United Airlines (UA, Chicago O'Hare) has struck back at Delta Air Lines' bid for slacker slot rules between the US and Japan's Tokyo Haneda, condemning it as a "self-serving scheme for an unprecedented and untested pilot programme for limited gateway flexibility".

On May 1, Delta asked the US Department of Transportation (DOT) to relax its slot regulations regarding two of its five slot pairs on the route as part of a three-year pilot programme, citing as reason fundamental changes in travel demand on the route resulting from Covid-19. Delta argued that corporate travel to Asia and Tokyo continues to lag behind 2019 levels. Passenger volumes for the US-Tokyo market for the year ending March 2023 were down 51% on 2019, it said.

Twelve US-Tokyo Haneda slot pairs awarded in 2019 are currently divided as follows: American Airlines (AA, Dallas/Fort Worth) holds two pairs; Delta has five; United holds four, and Hawaiian Airlines (HA, Honolulu) has one pair. During the pandemic, the DOT repeatedly granted (last in February 2023) US carriers temporary blanket relief from start-up and dormancy conditions applicable to limited-entry route authority, including at Haneda. "Due to Covid-19, some of those demand assumptions are no longer valid; they need to be reassessed and refined to align capacity to actual demand as it exists post-2019. Grant of the limited flexibility sought in this motion would allow airlines to tailor a subset of their US-Haneda frequencies to actual (and projected) demand, rather than historical demand," Delta argued.

On May 2, American Airlines supported Delta's requested relief. "Enabling flexible, market-based decision-making for US-Haneda service is warranted in the current demand environment. Gateway flexibility for up to two current slot pairs would create public benefits by allowing all participating carriers to adapt their networks to the evolving conditions in this market consistent with Open Skies principles," it said.

However, in a strongly-worded objection on May 8, United asked the DOT to reject Delta's proposal and disregard American's comment and instead stick with its long-standing regulatory system that ensured that scarce slots were best used for the public interest.

"Delta's proposal is without merit and is totally arbitrary," it said. "But what is for certain is that Delta's proposed pilot programme is tailor-made to benefit Delta's financial performance (and, presumably, also that of American)."

"United strongly disagrees with Delta and American that the current demand environment warrants a sudden departure from the Department's long-standing procedure and precedent. Despite the challenges of the Covid pandemic, the US-Japan market is rebounding, and access to limited-entry route rights should continue to be about consumers, communities, and shippers as it has always been, not about carriers' financial performance. It is the Department that should be the ultimate arbiter of the best US gateways to ensure maximum benefits of the Haneda slots – not Delta or American, who are appearing to prioritise their own profits over benefitting consumers," United charged.

It said US carriers that could not operate their Tokyo Haneda slot pairs when the slot waiver expired in July 2023 should notify the Department now so that the slot pairs could be reallocated to those who could use them. "United stands ready with its gateway cities of Houston Intercontinental and Guam International to participate in a carrier selection," it stated.

"United does not see a need for, nor does it support, calls for potential extensions of current Tokyo Haneda dormancy and slot waivers. United also takes this opportunity to confirm the reinstatement of its Los Angeles InternationalTokyo Narita service, effective October 28, 2023," the airline said.