Delta, Korean Air in Joint Venture Talks to Deepen Alliance

Updated on
  • Move to help No. 2 U.S. carrier strengthen foothold in Asia
  • Korean Air and Delta are founding members of SkyTeam alliance

A Korean Air Airbus A380 airplane parked at a gate at Los Angeles international airport.

Photographer: Daniel Slim/AFP via Getty Images

Korean Air Lines Co. is in talks with Delta Air Lines Inc. for a joint venture in a move that would give the second-largest U.S. carrier a bigger foothold in Asia where rising incomes are fueling a boom in air travel.

Details of the partnership would be disclosed later, the Asian airline’s President Walter Cho told reporters at a briefing in Seoul’s Incheon Airport Monday, declining to elaborate. It would be premature for Delta to comment on any future joint venture partnership, the carrier’s corporate communications department in Japan said in an e-mailed response to questions.

Delta, which has said it will rely on tie-ups in Asia to improve connectivity to the region’s largest economies, is extending an existing pact with Korean Air beyond code-sharing. While a joint venture will provide the Atlanta-based carrier a hub in Seoul and help it compete with other U.S. rivals, its partner could get greater access in North America as South Korea prepares to host the 2018 Winter Olympics.

“A venture would give Delta greater access to Asia, where the travel market is growing rapidly,” Um Kyung-a, an analyst at Shinyoung Securities Co. in Seoul, said by phone. “For Korean Air, getting more reliable connectivity on services with Delta will definitely help in attracting passengers.”

SkyTeam Group

Delta and Korean Air in September agreed to expand their code-sharing partnership by increasing destinations that can be shared among their passengers, with a combined 142 locations in the Americas and 33 in Asia. The carriers are two of the four founding members of the SkyTeam alliance established in 2000.

In an aviation joint venture, airlines typically share revenue and costs on a given route, no matter who is flying, according to the International Air Transport Association.

Korean Air isn’t the only Asian carrier to tie up with U.S. airlines. ANA Holdings Inc. has a joint venture with United Continental Holdings Inc. and Japan Airlines Co. has one with American Airlines Group Inc.

A joint venture between Delta and Korean Air could have about 14 percent of the trans-Pacific market -- slightly behind ANA-United’s 15 percent and ahead of Japan Airlines-American’s 10 percent, CAPA Centre for Aviation said in a Jan. 23 report discussing the possibility of a Delta-Korean Air tie up. This gives Delta-Korean Air a “formidable position” of being the second-biggest entity, CAPA said.

Shares of Korean Air fell 1.2 percent to close at 28,450 won in Seoul, giving the carrier a market value of about $2 billion. Delta was little changed at $50.46 on Feb. 24, with a market capitalization of about $37 billion.

China Growth

Delta, which counts Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. as its top investor, is positioning itself for expansion in Asia. China is set to overtake the U.S. to become the world’s largest aviation market by passengers by 2024, according to IATA.

In 2015, the U.S. carrier bought a 3.6 percent stake in state-owned China Eastern Airlines Corp. for $450 million and later extended the cooperation to cover code-sharing, revenue management, scheduling, sales and frequent-flier programs.

Incheon airport, which serves Seoul, is expected to start operating its second terminal as early as end-2017 to help increase its annual capacity to 62 million passengers from the current 44 million. The airfield has three runways. Korean Air is expected to operate from the new facility.

— With assistance by Michael Sasso

(Updates with comment from Delta in second paragraph.)
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