United Tries to Hitch a Ride on the Florida Gravy Train This Holiday Season


Of the big three US carriers, United is by far the weakest in Florida. Much of that is due to the lack of a hub located in the Southeast US, but that isn’t stopping United from taking a swing this winter. The airline is going to try to run a whole bunch of flights from non-hubs down to Florida this holiday season to see if it can take advantage of the bottomless pit of demand.

To put this into perspective, here’s a look at the number of domestic flights that each airline had arriving in Florida in January of this year, before the pandemic madness began.

Data via Cirium

United is not much of a player, and right now, that’s a disadvantage. Even with Florida failing at containing COVID-19, people were still flying there. And other than Spring Break, the most popular time to visit is the winter holidays. Here’s a look at last year’s Florida passenger spread by month.

T100 Data via Cirium

United has a more business-focused network, and business travel is nowhere to be found. Other airlines can shift more capacity into Florida, but can United? Apparently, yes. Yes it can.

For United, however, it needs to stretch out beyond its key markets if it wants to serve Florida. That’s exactly what it’s doing starting November 7. Here’s the plan.

November 7 – December 16

  • Boston to Fort Lauderdale and Orlando (each 11x weekly), Fort Myers and Tampa (each 5x weekly)
  • Cleveland to Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Orlando, and Tampa (each 5x weekly)
  • New York/LaGuardia to Fort Lauderdale and Orlando (each 11x weekly), Fort Myers and Tampa (each 5x weekly)

December 17 – January 10

  • Boston to Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Orlando, and Tampa (each 2x daily)
  • Cleveland to Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, and Orlando (each 11x weekly), Tampa (1x daily)
  • Columbus (OH) to Fort Myers (5x weekly)
  • Indianapolis to Fort Myers (1x daily)
  • Milwaukee to Fort Myers and Tampa (each 5x weekly)
  • New York/LaGuardia to Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Orlando, and Tampa (each 2x daily)
  • Pittsburgh to Fort Myers (1x daily)

United is saying these are all new, but it did have some flying planned for Cleveland to Florida already. This new plan appears to replace the old in those markets. Everything else is indeed new, and none of that touches a United hub. So what gives?

I’ve had more than one person tell me that this looks like a swing at JetBlue, but I just don’t see it. Maybe I’m an idiot. Yes, JetBlue has made a big push for Florida and has extended out beyond its traditional northeast markets. It is also making a bigger move into Newark. It is tempting to think that United is telling JetBlue not to mess with the airline, but this seems like a really poor way to get that message across.

United’s move into these markets is pretty limited and quite different from what JetBlue has done. JetBlue has a broader, open-ended strategy that feels more permanent. United, on the other hand, is being very clear. It is only selling tickets to passengers during the peak season. Just consider that some of these routes only operate for three weeks. Of course, if they do well, United would be stupid not to try to extend its presence in these markets. But that’s not really how this initial push looks.

What United appears to be doing here is trying to position itself as a spill carrier. Other airlines too expensive and full? Well, come on down to United town!

All of these routes have nonstop service from at least two other airlines. Spirit flies 14 of them, JetBlue and Southwest each serve 10, Frontier is in 9, Delta 8, and American just 1, There is no shortage of service in these markets from all kinds of airlines, but if there’s ever room for more, it’s during the holidays.

Does it make sense for United to be flying some of these markets in early November? Eh, probably not. I’m not sure what the rationale is for starting some of these that early, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the date just fit with aircraft and crew routing needs. But other than that, this flying makes sense to me.

United will have to be a low fare leader, and it’s probably ok with that for these markets. If the assumption is that it won’t have to change staffing levels to support these flights — which is entirely possible — then there is virtually no risk to trying. There are plenty of extra aircraft sitting around. If this experiment fails, well, it’s a pretty short window. Just pile the losses on to the other losses it’ll incur in the rest of its operation. This will be a drop in the bucket. On the other hand, it might work.

This is a fairly nimble, targeted move that could pay dividends. And it might just work to bring cash in the door.

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23 comments on “United Tries to Hitch a Ride on the Florida Gravy Train This Holiday Season

  1. It seems as if all the piggies are trying to get fat off the Florida trough. I doubt there’s enough slop to go around.

    1. Chuck MO,

      Witch piggy do you think will be the one to cry we we we all the way home? MY bet is it will be UA.

      1. I’m not gonna bet against that. They’re showing up 30 minutes before closing time thinking there’s still a good hookup to be had.

        1. I dunno, I’d fly United over Spirit and Frontier any day of the week. In markets where they compete, I think United would drub the ULCCs.

