NEW YORK (The Deal) -- The failure by Delta Air Lines (DAL - Get Report) to secure Japan's Skymark Airlines (SKALF as a local partner could prove to be a final step in the airline's shift away from Japan to focus on other Asian destinations.
Skymark creditors on Wednesday voted in favor of a plan by Japan-based ANA Holdings (ALNPY to lead a restructuring of the bankrupt airline, defeating a rival plan that would have made Delta the financial sponsor. The ANA plan won out despite Delta winning backing from aircraft leasing company Intrepid Aviation, Skymark's largest creditor.
The win keeps control of Skymark's 36 landing slots at Tokyo's in-town Haneda Airport in domestic hands, but stifles Delta's last best hope to make inroads in the country. Japan's two largest airlines, ANA and Japan Airlines, are already partnered with Delta rivals United Continental Holdings (UAL - Get Report) and American Air (AAL - Get Report), respectively. Delta previously tried unsuccessfully to lure Japan Airlines away from American.
Masaru Morimoto, Delta's managing director for Japan, told local reporters after the vote that there would be no change in the importance of the market to Delta.
But the truth is Japan has already lost much of its historical significance to Delta, and Skymark was likely the last best chance the airline had of regaining a strong foothold in the country.
Northwest Airlines, which Delta acquired in 2008, has ties to the origins of Japan's modern aviation industry. The company helped found Japan Air Lines in 1951, leasing planes and crew to the startup, and in 1952 was granted broad operating rights in the country and the ability to carry passengers from Tokyo to other Asian destinations as if it were a domestic carrier.
But the industry, as well as the relative importance of Asian markets, has evolved over time. A new generation of smaller long-haul jets has allowed airlines like Delta to overfly Tokyo and offer nonstop service to more transpacific markets, making a strong connecting hub in Tokyo less important. And the emergence of China and other Asian economies as Japan has matured has shifted business travel demand away from Tokyo to destinations on the continent.
Delta has been hedging its Asian bets for some time. The airline, prior to buying Northwest, partnered with Korean Air Lines and began funneling passengers to that airline's Seoul hub, and last month said it would pay $450 million to acquire a stake in China Eastern Airlines (CEA as part of a broader alliance with that Shanghai-based carrier.
"The bottom line is that a large-scale Japan presence is no longer viable without a local partner providing feed," an exec at a rival airline said. "Delta is looking elsewhere."
Delta's failure to get into a bidding war with ANA, especially after so recently committing significant funds to expand partnerships not just in China but in Brazil, Mexico and the United Kingdom as well, speaks to where Japan now ranks.
Wolfe Research analyst Hunter Keay praised Delta for not overbidding for a strategic asset, noting "use of the word 'strategic' often indicates a willingness to overspend."
With large-scale consolidation all but over in the U.S. and foreign airlines prohibited from acquiring outright control of local carriers in most countries, the U.S. airlines are attempting to use their cash hordes to lock in access to as much of the globe as possible in order to win lucrative corporate contracts.
Japan said no to Delta's cash, but the airline is likely to find ample other opportunities to invest elsewhere overseas in the years to come.