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Seemingly out of nowhere, Qantas and Virgin Australia this week declared their intentions to launch new flights to Tokyo – and specifically, Tokyo's Haneda Airport.
If you're wondering what's behind this sudden burst of enthusiasm for Japan's colourful metropolis, let Executive Traveller break it down.
Why Tokyo/Haneda, and why now?
As part of a growth plan with an eye on the 2020 Olympics, the Japanese Government is adding 50 additional 'daily slot pairings' – take-off and landing spots – at Tokyo's Haneda Airport, which is it also encouraging as a hub for premium airlines.
Those slots are being evenly split between Japanese and foreign airlines, with four openings earmarked for flights between Haneda and Australia.
One each of those has been assigned to All Nippon Airways (ANA) and Japan Airlines (JAL); the other two are being offered to Australian airlines.
Neither ANA or JAL has detailed which Australia city it would fly to using the newly-granted Haneda slots. ANA currently flies to Sydney from Haneda, and to Perth from Narita, while Qantas partner JAL flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Narita.
Tokyo airports: Haneda vs Narita
Haneda is much closer to the centre of Tokyo than the more distant Narita, making it especially convenient for business travellers.
Haneda's close proximity to Tokyo often sees it described as a 'downtown' airport – in fact it's so close that you can catch a monorail to the city.
Also in Haneda's favour: it has far more domestic flights than Narita, which is primarily an international airport, so if you're headed beyond Tokyo there are plenty of connecting flights and easy transfers with ANA and JAL.
Qantas wants both of the new Haneda slots
Qantas is bidding for both of the new Australia-Tokyo routes on offer, with the following plans in mind.
- a daytime Airbus A330 flight between Melbourne and Haneda, which would replace the current Melbourne-Narita service
- a daytime Airbus A330 or Boeing 787 flight between Sydney and Haneda, which would complement the existing overnight Boeing 747 service (and allow Qantas to retire that jumbo by the end of 2020, swapping it out for a smaller A330 or Boeing 787).
Qantas is also spruiking its relationship with fellow Oneworld member Japan Airlines, which offers "same-day connectivity to 18 cities" at Haneda.
Virgin wants one Haneda slot, in the name of 'choice'
Virgin Australia is playing a familiar 'choice and competition' card in vying for the two Haneda openings to be evenly split between itself and Qantas.
The airline has not yet revealed which Australian city would host the airline's first Asian expansion since it began flying to Hong Kong in 2017-2018, although pundits tip either Brisbane and Melbourne.
The challenger's pitch comes as it runs a ruler over its current network, including Sydney-Hong Kong and Melbourne-Hong Kong flights, having recently posted a $315 million loss for the 2018-2019 financial year and launched a sweeping review to 'rightsize' the airline.
Virgin would seek to roster one of its six Airbus A330s to Tokyo, which would mean either winding back its Hong Kong routes or pulling another A330 from the Sydney-Perth or Melbourne-Perth transcontinental schedule.
The airline also lacks a partnership with a Japanese airline which could easily afford onwards domestic flights. but would likely align itself with ANA.
When will the new Tokyo flights begin?
The new flights between Australia and Tokyo/Haneda will start by late March 2020.
This means the clock is already ticking on allocating the two prized slots to Australian airlines. That decision falls into the lap of Australia's International Air Services Commission, which intends to make the call by 31 October 2019.