Qantas, Virgin in battle to launch new flights to Tokyo: here's why

March 2020 will see four new daily flights between Australia and Tokyo; Qantas and Virgin each want a piece of the action.

By David Flynn, September 18 2019
Qantas, Virgin in battle to launch new flights to Tokyo: here's why

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.

Read more: Qantas plans new Sydney, Melbourne flights to Tokyo/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.

Read more: Virgin Australia puts it hat into the ring for flights to Tokyo

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.


David Flynn is the Editor-in-Chief of Executive Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.


11 Jul 2014

Total posts 940

Etihad have some A350 jets sitting around, wonder if they will try and shift the cost onto someone else like Virgin. Seen that done before and where would the jets fly?

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

24 Aug 2011

Total posts 783

No way is VA taking on another aircraft type.

23 Oct 2014

Total posts 233

One slot each for VA and QF really is the only way to fairly move forward for a even QF/JAL and VA/ANA tie up that will benefit all customers and travellers, rather than a one side takes all.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

21 Jan 2017

Total posts 51

partnering with ANA with potential FF recognition would be a huge win for virgin and velocity.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

27 Sep 2017

Total posts 31

Would be much better to give both slots to VA and give one extra to QF to make it even (2 slots each). Otherwise Qantas will once again have and increase its edge in its network over VA.

Japan is a very good choice for VA, especially in terms of yield and in my opinion long overdue. Hopefully we'll see more direct flying to HND only this time from Melbourne.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

10 Dec 2014

Total posts 44

Australia is only getting 2 extra slots. Haneda slots are very hard to come by and it is very unlikely that Australia will be allocated any more any time soon so you can't really allocate them evenly as one side will always have one more than the other. Regardless, Virgin has only applied for one and really couldn't use both.

07 Feb 2018

Total posts 19

Qantas has invested for years and years and deserves to be rewarded, Vigin could have one slot Narita as the bridesmaid. Virgin gets free kicks and never wins

28 Feb 2018

Total posts 14

Another VA option would be scaling back its US frequencies (highly competitive and a clear contributor to their weak FY19 International Performance). Optimising the US scheduling of the 777 could allow it to be used within the HND slot, allowing the A330 to remain on the TranContinental's domestically and to HKG.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

04 Nov 2017

Total posts 319

Scurrah had already singled out the USA as one of the more profitable international routes for Virgin in conjunction with the Delta partnership in an interview.

In combination with UA cutting back SYD-LAX/IAH frequencies in the off season, a VA/DL pullback is very unlikely, plus the 77W is too much plane for everything else that's not LAX.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

08 Mar 2017

Total posts 16

I wish one of the airlines would fly Melbourne to Osaka. Two major cities and in 30 years of flying to Japan I have never seen this connection. If you fly with Qantas, unless you connect through Sydney you have the dreaded choice of using Jetstar in Japan from Osaka to Tokyo.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

05 Jan 2015

Total posts 16

Much better catching the train than flying on Deathstar.

At least you know that you will get to your destination and not be abandoned overnight in an Airport due to tech issues.

Singapore Airlines - KrisFlyer

14 Jun 2017

Total posts 48

ANA to melbourne as a legitimate possibility? SWOON.

11 Dec 2016

Total posts 11

It'd be great if VA got one of the slots and kept the route once the Olympics is done.

Using VA pts to fly to Tokyo sounds fantastic

21 Sep 2011

Total posts 71

The ANA partnership should have been worked out even in the NZ era. Never understood the resistance towards Star carriers from VA management.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

04 Nov 2017

Total posts 319

With multiple airline shareholders at the helm at VA (including NZ at the time). There is bound to be resistance from non aligned and star carriers towards carriers seen as 'rivals', even if in the same alliance.

SQ and UA are one example of same alliance rivalry, despite a limited codeshare agreement out of the IAH hub.


Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

14 Sep 2012

Total posts 385

I travel for business on Sydney Tokyo about 4 times a year and I want maximum choice of daily flights and best options preference is Haneda so my vote is Qantas and then ANA (I don't take JAL cause Narita is too far out).

12 Dec 2012

Total posts 1024

It depends where in Tokyo you are going.

It takes the same amount of time to get to the NW parts of Tokyo (eg Ikebukuro) from either airport.

12 Dec 2012

Total posts 1024

Virgin hasn't yet filed their actual application for this route. They've thus far just said they plan to. As IASC wants to get these slots assigned ASAP and have reduced reply periods from 10 working days to 5, VA have until the 24th (Tuesday next week) to file the application.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

26 Nov 2012

Total posts 1

Would support Qantas getting both and opening up more melb to Tokyo direct options. Have no problem with Narita as N'EX return for 4000 Yen and 1 hr each way is pretty good.

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