  2. Thanks, I’ve become a victim of the pandemic after 50 + or – years in the industry…and so it goes. Started with TWA in the summer of 1967 at JFK.

  3. United is smart enough to include enough routes that are not exclusively B6 but this is clearly targeted at B6′ EWR expansion. In the process, they step on a whole lot of other carriers’ toes.

    The mere fact that some routes start well before the peak winter travel season should be indication enough.

    UA was slow to rebuild capacity, left opportunities that B6 saw (WN did in DEN as well) and UA shouldn’t be upset that B6 acted.

    UA’s domestic network has long been winter-poor; it didn’t take a pandemic for them to realize they should have diversified. The fact that “”their Florida” is the state of Hawaii which was quarantining everyone else and is now seeing a rash of case growth doesn’t help UA’s prospects.

    I suspect we will see other market adds from other carriers and they won’t be short-term holiday, two to three week runs.

    UA will likely not retain most of these routes while B6′ EWR increases will stick.

    Airlines and esp. UA don’t have the resources to be playing these kinds of games esp. when using government provided money and on the verge of laying off tens of thousands of employees.

    If B6 can justify its EWR adds which are permanent in nature, they should go for it (i don’t think this is a great time for them to be making their push into EWR and it will hurt them financially) but they at least are acting like they intend to actually build their network rather than just opportunistically express displeasure at what others are doing.

  4. What happened to this site? It used to be a fun place to visit. Look at what you used to write and it would be everything from history to trip reports to service to even color schemes.

    Today, it reads more like the WSJ. Just one page after another, after another, after another, of charts, graphs, and data. Not saying those don’t have their time and place. But you yourself have beyond beaten this point into the ground.

    If that’s the direction you want to stay on, fine. Maybe a renaming of the blog is in order.

    1. Well…..there are no trip reports because he’s probably not flying like the majority of the population. It’s not a great time to change your livery, so not a lot of writing to be done there. This is all good content for a difficult period of time, especially for a free blog.

    2. There are plenty of places for pure opinions; opinion guided by data is a whole different realm.
      CF’s shift to data-driven analysis, esp regarding schedules fills a needed void in the aviation interweb space.

      And, as noted, I am sure he will add more trip reports when he can or chooses to travel again

      In the middle of a stay-at-home world right now, CF has found a sweet spot.

      1. Hear! Hear! “10’s across the board” for spot on comments.

        Brett’s (aka Cranky’s) experience and knowledge + data driven analysis usually found only in very expensive trade publications + free on his Cranky Flier blog = as good as it gets at a time when “good things” (and good news) are hard to come by!

        To be sure, data driven may be too hard core avgeeky for those whose interests are more focused on trip reports to guide them in their decision making (or for the simple pleasure of keeping score about which airlines are delivering on service & value, and which ones are failing to do that), but as Mr. Dunn & others noted, it should also be readily apparent why there’s a dearth of trip reports for 2020 vs years’ past – and why data driven analysis actually is more important ever to have available as a free, ready reference for reporters at financial newspapers such as WSJ, and at other mass market publications that may not cover the airline industry as often during “normal” times with so many jobs and taxpayer subsidies/funding now part of the equation.

        1. Here, here. That was well stated as everything cant always be geeky stuff. There’s a time for that, but during a global pandemic the focus is on survival.

          1. And, let’s not forget Cranky’s artwork! Sure, it can be cheesy at times, but during this time in our lives we all need to lighten up, and that goes for me, too. So, pass me the cheese!

  5. I can describe UA’s move in one word – ridiculous. First of all it’s a three week service, second if you are going to or from Florida you need to self isolate for two weeks on both ends & third based on the first two, are there that many people who so are desperate to go to the beach that they would be willing to put themselves in harms way of catching a virus that we still don’t fully understand? And then who knows what will occur once they return home.

    1. You’re right Sean. It’s best for all of us to just hide under the covers in a fetal position so that we don’t risk getting sick from an illness that could kill you – but probably not, or in an accident, or murdered by a peaceful protester. Life must not go on as long as you might die from something.

      1. I think you knew exactly what I ment – so there’s no need for unnecessary pot shots. Regardless I stand by my above post.

    2. Well that isn’t United’s problem, short of either FL state or the federal government actually restricting travel and enforcing it.

      If people actively want to buy tickets to go to Florida, why shouldn’t United sell them?

