United Shuffles Newark and Washington Flying Because of Capacity Constraints


When United first announced that it would shift flying in Newark to focus more on local traffic while Washington/Dulles would be bulked up to handle connections, you may have flashed back to the American-TWA merger. At that time, American said it would focus Chicago/O’Hare on local traffic while St Louis would handle connections. That failed spectacularly, but don’t make the mistake thinking this is the same thing. What United is doing may be motivated by the same reasons (capacity constraints), but this plan is far more likely to work.

When American and TWA merged, TWA was a shell of its former self. It did, however, still have a large hub in St Louis. American, meanwhile, saw gridlock at O’Hare, and it couldn’t add enough flights to satisfy local demand. So it made what may have seemed like a smart decision. It would make O’Hare a local operation while flowing connections over St Louis. It was a different era back then, and connecting flights were cheap. St Louis didn’t have all that much local demand — certainly not enough to support that massive hub — and so the plan failed. The St Louis hub was eventually abandoned.

Now, United is saying it wants to do the same thing in the Northeast, something that’s possible because it has two big hubs post-merger that are very close to each other: Newark and Washington/Dulles.

Newark is gridlocked, and it’s not going to get any better. Seeing no good way out, United is adjusting the operation to focus more on local traffic.

Service will increase in the following markets:

Burlington, VT Charleston, SC Ft Lauderdale
Fort Myers Greensboro, NC Memphis
Nashville New Orleans Norfolk, VA
Orlando Phoenix Pittsburgh
San Antonio Sarasota West Palm Beach

At the same time, Key West service will go year-round and Palm Springs will get a seasonal nonstop. Note that all of these are destinations with higher local demand, including the never-ending pit of demand that is Florida. United isn’t running away from low cost carriers here either. Many of these are markets served by Southwest, JetBlue, and Spirit. Why? Because those airlines serve the markets that local travelers want and need. United is doing the same.

Since Newark doesn’t have a ton of room, United has to be cutting from somewhere to fund this growth. Some routes are being cut outright. The 8 daily flights to Baltimore, Des Moines, and Hartford are all being scrapped. Further, flights from Chattanooga, Ithaca, and Scranton will all be shifted from Newark to Washington/Dulles.

What do these flights have in common? They all carry little to no local traffic into Newark. United says it would rather serve local markets from Newark than it would serve connections. That would seem to counter President Scott Kirby’s professed love of high dollar connecting markets like the ones he used to have in Charlotte when he was at American, and the ones he has in Denver now. But the difference is that New York airports are so congested that local fares are only going to climb higher without any meaningful increase in capacity. United is playing to what it knows to be the best strategy in one of the world’s most important air travel markets.

But what about Washington’s Dulles Airport? For years, United has neglected what, to the surprise of many, has actually been one of its best performing hubs. Time and time again people have predicted its demise. I know I’ve done it. I was highly concerned that Dulles would be challenged once US Airways pulled out of Star Alliance and merged with American to make National an even greater powerhouse. But Dulles still serves a very important role. It is THE international gateway from the DC area, and the government traffic alone is enough to sustain a slew of long-haul flights. That area surrounding the airport in Virginia has gone from a backwater to being the home of many headquarters and US bases of operations for foreign companies. The demand is there, and it’s going to be keep growing.

Further, Dulles has room to grow. It has plenty of runway, and with National basically full, growth is going to have to go elsewhere. Dulles stands to benefit. With so much capacity available, United is shifting those three heavily connecting markets to go via Dulles instead. This will not only help support more of the flights that exist today, but they’ll bring high fares. Further, Dulles is the closest thing that United has to being able to hub in the Southeast. It’s a poor alternative to Atlanta and Charlotte, but it can at least pick off some connections around the edges.

Because of the massive local demand alone, Dulles is no St Louis. But the rise of connecting fares from small markets can also help to turbocharge the hub. To me, this small shift feels like a test to see if it can actually work. I am far from convinced that Ithaca and Scranton to Dulles will thrive, but there’s no place for those cities in Newark anymore, so United is looking at plan B.

I suppose the only way we’ll know if this is truly a success is if United decides to actually put any kind of money into fixing up that dreadful terminal experience. The so-called “Temporary Midfield Concourse” that houses all of United’s mainline gates (C and D) has been in place for 30 years. When the airport built the underground train a few years back, it aligned the station to be further away from the terminal since that’s where a permanent replacement is supposed to be built someday.

There are many hurdles to building a new terminal there. The airport authority has been rife with corruption and spends money like a drunken sailor. United has to find a way to keep its costs down there while also making for something that’s better than the barely-passable experience that exists today. If this strategy to shift connections works, and I think there’s a good chance, then I think United won’t be able to ignore the obvious infrastructure problem any longer.

