Making Connections: Japan is America’s Largest Aviation Partner in Asia

Total Two-way Passengers Between US and Top Asia Markets 2010. Data Source: U.S. Department of Transportation (Click to Enlarge)

The first non-stop flight across the Pacific, performed by Clyde Pangborn and Hugh Herndon Jr., is less renowned than the first solo transatlantic flight that made American Charles Lindbergh a national hero four years earlier, despite being longer in both distance and flight time. The trip was undertaken with less pomp and preparation than Lindbergh’s; the two had been trying to break the round-the-world time-record when they were delayed by storms in Siberia. Realizing they were too far behind to hit their first goal, they decided to fly to Japan to attempt the first successful non-stop flight from Japan to the United States, for which the Japanese newspaper the Asahi Shimbun was offering a $25,000 prize. The duo took off from a beach in Misawa, Aomori Prefecture, Japan on Oct 4, 1931, jettisoning their landing gear into the ocean to conserve fuel, and performed a belly landing in Wenatchee, Washington, 41 hours later.

Now, 80 years after Pangborn and Herndon’s historic crossing, there are hundreds of flights everyday between Japan and the United States. According to the US Department of Transportation, in 2010 there were 50,440 direct flights between US and Japan, carrying 10.8 million passengers, or 7% of the total air travelers to and from the US last year. This is a 14% increase in passengers since 1990, and a 5% jump from the previous year, showing recovery from a drop in travel caused by the 2008 global financial crisis.

Last year passengers traveled on 2,127 direct US-Japan routes serviced by 23 domestic and international carriers. Of these, Delta Airlines offered the most direct connections, 565 routes, largely due to acquiring access to all of the US-Asia routes of Northwest Airlines in a merger finalized in 2010. This is fitting as Northwest Airlines was the first carrier to offer direct flights to Japan, starting in 1947, and maintained a hub in Tokyo for decades. These routes connected 78 pairs of cities across 16 prefectures, and 22 states, as well as 3 US territories and the District of Columbia. The busiest of these corridors were between Tokyo and Honolulu, Hawaii; Los Angeles, California; and Guam respectively, each servicing over 5,000 flights and at least one million travelers.

Graphic: Top Air Routes Between US and Japan by two-way passengers and departures, 2010

These numbers are likely to increase going forward as the governments of US and Japan signed a bilateral “Open Skies” treaty in fall 2010 that removes limits on the number of flights between the two countries, the cities that can be served, the ticket prices and more. It also allows for greater cooperation between US and Japanese carriers. Japan hopes that liberalizing air travel will bring in more tourists from the US, while President Obama hailed the agreement as an example of how the two nations “are deepening our economic relationship.”

The US Trade Representative also approved the agreement as a “pro-consumer, pro-competition, pro-growth accord,” in this year’s National Trade Estimate Report, where it also noted that “Japan is the United States’ largest aviation partner in the Asia-Pacific region.” Indeed, in 2010 more passengers flew between the US and Japan than any other country in the region. Additionally there were more direct flights flown between the two countries than between the US and the next five Asian economies combined (South Korea, China, Hong Kong, Australia, and Taiwan).

For the US, Japan serves as an important transportation gateway, not only to the land of the Rising Sun, but to Asia beyond. Moreover, these transpacific air routes serve as the pathways connecting the people and communities of both countries. In the case of Misawa and Wenatchee, however, it was aviation itself that brought the two towns together; on the 50th anniversary of the historic flight of Pangborn and Herndon in 1981, the two communities that were the starting and stopping points of that crossing officially became Sister Cities.