Delta remains bullish on PDX-Japan flights

More travelers are riding Delta Air Lines’ flights between Portland and Tokyo as business rebounds from Japan’s tsunami, ensuring the daily nonstop service will continue.

But Delta managers are less certain about the future of the daily PDX-Amsterdam nonstops, given plans to reduce overall trans-Atlantic service because of rising fuel costs. The Atlanta-based airline intends to trim service between the United States and Europe, and managers can’t promise any given flight will keep operating.

Steve Sear, Delta vice president of global sales, said Wednesday that Delta is beginning to see a recovery in bookings and corporate travel on the route between Portland and Tokyo’s Narita International Airport. Passenger counts have yet to equal those before the March 11 tsunami, he said, but they’re on the way.

“Delta’s committed to continuing the Portland-Narita service,” Sear said. “Japan is open for business.”

Oregon businesses closely watch Delta’s international flights out of Portland because of their regional economic impact, which a consultant hired by the Port of Portland pegs at $100 million a year. The Port, which owns and operates PDX, spent $4 million subsidizing the Portland-Japan flights between fall 2009 and spring 2010 to keep the route alive after the recession.

Portland is the smallest of only 12 cities in the nation boasting year-round nonstop flights to both Europe and Asia.

Delta canceled a total of 11 PDX-Narita round trips when demand plummeted following the tsunami. Sear declined to disclose passenger counts on the route, but he said Japan business declined by 15 to 20 percent.

Delta also suspended new flights from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport to Los Angeles and Detroit. That service will resume next month as Japan continues digging out from its disasters, which caused an estimated $300 billion damage.

David Zielke, Port general manager of air-service development, said Portland has to be vigilant to keep its international service.

“We think everything is always at risk,” said Zielke, who used to work for Delta in Portland as district sales manager. “We just have to keep pedaling as hard as we can.”

Delta President Ed Bastian said recently the airline would cut flying across the Atlantic 10 to 12 percent starting after Labor Day. He said some destinations would be eliminated and flights would be reduced to others.

For the Amsterdam airport flight, Delta depends on big repeat customers such as Nike, Intel, Adidas, Columbia Sportswear and Wieden+Kennedy. Passenger counts are strong on that route, Sear said.

Delta, with about 200 workers in Portland, employs 80,000 worldwide. The airline, which has completed its merger with Northwest Airlines, is offering buyouts to trim its work force.

Japan accounts for 8 percent of Delta’s overall revenue. The airline flies Boeing 767s on the PDX-Narita route.

On Sunday, 69 people plan to depart PDX on the Tokyo flight to visit and volunteer in Japan’s tsunami zone. Loen Dozono and her husband, Sho, Azumano Travel chief executive, are organizing the Flight of Friendship with help from Mercy Corps, the Portland-based humanitarian organization.

In Tokyo, the group will expand to about 100 people, who will meet with officials including U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos. Members of the group plan to help clean up debris and distribute items in shelters housing people who lost their homes to the tsunami, earthquake or radiation.

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