  6. Looks like a pretty hefty swing at Frontier too. Appeals to those of us who are sometimes willing to drive a little farther for a cheaper, nonstop option. Especially if I have the UA card that gets me a decent (pre pandemic) boarding spot, seat assignment, free bags, and I don’t have to deal with Frontier and Spirit’s abysmal legroom, why not.? But who is going to be flying this year with all of the uncertainty?

  7. I am not sure why you write this blog, and if I ever hear you say why, I’m not sure I would believe you. Maybe you are a masochist, love slings and arrows, or your childhood was really, really strange! Or, maybe it’s what I don’t see in most blogs but which you said today: “Maybe I’m an idiot.” (I can identify with that thought!)

    Continue doing what you are doing, and with luck, I may soon be reading one of your wonderful trip reports.

    I offer you my appreciation and say “Well done!”

    1. I write the blog, because I like writing and I like the industry… and frankly, my wife would kill me if I just talked to her about everything going on in the industry instead of writing it somewhere else. The blog has led to great things for me, including Cranky Concierge, at least it was great when people were traveling, and I’m sure it will be again. I have appreciated every door it has opened, and I have no interest in charging for the core blog as long as I can make a living another way. One of the things I love is that being free from the demands of paying customers, I’m able to write whatever I want. I create my own topics, and if I want to veer into more data, I will. If I decide I want to post airplane porn for a week, I could do that too. That’s what really makes this most fun for me. If people don’t like that, well, that’s too bad. I’ll just keep on doing what I like to do.

  8. I’m not sure how anyone can really predict USA air travel demand several months in advance now, but right now Florida looks like a plausible destination for additional fall service. The media ignores “good news” COVID stories but, as all competent virologists would have predicted, the virus is now fading in Florida. As Nobel laureate Michael Levitt’s gompertz curves predicted, Florida is now consistently shedding almost 200 COVID hospital patients a day, and there will be little virus in Florida by next month. Since travel is now overwhelmingly leisure in nature, this would set up Florida as a prime travel destination for the fall (assuming no horrific hurricanes in the meantime). As we get closer to winter, demand forecasts get trickier however, for while Florida is unlikely be have a significant COVID outbreak this winter (its COVID seasonality is summer), we cannot be entirely sure what will happen in the Northern hometowns of its visitors. But that’s the risky nature of the airline industry this days.
    None of this means UA will be particularly successful in their Florida strategy. Every other airline has excess capacity, and many of these already have strong Florida businesses. Given that it’s off-season anyway, I think it’s obvious that Florida fares will be cheap and profitability low.

    1. It is true that the media ignores any good news media story but the virus has been just taking breaks and then setting up shop in other locations. California, Florida and Texas have been each burying 200+ per day on a pretty regular basis now while NY, MA IL and others are still sending dozens of body bags to the morgue.
      This is a pandemic.
      Europe and E. Asia are seeing increased cases.

      Either the goal has to be to not overwhelm hospitals – which was the original intent of western lockdowns – which means there will continue to be people that don’t make it just as happens every day for multiple reasons – or the world lives in fear.

      United is trying to make a play for a bunch of leisure routes that might generate some short-term cash even while opening the possibility of longer term growth of competitors in UA’s key routes.

      WN has already surpassed UA as the largest carrier at DEN by a pretty wide margin and based on revenues, WN will probably become DEN’s largest carrier by revenue.
      DL is not going to sit by while UA sets up shop in routes that DL has flown for decades. DL has been rather restrained in adding flights, for example, from IAH to the west – such as SEA and LAX; that might change. IAD to LAX could join BOS to SFO and ORD.

      At its core, UA had a network problem before the crisis began; they can’t try to throw a bunch of routes into other competitor’s markets and expect there won’t be repercussions, even if they don’t come until nexxt summer when some stability might return to the industry.

      As for the fact that NK serves more of the routes than other carriers, you need to look at the amount of capacity each carrier has. NK like other ULCCs uses a siphon off the bottom strategy with low amounts of capacity in most of its markets; they don’t offer the same amounts of capacity in the markets combined that UA is starting compared to other carriers.

      and there is no such thing as profitability on cheap, profitable leisure fares. There is enough capacity in the market that any carrier can add back capacity enough to prevent any carrier from making money; the current environment is nothing but a circular firing squad. Whoever convenes a “meeting” for the sake of their own growth is likely to encounter dissatisfaction coming from multiple direcitons.

      Like it or not, but carriers have to figure out how to fly a smaller schedule based on their pre-covid network unless the “invading carrier” can figure out how to win at the cost of other carriers.

      B6 started this all with its foray into UA’s EWR markets; B6 has the pockets to sustain a fight at the OK corral while UA does not.

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