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.
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.
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.