Editorial: Don’t lose the MSP-Tokyo airline route

Published 9:19 am Friday, February 19, 2016

Airport-access negotiations between the U.S. and Japanese governments are on again this week.

In play in the talks about access to one of Tokyo’s airports is a threat to the Delta Air Lines route that provides the only daily nonstop flight to Asia from the Twin Cities.

The route is a competitive advantage for Minnesota businesses — and the state’s economy.

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To their credit, the region’s business community and its lawmakers in the nation’s capital have mobilized to make a compelling case about fair competition. It deserves to be heard.

“We are strongly pushing the administration” and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx “to be tough in these negotiations,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar told us.

The MSP-Tokyo route has been ferrying passengers across the Pacific Ocean since 1947 via then-Northwest Orient Airlines. A plan to add flights to a better-located Tokyo airport than the one used by Delta has predictable outcomes, company representatives told the editorial board. Such action would favor competitors, siphoning customers and making the route unsustainable.

The route “allows Minnesota companies to grow and expand here,” Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, told us. Connection to a developing world market “helps grow Minnesota’s economy.”

That’s a good reason the average Minnesotan should care how the matter plays out. The route, Weaver said, is “good for all Minnesotans, not just those who may work for General Mills or 3M.”

The average Minnesotan should care, too, about this aspect of the negotiations: They put government in the untenable business of picking winners and losers.

“That’s really what’s happening here,” explains Weaver, whose organization represents the CEOs of the state’s largest businesses. If the U.S. government continues down the path it has been on, it “would intentionally be picking winners and losers among the airlines.”

It’s been reported that United and American airlines stand to benefit and that other cities, including Detroit, Atlanta and Portland, also may lose direct flights.

Fair competition is the focus of a letter to White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, a Minnesota native, from Fourth District Rep. Betty McCollum. The letter, signed by members of the Minnesota delegation from both political parties, makes the case that Minnesota’s global businesses depend on service from MSP to Asian markets. It notes that in 2015, the Top 25 Minnesota businesses alone accounted for more than 10,000 flights from here to Tokyo.

All Delta is asking for “is a level playing field,” Weaver said. “We think that is a fundamental premise of capitalism.”

The matter has “been a uniting issue for all the Minnesota businesses who use this route, and others, too, who say this isn’t fair and it ultimately will hurt Minnesota’s economy,” he said.

Weaver credits engagement from Minnesota’s congressional delegation, and the willingness of the state’s business community to get “involved with Congress and the White House on this.”

We can’t lose sight of the importance of strong businesses, including the 17 Fortune 500 companies that are a distinctive advantage for the Twin Cities region.

Weaver reminds us about what they need when it comes to expansion and growth: first, a reliable talent pipeline, and second, infrastructure. “That means an airport,” he said. “That means an airport with direct connections to the places they need to go.”

To compete in a global economy, Minnesota needs this daily nonstop connection on a direct route to a key destination.


— St. Paul Pioneer Press, Feb. 14

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