United Airlines management is threatening to abandon JFK, unless the airline is granted permanent slots at the airport.
United returned to JFK in 2021
In the spring of 2021, United Airlines returned to New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK), after cutting service back in 2015. United pulled out of JFK at the time so that it could instead focus on its hub at Newark Airport (EWR), as the airline believed it could get most passengers to travel out of EWR instead of JFK.
That didn’t work out, with United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby indicating that United pulling out of JFK was one of the carrier’s biggest mistakes. Clearly United just wasn’t capturing the New York market in the same way flying just out of EWR, and not out of JFK.
As of now, United flies from New York (JFK) to Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO), but we haven’t seen any growth beyond that. JFK is one of the few slot restricted airports in the United States, meaning that airlines can’t just fly there without being granted slots.
United’s return to JFK was well-timed, as some extra temporary slots were available at the airport around the start of the pandemic, given the sharp drop we saw in demand. With demand recovering, things aren’t look so good anymore…
Why United is threatening to pull out of JFK
This week United Airlines management sent a memo to employees, suggesting that the airline might pull out of JFK as of late October 2022. Here’s how the letter describes the problem:
For more than a year, we’ve pursued additional slots through the FAA and the industry market at JFK (New York-Kennedy) so that we can grow to be more competitive.
The reason is simple: without permanent slots, we can’t serve JFK effectively compared to the larger schedules and more attractive flight times flown by our competitors. For example, JetBlue currently flies to Los Angeles six times more often from JFK than United does and American flies there more than four times as frequently.
If you recall, United had an opportunity during COVID to gain access to some temporary slot times at JFK held by other airlines. Now that customer demand has surged back, the operators of these slots are resuming their use at the start of the winer season and beyond.
That’s why ever since we started flying our JFK routes in February 2021, our goal has been growth. During that time, we’ve made repeated requests to the FAA for permanent slots while also pursuing commercial agreements to acquire slots from other airlines — all in an effort to be more competitive at JFK.
Unfortunately, we have not been successful in gaining additional permanent slots.
United Airlines is urging the FAA to increase capacity at JFK, arguing that JFK hasn’t increased hourly slots since 2008, even though airport infrastructure has improved significantly. The memo argues that it’s in the best interest of the public for the FAA to permanently increase slots at JFK, and award some of those to United.
The memo finishes with the following, explaining that United will leave JFK if additional slots aren’t granted to the airline:
If our latest request is approved and the FAA can offer United an interim multi-season allocation, we are prepared to expand and provide consumers a more competitive JFK offering.
But if we are not able to get additional allocations for multiple seasons, we will need to suspend service at JFK, effective at the end of October. That would obviously be a tough and frustrating step to take and one that we have worked really hard to prevent.
My take on United’s JFK problems
Is competition good for consumers? Absolutely. In general I’m all for allowing new entrants into markets, so that the existing players have to work a bit harder.
However, United’s stance here seems self-serving, and even a bit ironic:
- United Airlines voluntarily left JFK in 2015 (and this involved a slot swap with Delta, so United benefited from this), then regretted the situation, and is now playing the victim card; why should United be granted permanent slots at JFK, rather than an airline that never had the opportunity to fly there?
- JFK is currently undergoing a major redevelopment project, so this might not be the time to expand capacity at the airport, even if the runways are able to handle it
- When United returned to JFK, the airline knew it was only getting temporary slots, so it seems a bit unrealistic that the airline thought it would easily be able to acquire permanent slots
- United is taking an all-or-nothing approach here, and wants a multi-season slot allocation, or else the airline will leave the airport
- United’s argument in favor of expanding JFK slots is exactly the opposite of the argument it makes about not expanding EWR slots; ultra low cost carriers have requested more slots at EWR, and United has repeatedly argued that the airport is already too congested, and allocating more slots to ultra low cost carriers would be bad for consumers
I’d say the one thing potentially working in United’s favor here is that the Northeast Alliance between American and JetBlue is being challenged by the Department of Justice (DOJ). It’s possible that American or JetBlue may have to give up some slots, though I’m not sure those would go to United.
United Airlines is threatening to stop flying to JFK as of late October 2022, unless the airline is granted permanent slots at the airport. United just returned to JFK in 2021, after leaving the airport in 2015.
While I can appreciate that United only wants to keep investing in flying to the airport if it knows the flights will stick around, this still seems one-sided. It’s also ironic, as United’s argument for expanding JFK slots is exactly the opposite of the carrier’s argument for not expanding EWR slots.
Now, the big question is whether United actually pulls out of JFK without permanent slots, or if this is just a threat.
What do you make of United’s request to expand at JFK?