Northwest Airlines is considering adding nonstop service between Memphis and Japan as early as 2009, providing an immediate link for Asian investors and stimulating the economy far beyond gains realized from Northwest-KLM's daily Amsterdam flight.
Northwest chief executive Doug Steenland mentioned the possibility last week in Japan, saying the airline was considering Memphis as the base for one of the Boeing 787s it will receive in 2009.
He also said it was considering restoring its New York-Tokyo flight, cancelled in 2005 shortly after the airline entered bankruptcy protection.
"Mr. Steenland was talking about how Northwest might utilize the 787," said Northwest spokesman Jim Herlihy. "It's more than a year away, and there will be a lot of discussion between now and then."
Memphis business leaders say Northwest will decide early in 2008 and that the courtship, which started several years ago, has been intense since July.
"This is not a done deal," said John Moore, president and chief executive of the Memphis Regional Chamber of Commerce and former Northwest executive.
"But we are on the list." The trick now, Moore said, is getting detailed information to Northwest about the region's ties to Asia.
"That, plus a plan of how our community plans to help market the flight to make it profitable as quickly as possible is what we are doing."
Northwest has not said how many flights a week it is considering. People close to the proposal say it could start with four flights a week and increase to daily service like the Amsterdam flight, the region's only trans-Atlantic service.
The closest trans-Pacific service to Memphis connects through Atlanta or Dallas.
Because Northwest offers connections to 17 cities across Asia from its hub in Japan, the potential is enormous for Memphis, said Michael Boyd, head of The Boyd Group of aviation consultants outside Denver.
"This is more important than the Amsterdam flight because Tokyo is where the growth is."
What makes the discussion possible is the 787 Dreamliner, a new-generation aircraft that uses 20 percent less fuel than other planes its size. With 221 seats - half the capacity of a 747 - it is Boeing's way of bringing the economics of large-jet travel to the middle of the market.
Northwest is the North American launch customer for the 787. It has 18 planes on order and options for 50 more. Memphis, Boyd said, makes sense because the South has become the U.S. destination for Asian automakers.
"The difference is Northwest can connect business from across the South to Tokyo and then connect it on to other places in Asia.
"American Airlines can't do that and neither can Continental," Boyd said. "United can, but its gateway is Chicago, and Chicago is congested."
By connecting hub to hub across the Pacific, Northwest would have the ability to draw passengers from across the United States, which analysts say would bring at least one or two more passengers per flight to Memphis.
"The numbers we have been able to put together show it as a strong market," said Larry Cox, president and chief executive of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority.
"Northwest taking delivery of the 787 gives us our first real opportunity to have direct service to Japan. We've got our fingers and toes crossed."
In the last decade, Asian investors have poured billions into the Southeast, including a new Hino parts plant in Marion, Ark., manufacturing plants in Canton and Tupelo, Miss., and four assembly plants in Alabama.
About 160 Japanese companies are doing business in Tennessee, plus more than 60 in Mississippi and about 40 in Alabama.
The proliferation of business between the regions was part of the reason behind Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen's Japan trade mission in October.
Local members included Moore, Cox and Arnold Perl, chairman of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority.
"President Cox and I had dialogues in Japan about the flight," said Perl, who received the Order of the Rising Sun - the second-highest honor the Japanese emperor bestows on a warrior or civilian - this summer in a ceremony at The Peabody.
"It would be a breakthrough in further establishing the region as a centerpiece for trade in Asia as well as supporting investment in this region," Perl said.
"We are stirred by the potential of Dreamliner taking off from our World Runway."
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"We've got our fingers and toes crossed."
President of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority