updated 2/16/2010 7:29:23 PM ET 2010-02-17T00:29:23

The four biggest U.S. airlines applied on Tuesday for coveted slots at Tokyo's downtown airport, aiming to grab a bigger share of traffic between two of the world's biggest economies.

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The filings on Tuesday came from Delta and United, which are now the two biggest U.S. carriers serving Japan, and from American and Continental, which have been looking to increase their shares.

They all fly to Tokyo Narita airport already. But Tokyo Haneda Airport is much closer to downtown. It's a prize that has been off-limits to U.S. carriers since 1978.

A new open-skies treaty reached in December between the U.S. and Japan would significantly relax restrictions on flights between the two countries, including slots at Haneda. The agreement still needs to be finalized by both governments.

U.S. carriers are seeking to increase their presence in Asia because they can charge a premium price for those flights. International business travelers tend to spend more than leisure fliers because they fly more, and often at the last minute.

United said it expects the U.S. Transportation Department to award four pairs of daily slots from the U.S. to Haneda. It's asking for one of them, for a flight from San Francisco.

Delta said it applied for flights from Seattle, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Honolulu. Continental's flights would be from Newark, N.J. and Guam. It currently flies to Narita from Newark and Houston, as well as Guam.

American asked for two slots pairs, from John F. Kennedy airport in New York and from Los Angeles International.

The various airline alliances are likely to play a role in how the Transportation Department divvies up the slots.

United is part of the Star Alliance, along with All Nippon Airways, which already serves Haneda. American is part of the oneworld alliance, along with Japan Airlines, which also serves Haneda. Delta claimed that giving it the routes would be the only way to increase competition for flights to Haneda since American and Continental already have partners serving that airport.

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