American Airlines ( AMR) last week failed to acquire a second China route, and it hasn't publicly displayed any interest in a merger with Northwest ( NWACQ).

But there are other ways for the world's largest carrier to build service to Asia.

This week, American moves into Terminal 2 at Tokyo's Narita Airport, one of the world's most desirable airports because of its access to other points in Japan and Asia. In the terminal, American joins Japan Air Lines, which is about to become its partner in the Oneworld alliance.

The relocation cuts the minimum connect time between the two carriers to an hour, saving 50 minutes. American also opened a new lounge in the terminal. From Narita, JAL serves 86 markets, primarily in Asia. Meanwhile, American operates five daily round trips: two to Dallas and one each to Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.

Leveraging the JAL relationship enables American to compete more effectively with Northwest and United ( UAUA). Both have long-established Narita operations that include beyond rights into Asia. Northwest first served Narita in 1947 under route authorities that allowed it to compete with Pan Am, which sold its routes to United in 1985.

Northwest is part of the Skyteam alliance, which also includes Delta ( DALRQ) and Continental ( CAL). Both have limited Tokyo routes, while United is in the Star Alliance. "When you look at the three alliances, all three have about a third of the U.S.-to-Japan (market)," says Don Casey, American's managing director for international planning. "That is why we are so excited about having Japan come into Oneworld."

American and JAL have been code-share partners since 1999, but joint alliance membership will enable them to offer top-tier passengers benefits that include preferential seating, dedicated ticket counter lines, interchangeable frequent flier miles and use of one another's airport lounges.

It's clear that American is playing catch-up at Narita. The move to a new terminal "will be beneficial to American, no question about it," says aviation consultant Scott Hamilton. "But I don't know that it will put them on an equal footing with Northwest and United, which can offer connections there."

The Narita operation is Northwest's crown jewel: a hub at an eminently desirable airport with little room for new carriers. Northwest moved to a new terminal with improved facilities in 2003; it offers seven daily flights between the U.S. and Narita, with connections to 12 major Asian cities including four in China.

"We have always considered Tokyo to be a strategically important and integral hub in our network," says Northwest spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch.

Industry speculation suggests that if airlines enter a round of consolidation, American could feel compelled to make a play for Northwest in order to improve its access to Asia. Thus far, there has been no indication that American buys into this theory.

United also offers Narita connections but has less presence than Northwest. United offers eight daily flights between Narita and six U.S. cities. It has 13 daily departures to Asia, though none are to China. It shares a terminal with Japanese partner All Nippon.

Meanwhile, American's access to China improves through the linkup with JAL.

American operates a single China flight: Chicago/Shanghai. Last week, the Transportation Department awarded a 2007 China flight to United, rejecting bids by American, Continental and Northwest. "We are disappointed but we will fight on another day," Casey says. Under the treaty agreement between the two countries, seven daily frequencies are available each year in 2008, 2009 and 2010. U.S. carriers hope Chinese officials will agree to accelerate the schedule following talks Jan. 30 and 31 in Beijing.

In the meantime, because the U.S.-China market is underserved, about a third of the passengers travel on one-stop routes. "We want our own nonstop metal," Casey says. "But for now , we can take people to Tokyo and JAL can fly them to China, and that is a convenient way to serve this market."