ANA doubles up on LAX-Tokyo; time for the A380??


ANA is adding a second daily flight between Tokyo-Narita and Los Angeles at the October 2017 IATA schedule shift. The new service will operate one hour earlier than the existing flight in both directions, raising some questions about fleet planning and options the carrier might want to make. Like why isn’t ANA using a larger plane such as the A380 on this route?

ANA's A380 fleet will be delivered in a Honu sea turtle livery next year
ANA’s A380 fleet will be delivered in a Honu sea turtle livery next year

Such similarly timed flights are relatively rare. Multiple frequencies are more often spaced out to account for different travel schedules by passengers. In this case ANA already has departures from Los Angeles near noon and midnight (to Haneda), suggesting a 6p departure might be more appealing than nearly matching the existing midday flight to Narita. That service would arrive in the late evening, reducing onward connection opportunities significantly. Indeed, the company advertises the connecting opportunities in its marketing message, “The additional flight will arrive at Narita earlier, so you can enjoy greatly improved connections to many Asian Destinations.” And flying too much earlier doesn’t offer much on the Narita arrival side while making the departure from Tokyo harder to justify.

The new ANA flight is timed just an hour off from the existing service.
The new ANA flight is timed just an hour off from the existing service.

I also considered that perhaps this additional flight would replace the service from JV partner United Airlines. It does not. The two carriers will now have three departures within an hour, sharing capacity into Tokyo and beyond.

United Airlines is keeping its LA-Tokyo service, too, creating a very dense block of flights within the JV group.
United Airlines is keeping its LA-Tokyo service, too, creating a very dense block of flights within the JV group.

And so I cannot help but wonder: Is this a cry for a larger plane such as the A380 or 747-8i?

Operating economics of the larger depend on a route network funneling large volumes of connecting passengers through a hub. ANA has the hub structure and a need to push lots of connections from Los Angeles through to other destinations in Asia. But it doesn’t have the super-sized aircraft to do it with. Those planes are coming, of course, with the three former SkyMark A380s set to join the fleet in a sea turtle livery in 2018. These aircraft are tasked with Hawaii service, however, not flights to the mainland.

One of the challenges with the Tokyo – Los Angeles route is aircraft utilization. With flight and ground time the round trip takes just over 24 hours meaning it cannot be run daily with a single airplane. The Hawaii flights are sufficiently shorter that they can be done on a single turn. In fact, it would be possible to nest HNL and LAX service together and have two aircraft fly NRT-LAX-NRT-HNL-NRT in a two day cycle based on the current published schedules. That growth would not require as significant a fleet investment on the part of the carrier. That said, the different market profiles could make the cabin configuration more challenging; premium demand to Hawaii is much lower than to Los Angeles.

I’ve been skeptical of the demand in the Very Large Aircraft (“VLA”) segment in the past and I mostly remain so. Narita was highlighted early on by Airbus as a leading contender for A380 service because of its limited slot availability. Slots are no longer the problem as Haneda opens to long-haul traffic but ANA still sees an increase in demand for connecting flow that very well could finally justify the service. And it has the type entering its fleet. Maybe just a tiny tweak or two on the schedules and the order books and Airbus could find another happy and willing customer for its super jumbo type. Maybe even enough to help justify the A380plus hyped at the Paris Air Show??

Also worth noting that ANA is joining the Air New Zealand service to Auckland in flying long-haul operations that are effectively “wing tip” flights. Air New Zealand splits its services, with one continuing to London and the other returning straight to New Zealand so the circumstances are slightly different there.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

6 Comments

  1. Actually, it’s highly efficient and makes good use of airport labor. Not saying the A380 isn’t well-suited, but the assumption that wingtips (or, near wingtips) is inefficient is flawed.

    1. Depends in large part on what is available in the fleet. If all you have is 777s then running two of them is better than running one or none, given the demand is present. But CASM is way lower on a single aircraft and there are other efficiencies from up-gauging trips. UA is following a similar pattern bringing twin-aisle flights back in the domestic market, replacing wingtip’d 737s.

      As for airport labor, I’m assuming that ANA uses contract staff in LA and has plenty of other things for its crew to do in Tokyo. Extending the contract hours in LA to cover the expanded operations doesn’t strike me as an efficient use of people nor cash.

    2. More broadly, I think this illustrates one of the most fundamental problems of the A380: Okay, so reasonable people can disagree about whether (in a vacuum) one 380 would be better than two 77Ws in this market. (Two reasonable people just did!) Well let’s say Seth is right, and the 380 is the perfect plane here. Okay… But in how many other markets is that the case, where you would want to have such inflexible capacity as a plane that big to fill all the time (rather than, for example, being able to go day-of-week some parts of the year on your second frequency)? If the answer is “not too many markets,” then you’re stuck supporting an aircraft family without much scale… probably with a lot of ground time because if you don’t have very many planes and very many markets in different geographies, you’re not going to have tight rotations… and of course all the mtc inefficiencies… etc., etc., etc. So basically, unless you need probably 20 A380s, it becomes difficult to justify having any. And not very many airlines need 20 A380s. (My sense too is that the A380’s operating economics are surprisingly disappointing. I realize this is not apples to apples because of very different configurations, but to illustrate the point, consider that EK packs 427 people onto a 77W with two engines. It becomes pretty tough to stomach twice as many engines plus the assurance of access to A380 gates, etc., to get not too many additional seats.)

    3. I agree that limited markets is really what kills it. That’s always been the problem, with Airbus forecasting airport congestion that did not materialize in many places. That congestion will come eventually in some places, but it is not here yet.

      ANA also gets the quirk of having to support a small fleet because of the SkyMark order it inherited. And the flight timing is such that it could pair LAX and HNL together in a very efficient aircraft routing. But the markets have very different premium/leisure traffic blends making a single configuration hard to justify for both destinations.

      Ultimately I don’t think ANA puts an A380 on the route any time soon and for a variety of reasons. But if ever there was an example where it could be possible I think this is one.

    4. Yes, you made a good point about it rotating well with HNL. But right, then you’ve got the configuration issue. It just seems like no matter what, it’s always threading a needle to get it to make sense. I wonder if even the risk of inflexible spare a/c capacity factors in – i.e., when an A380 flight takes a mx cxl, you’re kind of screwed, and maybe (although I’m sure this isn’t the primarily consideration) they would rather risk that on HNL than on LAX.

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