Five MD-11’s are pictured in this photo taken at PDX in January, 1999
A few decades ago, Delta Air Lines operated a transpacific hub out of Portland International airport (PDX) in Portland, Oregon. I remember collecting Delta Sky magazines and published timetables from the late 1990’s and seeing that Delta based a series of McDonnell Douglass MD-11 and Lockheed L-10/11 tri-star widebody planes out of PDX to serve its Asian network.
According to a guest blog post from AirlineReporter.com, published in October 2011, the hub came to fruition in the late 1980’s and lasted throughout the 1990’s, but was dismantled prior to 9/11. Author Vinay Bhaskara of Bangalore Aviation claims that the origins of the PDX hub can be “traced back to the economic stories of the four Asian tigers (South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore), as well as Japan” which spurred strong economic growth between the U.S. and Asia.
Post de-regulation in the late 1970’s, the skies were liberated between the US and Asia to allow more carriers to fly between the two regions. Until this point, Northwest Orient Airlines and Pan Am had enjoyed a duopoly over these services, but flights were eventually opened up to include American and United to Tokyo.
For a brief period of time, United operated their Chicago to Tokyo flights via Seattle (6 times weekly) and Portland (1 time weekly) as their aircraft was not large enough to fly Chicago to Tokyo nonstop. However, after United purchased Pan Am’s Asian network in 1986, it also acquired the 747SPs which allowed them to fly from Chicago to Tokyo without the Pacific Northwest stop overs.
Seen here are three different tri-holed carriers at PDX in 1992: the Boeing 727 (narrow-body), the McDonnell-Douglass MD-11, and the Lockheed Tri-Star L/10-11-500. Image courtesy of AirlineReporter.com
At this juncture, Portland officials had leaned upon these nonstop services to Asia to generate international business traffic in the Portland region. Conveniently, the US and Japan had signed a new bilateral agreement to allow new flights between the two countries. Delta, which possessed the Lockheed L-1011-500 series aircraft, could not fly this long-range plane between its hubs in Atlanta, Cincinnati nor Dallas/Ft. Worth to Tokyo at this time, so Delta decided to link the three cities with Japan over PDX, which went live as a 5-weekly service on a 240-seat L-10/11 plane in 1986.
Eventually, in mid-1987, Delta launched service from Portland to Seoul, South Korea, originating and terminating in Atlanta, and coinciding nicely with the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics. Additionally, Delta acquired Western Airlines in 1987, adding feed to PDX from Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. It was then that Delta decided to create a “true hub” at PDX, according to Bhaskara.
Although all of these services did not exist simultaneously, Delta flew from PDX to Tokyo, Nagoya, Fukuoka, Seoul and Taipei, with continuing service to Bangkok, between 1986 and 2001.
Delta continued to make investments in its Portland facilities, adding a Delta premium Crown Club (the former name for Delta’s airport lounges), building three new wide-body gates, and paving room for a US Customs and Border patrol baggage handling area. According to the article, the quick processing time at PDX for international arrivals was exceptionally quick at an average of 25 minutes.
Throughout the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Delta extended the Portland-Seoul flight to tag on to Taipei, Taiwan and Bangkok, Thailand as well, and also launched a new Portland-Nagoya service. Delta also added service on the domestic front to Vancouver, San Francisco, Seattle and Anchorage, a push which also continued throughout the mid-1990’s to extend to Boston, New York and Las Vegas.
The hub was consistently profitable up until the late 1990’s, even though services to Bangkok and Taipei were eventually dropped. However, things started to unravel as the Asian Economic Crisis of 1998 began to grip the markets. Although the US was in an economic boom, the situation in Japan and Korea slipped into complete turmoil. Delta eventually dropped services to Seoul and a short-lived route to Fukuoka, the 4th largest city in Japan.
When the dot.com bubble started to slow down, Portland eventually lost its grip over the Delta hub when services to Tokyo and Nagoya were shut down on April 1, 2001. Naturally, the lack of the Asian trunk routes released the need for services on many of PDX’s domestic routes, and by the end of the year, following 9/11, Delta had cut virtually every service from Portland except to its hubs at Atlanta, Cincinnati, Dallas/Ft. Worth and Salt Lake City. The airline closed its flight attendant base and removed over 300 positions.
In a weird twist of events, Delta now actually does fly from Portland to Tokyo, as well as to Amsterdam, Netherlands, however these were routes started by Northwest Airlines in the late 2008’s, which were eventually acquired by Delta in the DL-NW merger from 2009.