Change Your Altitude

Star Alliance Closures: Lufthansa ends Tokyo Narita, United axes Auckland

Changes. They’re a coming. Star Alliance had somewhat of a mixed bag of a week with some news of incidental adds here and there and a few smaller changes to frequent flier schemes that are not really that newsworthy to report on.

Buried in some of the inconsequential noise though were two rather surprising announcements regarding route cutes to two of the five founding members the Star Alliance.

The Scoop:

So two large scale announcements came in the past few days and were surprising for two different reasons.

First, after nearly 45 years of serving the airport, Lufthansa (LH) has decided to end all operations into Tokyo Narita International airport (NRT). Currently LH services only run 3x weekly to Frankfurt with the bulk of services (10x weekly to Frankfurt, 7x weekly to Munich) having been shifted to Tokyo Haneda (HND) some time ago. It was thought that Narita flights might go seasonal, only operating during peak season and being suspended otherwise – but it seems as though Lufthansa has made the executive decision to end services to the iconic airport all together.

It makes sense in a way – while Narita is a Star Alliance hub as is Frankfurt, Haneda also serves a hub for fellow alliance partner ANA (NH) and offers a much more vast array of domestic connections to basically all points within Japan and indeed is now well served by regional flights as well. The other huge advantage Haneda can boast over Narita is its prime location much closer to the Tokyo metropolitan area – located strategically in Tokyo Bay it’s vastly more convenient for business travelers to fly into HND in comparison to the at least 1 hour schlepp one has to do be it by train or bus if Narita is your port of arrival and departure.

On the other hand, it’s weird to have a premier world airline such as LH, much less a prominent Star carrier, end it’s flights all together to an airport of Narita’s significance and a massive Star hub to boot. That said, as a Star guy myself, if confronted with the choice of an LH departure out of Haneda or Narita, the former wins hands down, which says everything of the situation I suppose.

The last LH flights will operate in April 2017 and while not officially announced as yet, Haneda flights are expected to get a boost in frequency – Frankfurt is touted to go double daily and Munich to go 10x weekly. We wouldn’t be surprised if a more enhanced code share and/or JV agreement to be announced with ANA as well – both for domestic and regional flights.

LH have been clear is saying that any passengers that are affected by this change will either be rerouted on one of their Haneda flights or will be put on an ANA flight from Germany to Narita if NRT is a negotiable part of your itinerary. 

LH is to suspend services to Tokyo-Narita after decades of service.

The other surprising announcement is that United Airlines (UA) has announced the complete suspension of their San Francisco-Auckland route less than a year after commencing operations there. Originally the route was expected to go seasonal, operating a full schedule in the northern winter season and taking a break from April up through October.

But it seems as though United has made the suspension permanent, with flights zero’d out through the year.

It’s important to note that folks who have already booked with UA and are scheduled to fly with them on this route will be accommodated on fellow Star Alliance partner Air New Zealand who operate the same route daily with their 777-200 aircraft, upgrading to a 777-300 after UA stops the route to better cope with the loss of service on the route. People are exempt from any change charges if they are made within the original seasonal schedule and can also request for a refund on their ticket if they choose not to fly with NZ.

The Takeaway:

Overall, if I was booked on a UA ultra-long haul transpacific service (as AKL is) and ended up on a Air NZ flight I’d be one happy camper. Air New Zealand offers a vastly superior experience to that of UA and are also famous their awesome crew and catering. That said, it’s interesting that United axed the route so early into operations – it was still in it’s infancy and hadn’t really gotten a chance to survive.

That means one of two things – either yields were horrible, as in beyond terrible – because data shows us that the flights were indeed leaving out full in both directions…above 80% in fact. That’s very good for a new flight. Or the entrance of American Airlines (AA) on the Auckland run from Los Angeles killed off the route for UA. Maybe United decided adding another secondary Chinese city (word on the street is SFO-Urumqi) might have been a better use of their valuable 787 frame and could rely on their partner NZ to cover the slack? Or is it perhaps both?

Not sure but it’s a bit of a head scratcher, this one.

United has (some might say) rather prematurely axed all flights to Auckland, New Zealand from their San Francisco hub after less than a year of operations there.

With the Lufthansa cut, it makes complete sense. They are simply re-directing capacity to the known quantity and from what we hear surveys the airline has conducted amongst Star elites have shown a vast preference for Haneda over Narita. I already have mentioned that I feel the same, and if they can re-adjust seat counts so that they offer the same availability into Japan but to the better airport, then I’m a happy flier. Take away my award space and I start to get grumpy.

I’d also be happy if this change means more integration with ANA, who remain one of my favorite Star members. In any case, NH will continue their Frankfurt 787 flights from Narita on top of their existing 777-300 flights from Haneda to FRA.

So like we said – a mixed bag in terms of news. Not sure how to feel about all these changes. Are you affected by any of these closures? Are you as confused as we are about them, or do you feel strongly one way or the other about them? 

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