Delta Air Lines will begin daily nonstop service from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Seoul next year, adding a key international destination for Twin Cities passengers.
The move gives the Twin Cities greater access to Asia and helps Delta fortify its presence at its new Korean hub.
“It’s going to be an incredible opportunity for the local community. It’ll be great,” said Delta Chief Executive Ed Bastian in an interview Wednesday. “It will also create a world-class operating experience [for Delta]. It’s the international marketplace that we have to leverage.”
The service, which will start sometime next summer, will use the airline’s newly upgraded Boeing 777 aircraft. This marks Delta’s second nonstop flight from MPS to Asia. It currently operates a daily flight, also on a 777 aircraft, to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. Bastian said that route is still making the airline money and will continue.
“This is not a bait-and-switch, Haneda is doing well also,” Bastian said.
Last year, Delta, based in Atlanta, formed a joint venture with Korean Air. After a few bumps, the two carriers have formed a strong relationship that makes it the largest trans-Pacific operator.
Delta has long been trying to gain access to China, a notoriously difficult market to crack.
The U.S. and China do not have an open skies agreement, which allows for unlimited flights between two nations. China has highly regulated air travel, restricting the number of slots available to U.S. airlines.
Delta is instead gaining access to China through its joint venture partnership with Korean Air. By building up its Asia hub in Seoul, Delta can offers its passengers direct connections to 30 destinations in China alone, Bastian said.
“Within China, the air traffic control systems are difficult, there’s a lot of congestion, the technologies aren’t there, the infrastructure isn’t in place — and in Seoul it’s fantastic,” he said.
The airline currently flies nonstop to Seoul from its Atlanta, Detroit and Seattle hubs.
It is shifting much of its passenger capacity from Tokyo’s Narita International Airport to Seoul, Bastian said, because Delta’s Seoul arrangement gives it access to far more Asia destinations. Delta’s U.S. passengers can connect at Seoul’s Incheon Airport to about 80 Asian cities compared with 20 at Tokyo’s Narita airport.
Delta has a complex relationship with the Tokyo market as it’s the only major U.S. carrier without a Japanese code-share partner. This handicap has led the airline to unspool its hub at Narita, built by Northwest Airlines before it merged with Delta, and focus its hub efforts in Seoul.
Delta inherited a strong aviation legacy in Asia when it acquired Northwest in 2008. Northwest was the first U.S. airline to fly direct to Tokyo after World War II. It established a hub there, as well as in Seoul. Minneapolis enjoyed direct service to destinations like Hong Kong.
But Delta’s influence waned in the years following consolidation of the major U.S. carriers. United and American formed partnerships with Japanese carriers, essentially outmaneuvering Delta.
Delta’s two Asia routes from MSP will compete for different customers, said Seth Kaplan, managing partner for Airline Weekly. Delta would not make this decision without its joint venture agreement with Korean Air.
“You are never going to do Seoul at the expense of Tokyo because the demand for Tokyo itself is so much higher,” Kaplan said. “But the joint venture makes Seoul viable.”
The only U.S. airline operating at Incheon’s new terminal 2 — which opened in time for the 2018 Winter Olympics — Delta shares the 45-gate structure with SkyTeam Alliance members KLM, Air France and Korean Air.
“I believe it to be the best Asian airport out there,” Bastian said. “That’s a very tall statement.”
MSP airport official and regional business leaders applauded the news.
“Air service is a top priority for businesses in determining where to locate facilities and employees,” said Brian Ryks, executive director and chief executive of the Metropolitan Airports Commission, in a news release.
Seoul was near the top of priority destinations established by the MSP Regional Air Service Partnership, a group of private-sector business leaders — led by former U.S. Bank chief executive Richard Davis and Thomson Reuters executive vice president of operations Rick King — that support the airport’s route development efforts.
On the Atlantic side, MSP has nonstop flights to Amsterdam, Frankfurt, London, Paris and Reykjavik.
Delta is investing $100 million to remodel its Boeing 777-200ER aircraft. The planes will include 28 Delta One suites, the airline’s new high-end cabin product with each including a full-height door, 18-inch entertainment screen, memory foam seats and other amenities. This same aircraft will be used on the MSP-to-Haneda flight beginning in 2019.
The move aligns with Delta’s focus on international growth. About one-third of the airline’s current operations are outside the U.S. Bastian would like to see that grow to about 50 percent. Delta formed a similar JV partnership with Aeromexico last year, which Bastian said will mirror what the airline is doing with its Korean partner.
“We get a lot of questions about connecting Minneapolis to Mexico City, and we aren’t ready to announce that, but it’s clearly our goal to be able to fly that,” Bastian said, “so I think you will see us do that in the not too distant future.”