Why Delta is Charging $11,000 For Economy Class Tickets From Portland to Tokyo

Earlier this week, something strange caught my eye: Delta flights between Portland and Tokyo Haneda (starting in October) cost $10,766 for a roundtrip economy class ticket. This is not some strange price spike on certain days, it’s the case for literally every single day of every month for the rest of the year. What on earth is going on here?

a screenshot of a graph

Some background

First, a little bit of background. Delta halted this route at the beginning of the pandemic. They’ve continually pushed back the resumption of this route and one between Minneapolis and Haneda, presumably because there hasn’t been enough demand to justify it.

Here’s the problem, though. Slots between the US and Japan are a hot commodity and are granted by the US Department of Transportation for specific cities since the US entered into an agreement with Japan in 2010.

Rather than give up its Portland slot, Delta filed a motion with the Department of Transportation asking whether it could transfer the slot to another city, arguing that this would allow the airline to offer consumers lower prices. 

Delta gets sneaky

So that’s the end of the story, right? Wrong. Instead of simply giving up the slot or resuming normal service from Portland to Tokyo, Delta has jacked up prices to absurd levels: $10,766 for a roundtrip economy class ticket and $21,202 for a round trip business class ticket. 

The fact that these prices are presumably beyond what any reasonable consumer would pay, especially considering they could fly through LAX or Seattle for nearly one-tenth the price, leads me to believe something funny might be going on. 

Specifically, it seems like these insane prices are Delta’s attempt to obliterate demand for the Portland slot and justify their request to the DoT. 

United Airlines’ chief communications officer agrees, saying that “it’s clear they’re gaming the system,” and that Delta’s extreme pricing is “probably a tactic [to] sell the fewest number of tickets.”

He continued: “They can say, ‘See, nobody’s buying our $10,000 tickets from Portland to Haneda. So, because nobody wants to buy those tickets, you should allow us to fly from somewhere else.’ Delta should not be able to undo [the 2019 HND slot pair allocations] four years later.”

Delta’s ploy didn’t work

It seems that Delta’s trickiness didn’t pay off: their request was denied earlier this month, with the DoT saying that allowing carriers to choose different slots serving Haneda would “defeat the Department’s rationale for selection of the existing carriers and gateways over the competing applicants and would undermine the Department’s public interest determinations.”


This is all an amusing study in airline strategy and regulatory oversight, and Delta’s approach suggests a bold though ultimately unsuccessful attempt to game the complexities of slot allocation. Now that Delta’s request has been denied, it’ll be interesting to see whether prices come back down to normal, or whether it abandons the route altogether. If they do want to keep the slot, they’ll need to begin selling tickets soon.

  1. Same thing happens with United’s San Francisco to Chengdu, China. Direct flight price is over 15k!

  2. Delta is just terrible. It would be less bad if they priced their economy class awards Haneda to/from Portland for a low number of miles to fill the seats.
    Delta should be allowed to continue or give up the slot to United for a Houston flight. In 2019, United’s Houston and Guam flights were denied. American’s Las Vegas and a second DFW flight were denied. Hawaiian got one flight but two flights to HNL were denied. Delta got the most flights, five, with only a second HNL flight denied.

  3. It looks like United is doing something very similar on another route: LAX to Shanghai, a route it used to fly before the pandemic. They sell tickets for it at over $13,000 roundtrip, and then they (of course) never operate the actual flights. Meanwhile, their nonstop from SFO to Shanghai, a route they actually operate, is a little closer to sanity at $3,000.

      1. Dumped all my skypesos on ICN-BCN via CDG in business (best deal possible with skypesos at 90k) and never looking back.

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