Get Cranky in Your Inbox!

The airline industry moves fast. Sign up and get every Cranky post in your inbox for free.

41 comments on “United Shuffles Newark and Washington Flying Because of Capacity Constraints

  1. I knew that I’d posited that EWR should focus on O&D and Dulles connections the last time analysts thought it should be closed. And sure enough there it was on the comment section in your old article linked above lol.

  2. You’ll have to forgive WMATA, they’ve been distracted by their bungling of the metro extension to Dulles (and beyond for reasons that nobody fully comprehends). I guess after finally putting a train in at Dulles they decided they were mass transit experts!

    1. Sorry, MWAA not WMATA. I got our quasigovernmental money wanting transit authorities confused!

      1. Cranky,

        WMATA runs the trains, but Virginia decided to have MWAA build the Silver Line to Dulles. They are doing so and then handing the line over to WMATA for acceptance and operation. They already did so for Phase 1 that opened in 2014 and are doing so now for Phase 2 (including the connection to the airport) that will open in 2020.

          1. Just a guess, but it may have been easier to secure funding through the airport authority than it would have been through the transit authority. Again, just a guess.

        1. What’s also crazy is that some how the airport authority owns the Dulles Access and Toll Road (they’re parallel but separate roads… free for airport traffic, tolls for cars) and uses the tolls to finance the silver line construction. Tolls are skyrocketing to pay for this.

          1. When the Feds built the Dulles Access road they asked Virginia to share the costs. VA outsmarted themselves and said no, figuring that they’d have to build it anyway. Since spite is a two-way street, they built the access road so you can only go to IAD and the state later had to spend a vast amount to build the parallel toll road.

  3. Love it, just hope my transcons remain pretty cheap out of IAD.

    Regarding the concourse, I don’t think it’s all bad–especially for connections. A drag to get from the main terminal building, but reasonably comfortable and decent amenities. Gates can get a little crowded, however.

  4. This is probably the best on a list of imperfect options. Aside from international, I doubt NYC airports in general are optimized for that many connecting flows and IAD has enough UA and Star Alliance presence to still provide that. Plus, as you mentioned, it gives them a better play for north-south flows, even if it can’t be an ATL or CLT.

    1. Yeah DL is really the only other airline capable of considering NYC a hub, and even then, they only connect some NE destinations at JFK and LGA, and otherwise prioritize the bottomless well of local demand.

    2. Even/especially for international connections, JFK isn’t great. I didn’t realize until I connected there that transferring between terminals requires one to leave security, take the train to another terminal, go through the whole ticketing/check-in/baggage check process at another airline, if applicable, and then go through airport security again.

      My biggest complaint with EWR is that they won’t let you get picked up directly from the curb by the off-airport parking lot shuttles, and instead make you take a train to a separate facility.

      Suffice it to say that I prefer ATL (or even CLT) when making a connection (international or domestic) on the East Coast.

  5. I get that there is room to grow at IAD but I’ve always heard that a hub needs solid O/D traffic to exist. An airline can’t force a hub in a location out of convenience. Ranked by boardings alone IAD is quite low for being in such a large metro. To me this seems like a good on paper plan but then again so was MCI but that never turned out. Maybe when they get the silver line metro extension out to the airport it’ll get more love but in the current climate I don’t see the locals picking it over DCA and BWI which to me is the key to getting this hub to work.

    1. Well it’s a metro area with three airports each of which is basically a hub. I don’t care what WN says, BWI is a hubb for them, DCA is effectively a hub for AA and IAD for United.

      The difference is Dulles has probably 95% of the region’s international flights which means it’s perfectly situated to be a hub for connecting traffic to flow into the international flights. IAD had more emplacements than BWI and just a bit fewer than DCA which is far more convenient for most of the region. That tells me there is enough local O&D at IAD to keep United busy if they manage it correctly.

      1. Plus, don’t forget that there is a heavy Star Alliance presence at IAD for the international flights.

        And as traffic continues to worsen in the region, BWI and IAD will compete with each other less and less. I live just a few miles from IAD — I still prefer DCA, if I can get a non-stop at a reasonable price, but use IAD if schedules or fares out of DCA don’t work. For me to use BWI, the tickets have to be dirt cheap AND the flights have to be at times that don’t coincide with rush hour.

  6. Sorry to see the BWI – EWR flights go as I used them twice recently to fly internationally from Newark, but I understand why they are being discontinued. It is a relatively short drive. On a related note, I read and hear so many negative comments about EWR. I don’t understand all of the negativity – I like it.

  7. With the disappearance of Baltimore and Hartford/Springfield flights to Newark, will United expand its Amtrak codeshare to these cities? They’re on the Northeast Corridor, only a bit further away than the current ends of the codeshare, Wilmington (ZWI) and New Haven (ZVE). This could help avoid losing some of the current international connecting traffic through Newark.

    Speaking of the Amtrak codeshare, I noticed it’s marketed in a somewhat silly way on United’s website. For example, “flight” UA 2914 from Wilmington to Newark is marketed as a 1-stop trip with a ground stop in Philadelphia (making the full trip to Europe 2-stop). Why does United count this stop? The train itself (Amtrak 190) makes another stop in Trenton which United doesn’t count, presumably because Trenton is not a United codeshare destination. It’s even sillier for New Haven, which counts Stamford but not New York as a ground stop on the way to Newark. If the codeshare is extended to Baltimore and Hartford/Springfield, would these be considered 2-stop segments (from Baltimore and Hartford) or a 3-stop segment (from Springfield)? Also, while Baltimore–Newark is a through route, Hartford/Springfield requires an engine change and often a train change at New Haven.

    1. On one of my Baltimore – Newark flights, the plane coming down from EWR was delayed so we were going to miss our connection. United put us on Amtrak right from BWI to EWR. It was pretty seemless, except for having to check bags and go through security at EWR.

  8. Cranky, thanks for the update. I appreciate it.

    That said, Dulles is a joke that should haven put out of its misery long ago. The CO execs who run United focused on EWR and have put virtually NO investment into IAD. As in, NONE. At many peak and near peak times (when you are likely to be at the airport), the United Clubs are chocked to the gills. There were more vacant seats at the recent Royal Wedding than there’s likely to be in a United Club or at most of IAD’s gates. The gates are crowded, dank and kinda old school. The concourse itself feels like what it is — a temporary solution long past its prime.

    Security is a joke. The lines even for premium passengers with TSA-Pre are beyond belief and slow. In some cases, they rival MCO’s non-pre lines!

    If United is serious about IAD, then a new concourse and security upgrades are absolute. The problem is that IAD is an expensive place to fly to. And, United will never shed the problem that IAD is about 35 minutes flying time from EWR. Given the choice, where would airline logically rather fly — a primary airport in New York City or a way-out mess in Virginia! I don’t see United putting any investment into IAD.

    It’s a stickier situation that even Delta has with MSP and DTW, the former of which is about 1:15 flying time from the latter. At least MSP has strong O/D traffic.

    As to the question of IAD’s access roads raised by one commentator, Dulles was built in the early 1960s when it became very apparent that DCA was inadequate for intercontinental flying. The airport was built way beyond any built-up areas in DC at the time. The federal government owned the airport and built an access road to it. The road was dedicated for the airport and built with no westbound exits or eastbound entrances, since that would jam up access to the airport and make IAD even less competitive to DCA or BWI.

    The airport eventually was transferred to WMAA. As the region grew, Virginia built toll roads to access the area west of the beltway and to facilitate development between the beltway and Leesburg. The access road continues to be an express path to IAD

  9. This makes sense to me. Connecting in NY is a nightmare due to poor infrastructure and a very crowded and delay prone airspace. The only places it works is going from the west to smaller European cities, New England, or Atlantic Canada. Last time I went through EWR was SFO-EWR-YYT. IIRC EWR-YYT is no longer a route anyway.

    I can see why they don’t want to fly from BWI or Bradley to EWR since both cities are close enough to fly. I would assume the only time someone would fly from Bradley to Newark is to connect since it’s just under three hours from Windsor Locks, CT to NYC. I wonder if people in WMass or Connecticut would be less likely to drive to Newark and fly internationally and drive to JFK instead since you don’t have to cross the Hudson. (Though the Van Wyck sucks about as much as the Cross Bronx). Or would they fly to PHL on AA, IAD on UA, or DTW on DL to fly out instead?

    1. Don’t forget that the Hartford area is roughly equidistant from NYC and Boston (~100 miles and 2-3 hours for each, depending on traffic and where you’re going in those metro areas). BOS could be a good option for some people in the Hartford/Springfield area who are looking at flying internationally. For those looking to fly domestically, secondary/tertiary airports in the area (New Haven, Providence, White Plains, etc) may be an option if they offer nonstops or better connecting itineraries that BDL does not.

      1. I was thinking of those international destinations where EWR/JFK is your only option for a non-stop in this country. Otherwise, I would connect through a hub or drive to Boston. The drive from Windsor Locks to Boston is much nicer than going to NY. Plus, most of Bradley’s catchment area does lie closer to Logan than JFK or Newark and you don’t have to deal with exorbitant bridge tolls.

      2. Or they can use the Amtrak. It’s a little trickier for Springfield/Hartford, since the lines there are worse. But for Baltimore/Washington, I think that trains are the fastest way. I believe that you can go between these cities (Baltimore and NYC) in a little over 2 hours on the train, if I remembered correctly? That’s definitely faster than driving, especially with traffic? And not too much slower than flying, especially with all the delays.

