August 19, 2014 3:36 am JST

Big prize of Haneda access beckons AirAsia

TOKYO -- As it readies to re-enter the Japanese market, AirAsia seems to have designs on Skymark Airlines' slots at Haneda Airport, a precious commodity jealously guarded by domestic carriers and subject to regulatory discretion.

     Malaysia-based AirAsia is looking to extend a lifeline to Skymark, The Nikkei reported Monday.

     Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways hold nearly 80% of the takeoff and landing slots at Haneda, which sees about 470 flights a day. Skymark has 36 slots, the third-largest tally. Domestic routes into and out of Tokyo are the most profitable in the country. A single slot can generate around 2 billion yen ($19.3 million) in annual revenue.

     Amid limits on expanding air traffic at Haneda, divvying up access to the airport is a matter of constant debate in the industry. In March, a new batch of slots for international flights sparked a tussle between JAL and ANA.

     Should AirAsia take indirect control of Skymark, it would become both the first budget carrier and the first foreign airline to fly domestic routes to and from Haneda. Thus ensconced, it could pose a threat to JAL and ANA.

     Foreign airlines' ownership of domestic carriers is capped at less than one-third. But AirAsia could in theory attempt a takeover of Skymark, Japan's third-largest carrier, through a Japanese unit.

     Even then, however, the transport ministry would essentially have discretion over Skymark's slots at Haneda. The ministry has never really envisioned a carrier with Haneda slots moving under the umbrella of a foreign company. A decision would be made from the perspective of ensuring "healthy competition," an official says. For AirAsia, knowing that Skymark's slots would be reallocated would remove much of the appeal of a takeover and force a rethink of its strategy.