

In the U.S. – Japan market, STAR’s share is 31%; oneworld w/JAL is 38%; and SkyTeam w/o JAL is 30%.  In the U.S. – Asia market: STAR’s share is 34%; oneworld w/JAL, 22%; and SkyTeam w/o JAL, 28%. 

Based on MIDT data American commissioned from Compass Lexicon and analyzed by me, if JAL were to be lured away by SkyTeam, the numbers would look very different.  In the U.S. – Japan market:  STAR, 31%; oneworld w/o JAL, 6%; and SkyTeam w/JAL, 61%.  In the U.S. – Asia market:  STAR, 34%; oneworld w/o JAL, 10%; and SkyTeam w/JAL, 30%.

Delta will likely challenge that analysis, claiming that it should not include traffic between Japan and the U.S. “beach markets” of Hawaii and Guam. I will leave that argument to the lawyers.  But last I checked, one was a U.S. state and the other a U.S. territory and each are therefore governed by the U.S. – Japan bilateral.

In simple terms, the real threat of liberalization in the U.S. – Japan market is the overnight competition Delta/SkyTeam will face from oneworld and STAR for the nearly 10 million U.S. - Asia passengers.  Do the math: If Delta is successful at luring JAL away from oneworld, then SkyTeam and STAR will have a 92% share of the U.S. – Japan market.  In most economic analyses, that share represents a duopoly.  And that should not be the result of market liberalization. But then again, do we have a duopoly on the Atlantic given that oneworld is not immunized there either?

Oberstar and the Fear Mongers have already protested the prospect of limited competition in three alliances hell bent on “gouging” air travelers.  So where are they when it comes to the prospect of just two alliances controlling so significant a share of the Asian market?

Duplicitous Delta and the Source of My Confusion

In late 2006, while Delta was in bankruptcy, U.S. Airways made a hostile offer to take control of the company.  Delta rejected U.S. Airways’ overtures vehemently and was ultimately successful in fending them off. “US Airways’ principle goal in its hostile takeover attempt is to eliminate its key competition,” Delta(Grinstein) said at the time. “In a pro-competitive merger, the two airlines’ routes do not overlap excessively; they are complementary. Joining complementary networks can enhance competition and create consumer benefits that result in lower prices and increased service option.”

Then in late 2007, Delta, on its own terms, began to pursue a merger with Northwest. Anderson argued time and again that the two airlines had “complementary instead of overlapping route systems” that would maximize synergies.

With the two airlines already connected through alliance relationships, Anderson said:  “Alliance relationships are valuable and very difficult to extract yourself from.”  He noted that neither Delta nor Northwest needed to pull out of its existing alliance, which would have “disrupted revenues and required tearing out significant infrastructure and then rebuilding someplace else.” 

Given regulatory restrictions regarding cross border mergers, an immunized alliance is a defacto merger in the sense that it gives the combination the ability to act as one airline in determining service levels, pricing, marketing.

On the surface, the size of Northwest/Delta’s North American network is slightly larger than American’s.  However, the fit of the network is more important than size.  The ability to leverage one network against the other in order to create new city pairs to sell is critical to any network’s success.  American and JAL would make for a true “end to end” combination whereas Delta and JAL possess significant overlap with each other – the very combination it suggested results in an anti-competitive combination.

On the surface, the solution is crystal clear - at least to me: Three alliances across the Atlantic and the Pacific that each benefit from anti-trust immunity and equally competitive tools.  Even if JAL ultimately restructures through bankruptcy, a partnership with American would still provide a true end-to-end partner that Delta itself contends is the very best way to maximize the synergies of a commercial combination.

But the more I study the data, a different picture emerges. Delta’s play for JAL is not about JAL at all.  It is about preserving Delta’s dual flag status in Japan.  For 58 years Northwest/Delta has been tweaking its US network to sync with its Japan-based network – and they have done it well.  Under Open Skies, Delta will realize new and more vigorous competition on many routes where it enjoys little to no competition today.  Self preservation is a strong instinct and I am all for consolidation in this industry.  But I am also for open and fair competition, particularly where all three alliances are concerned. 

Either way, Delta wins.  It wins by delaying anti-trust immunity for each American and United and thus preserving its legacy competitive position.  And it wins by potentially eliminating a competitor (JAL) where redundant flying can be removed. 

Competition loses.  If Delta lures JAL away from oneworld and the U.S. grants the Delta/JAL combination anti-trust immunity, then perhaps Oberstar finally has a position he can defend. Three way alliance competition is robust.  Institutionalizing duopolies in Open Skies markets is something else.