Executives of a Japanese airline visited Saipan a couple of weeks ago for a site inspection and the Marianas Visitors Authority remains confident that a successor to Delta Air Lines and its regular flights from Japan to Saipan would be found soon.
MVA managing director Chris Concepcion remains mum on the identity of the carrier that would take over the route that Delta Air Lines is abandoning in May 2019, but did confirm that officials of the Japanese airline visited the island two weeks ago.
“They did a site inspection and met with [the Commonwealth Ports Authority], [Customs & Border Protection], [Transportation Security Administration], and the ground handlers and they’ve expressed a strong interest in flying to the CNMI,” he said.
He cautions, however, that the new airline’s flights would not happen overnight and pleaded for patience.
“The new airline still has to get approval from [the Federal Aviation Administration], [Department of Transportation], and the Japan Civil Aviation Bureau. It’s a long process to get approved,” he said.
In the meantime, Concepcion said that charter flights will bridge the gap between the time Delta Air Lines stops its flights to Saipan and the time the new airline begins its regular route to the islands.
“Our immediate goal is to secure charter flights to fill the gap when Delta suspends flights until we get a regular flight service. They’re already a couple of airline interested in doing charters to fill that gap. There are negotiations ongoing between travel agencies in Japan and the airlines. So the MVA is just sort of facilitating the discussion and we’re giving whatever support they need. I have our Japan team on the ground in Tokyo meeting with them daily,” he said.
Concepcion reassured tourism stakeholders that the pullout of Delta Air Lines will not be the death knell for the Japan tourism market—once the CNMI No. 1 source market for visitor arrivals.
“We’re going to be fine. Long term, the Japan market is going to be fine. They’re very interested and they’re eyeing the CNMI as their next international destination,” he said, alluding to the new Japanese carrier.
Concepcion also talked about the CNMI’s chances of attracting low-cost carriers to fly to the islands and fill in the gap that would be left by Delta Air Lines.
At the moment, though, this is not possible, as Japanese LLCs don’t have ETOPS, which is short for Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards.
ETOPS is a rule that permits twin-engine aircraft to fly routes which, at some point, are more than 60 minutes flying time away from the nearest airport suitable for emergency landing.
“Their issue is they don’t have ETOPS. So they’re not able to fly on open water for too long a distance because their aircraft is not certified for ETOPS. A lot of their issues are investment because it’s not cheap to get ETOPS,” he said.
Concepcion said one way of convincing Japan LLCs to invest in ETOPS is by partnering with Guam and Palau in presenting a unified front when it comes to promoting Micronesia as a whole.
“I think partnering with Guam and Palau [is key]. These are three destinations you can fly to in Micronesia. It’s short haul, three hours to Palau from Tokyo, for instance. If they made that investment, it’s not just an investment to fly to Saipan, you can fly to three destinations—Saipan, Palau, and Guam. I think that’s our biggest selling point when it comes to joint promotion to the airlines,” he said.
Delta Air Lines announced in early February that it would be ending flights to Saipan and Palau from Narita on May 6, 2019. It is reportedly withdrawing from Micronesia to focus on their U.S. mainland route expansion. Earlier this year, the carrier also announced ending flights to Guam.