    2. United, most likely believes that if you are in the Baltimore area and need to get to Newark, you can drive or take the train. Furthermore, if you need to fly internationally, this is also their way way of telling you to drive to Dulles instead of flying out of EWR.

    3. Western Mass might be just as likely to use Albany. Also EWR vs. JFK isn’t much of a concern from that far north, because you can cross the Hudson at a much calmer crossing. In fact it’s probably easier to get to EWR from up that way than JFK.

      1. For most of WMass, Albany and Boston are close to being equidistant. If you are going to drive to avoid Bradley, you might as well go to Logan where there are just many, many more flight options.

        While you can avoid the GW going from Springfield to EWR, you will still most likely take the 91 to 84 to 684 to the Cross Westchester to the Tap to the Garden State Parkway. It’s still a tough drive.

  10. When IAD opened, you took a Mobile Lounge directly to the plane. There was no long hiking. But, the volume of flights increased so that this system was no longer viable. That’s when the midfield terminals were added with the eventual subway. As you pointed out, the subway stops beyond United’s C Terminal and you have to walk back. Dulles is now a pain as you have to go up, down, over, etc to get to the train and the midfield terminal. Then it takes more hiking time to get to your gate. Construction of the Metro’s Silver Line to IAD will add to the hiking as the station will be at the far side of the parking lots. This will be a walk the length of two football fields — with your luggage as the population ages.

  11. This article makes me shiver with dred. Wasn’t it about 15 years ago United had a slew of regional flights out of the G (?) Gates, which was essentially a “connections barn” to smaller destinations? It felt even more third-world than the rest of the C/D gates with tons of flights departing at the same time with the gates just a few feet apart, very loud announcements overlapping each other from the GAs, no decent food or drink options, no lounge, terrible heating/cooling, and needing to be bussed to/from the C/D gates for transcon flights. I truly hope they don’t go down that road again.

    1. RW, That was something different… prior to 2004, Atlantic Coast Airlines was the UA Express carrier at IAD, and occupied the A concourse. UA severed their relationship during a bankruptcy proceeding, and Atlantic Coast rebranded and started doing their own flying.

      UA brought in a replacement UAX carrier, and built the temporary G gates. ACA went belly up, and UA took back the space in the A terminal.

  12. With a shift to Dulles for connections, will any secondary Europe flying shift over from EWR as well?

  13. What about re-hubbing Cleveland for regional service since it has the closed terminal designed for 50 -75 seat regional planes? This could take some pressure of Newark and Dulles for small ERJ type planes?

    1. That sounds like it would have the same problems at STL. Hubs don’t really survive based on connections alone; they need a strong local market as well to build off of. EWR, IAD, ORD all have that, but STL and CLE don’t.

      1. I agree with David M. Cleveland is a much smaller local market that is currently being served by Frontier, Southwest, Allegiant, and Spirit. It’s not a place anyone wants to hub.

  14. I live in Ithaca. We have three competing high quality direct bus services to NYC so whatever point to point traffic there was to EWR is long gone. But the only reasonable way to get to DC is a long boring drive. Flights to IAD can make a day trip to DC possible which it is not now.
    United says they’re shifting 2 flights/day to IAD but there are now 3/day to EWR so who knows what will happen to the third one.

  15. IAD always feels like an airport in search of an airline. I suspect this situation will continue indefinitely.

    There is no question that IAD is “valuable.” Thanks to never-ending Federal government spending, DC has ballooned into a megalopolis in the past few decades, and much of that high-end growth has been in NoVa. Even if water levels are (temporarily) lowered in “the Swamp,” only a fool would think that the long term trajectory of DC as a center of wealth and power would be negative. So logic strongly suggests that “the value” of IAD will only increase over time.

    The problem is you probably need a global US airline to fully exploit this opportunity. Given the nature of its location, IAD will always focus on int’l traffic, while the majority of locals will prefer DCA for domestic flights. I could see an upscale-but-affordable domestic-focused airline like Jetblue (or a “start-up Jetblue”) expanding at IAD — it’s kind of like a DC airport version of JFK — but I’m not sure the opportunity for them is so great that they would want to pick at fight with UA at that airport.

    While IAD has opportunity, everyone knows that EWR is an even better opportunity. So IAD is always going to be a stepsister to EWR for UA. And the other 2 US airlines that might be interested in IAD — DL and AA — already have nearby hubs. So I don’t see a replacement for UA’s operation there. It’s probably always going to be second fiddle. But probably a growing second fiddle as DC gets even more affluent and needs even more air service.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Cranky Flier