Minnesota political leaders are pressing the Obama administration to save Minneapolis-St. Paul’s nonstop flight to Asia, hoping to influence negotiations next week that Delta Air Lines, which flies the route, said could reshape its Pacific network.

Gov. Mark Dayton is flying to Washington Thursday to join Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken in a meeting with U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on the matter.

And the senators and other Minnesotans in Congress signed a letter written by Rep. Betty McCollum of St. Paul to White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough asking for a meeting with him to “find a solution.”

Delta Air Lines, which inherited the route in its 2009 merger with Northwest Airlines, warned two weeks ago that it is at risk because of changes at a Tokyo airport being negotiated by U.S. and Japanese authorities.

The countries are discussing whether to open 10 more slots for U.S. airlines at Tokyo’s close-in airport, called Haneda. Delta says its rivals, American and United airlines, would benefit more from such a move because both have a Japanese partner airline.

While the planned slots would likely be divvied up between the U.S. carriers, Delta said it would struggle to make a handful of slots profitable without a local airline partner to help carry its passengers to connecting destinations. And because Haneda is closer to Tokyo than Narita International Airport, where Delta now flies, it would lose passengers to rivals that do expand there.

Delta sounded the alarm when its special counsel told commission board members at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport that this agreement would loosen its footing in Tokyo and potentially destabilize all seven of its nonstop routes from U.S. hubs to Tokyo, including the one from MSP.

The state’s political leaders have taken up the airline’s cause, hoping to keep a route that Minnesota businesses depend on and helps make the state attractive to overseas visitors.

“We believe the only way to preserve fair competition is for the U.S. government to insist that Japan fully open Haneda airport to U.S. carriers, or continue operating the two airports at status quo,” McCollum wrote in the letter.

McCollum said she is “confident we’re going to hear from the White House,” and hopes it will ensure continued service from MSP to Japan when negotiations resume Feb. 9.

“Open skies are open skies,” the congresswoman told the Star Tribune. “This is an agreement between our countries and air carriers that we don’t pick winners and losers.”

Minnesota has “a plethora of businesses” that need nonstop flights to Asia, McCollum said.

Klobuchar said international air routes from midsize and Midwestern cities are particularly vulnerable because there are so few of them.

She does not think Delta is “crying wolf” when it talks about having to end its MSP-to-Tokyo service if competitors can land at Haneda when it cannot.

“We keep our companies in the middle of the country because we can say we have a good education system, a good quality of life and a good transportation system,” she said. “The administration should be taking extra care in making sure that these cities in the middle of America and midsize cities keep their transportation networks strong.”

Jeff Hamiel, executive director and CEO of the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC), said the commissioners have reached out to Foxx and other high-level staff members within DOT to stress the importance of this route to Minnesota businesses, including the 17 Fortune 500 companies based in the state.

“Several companies based here have concerns about this route,” he said. “It is really important to us to have access to Asia.”

It’s unlikely Japan would fully open its downtown airport, Haneda, due to a lack of space. Right now, most international long-haul flights use Tokyo’s Narita airport, 46 miles from downtown, where Delta has its Asia hub and where the other U.S. carriers also operate.

To move all of these flights from Narita to Haneda would require dozens of new takeoff and landing slots that exceed the airport’s capacity. Haneda was designated a domestic airport when Narita opened in 1978. But over the past 15 years, Japan gradually began to again allow international flights at Haneda.

“Delta appreciates the support from elected officials, business leaders and community representatives in Minnesota,” a Delta spokeswoman said. “We are hopeful their efforts will reverse the direction of negotiations.”

But just as Delta is trying to stop the agreement, American and United will be pulling for it, Delta told the MAC.

This political tug-of-war could have some bearing on the outcome, but ultimately the U.S. government has to consider the traveling public, said John Byerly, former deputy assistant secretary of state for transportation affairs and chief negotiator of the U.S.-European Union and U.S.-Japan open skies agreements, which liberalized air travel.

“The U.S. government certainly weighs the different interests of airlines, but its primary focus is and should be on consumers,” said Byerly, who retired in 2010 and is now a consultant.

“Expanding access to Haneda would be responsive to U.S. travelers’ needs,” he said.

 

Staff writer Allison Sherry contributed to this report.