I’m following her airport lead with a photo that shows the closure of the Delta Air Lines Sky Club in Satellite 2 at Tokyo Narita Airport (NRT). I visited or tried to visit this lounge in October 2017 on a farewell to the Delta 747 which was being retired that year. At that time, Delta also had a Sky Club in Satellite 1; so it was only a five-minute walk to find a quiet spot with free food and booze to tide me over between flights.
This post is about more than a Sky Club closure. The closure of this Sky Club was a harbinger of the closure of Delta’s entire operation at Narita. Delta’s Japan operations are now entirely based at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, which is much closer to central Tokyo.
The transfer to Haneda is a “back to the future” move for Delta. Delta’s Japan flights have and its Narita hub have a long and storied history that dates back to Northwest Airlines. Northwest Airlines, which merged with Delta in 2009, obtained the right to fly to Japan in the aftermath of World War II.
Following the devastation of the Second World War, U.S. airlines were charged with helping to rebuild air transportation in Japan and other countries like Germany. Northwest and Pan Am moved in and took advantage of “fifth freedom rights” that were an enticement to begin flights to Japan. Fifth freedom rights gave a U.S. airline the right to fly passengers between Japan and countries other than the US. Pan Am’s rights were sold to United Airlines in the 1980s.
Northwest flights to Japan began in 1947. Northwest’s fifth freedom flights became part of Delta when the two airlines merged. Initially, these flights operated from Haneda Airport.
When Narita opened to much fanfare in 1976, the Japanese government asked that Northwest’s and Pan Am’s flights move there. Over the years, Northwest and later Delta built substantial connecting networks from Narita to more than a dozen Asian destinations including Bangkok, Singapore, Manila, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
When Japan began opening more slots for U.S. airlines about a decade ago, Delta began moving as many flights as it could from Narita to Haneda. After years of attrition, Delta’s final Narita flight occurred in September 2019.
Haneda is a wonderful airport. It was rated No. 2 in the 2021 Skytrax survey of world airports while Narita was rated No. 5. Haneda’s proximity to Tokyo makes it the clear favorite for flights to Tokyo.
However, I will definitely miss Delta’s Narita hub and the two Sky Club lounges Delta maintained there. Even more than the airport and lounges, I will miss the connecting flights on Delta to other destinations. Those destinations are now served from the U.S. by ultra long distance aircraft like the A350.
Perhaps one day, Delta will regret abandoning the fifth freedom rights that allowed it to serve increasingly popular and lucrative Asian destinations from Japan.