A tug-of-war between American Airlines and Delta Air Lines for Japan Airlines as a global partner underscores the importance of international alliances to the embattled U.S. airline industry.

For AMR Corp's American, which is seeking to keep JAL in the Oneworld alliance, the stakes are especially high. The carrier is working to improve its competitive positions against Delta and UAL Corp's United Airlines -- both U.S. powerhouses on Asian routes.

Delta, meanwhile, hopes to lure JAL out of Oneworld and into its SkyTeam group. A tie-up with JAL could give Delta a major boost after buying Northwest last year, and would allow the world's largest carrier greater access to island nations in Asia that depend on air travel.

American has a lot to lose with its Pacific presence if JAL defects to SkyTeam, said Stifel Nicolaus analyst Hunter Keay.

I think American is going to do whatever they can to keep JAL in the Oneworld alliance, Keay said. It would surprise me more if Oneworld would allow JAL to defect.

Last month, SkyTeam lost a major partner when Continental Airlines, which has a sizable presence in Asia, joined the rival Star Alliance.

The Wall Street Journal, citing an unidentified source, reported on Wednesday that Delta was willing to cover the cost of moving JAL to SkyTeam. Delta did not respond to a request for comment.

On Wednesday, AMR's chief financial officer, Tom Horton, told reporters in Tokyo that private equity firm TPG could partner with AMR on a minority investment in JAL to prevent its defection.

For its part, American has escalated its talk against a JAL departure from Oneworld recently, but the carrier has not said what JAL's absence would mean for its revenue.

We obviously think that would be a very bad idea for Japan Airlines. That would be very bad for us -- but we don't control their decision-making process, AMR Chief Executive Gerard Arpey said at an internal management conference last month. We can just make the best case for them staying with American, and staying in Oneworld.

Arpey noted that American currently has five flights a day to Tokyo's Narita airport, which handles a majority of international traffic to and from Japan.

If you look at the composition of our traffic on those five flights, the equivalent of two full airplanes now connects to JAL in Narita and goes beyond on their network, he said.

(Editing by Steve Orlofsky)