After nearly five years away, United is finally returning to New York/JFK with flights to both LA and San Francisco. You’ve undoubtedly heard about this, because it’s been written about by anyone who covers the industry, and that’s why I went with this wholly-misleading headline to grab your attention. Oh sure, United is going to lose a lot of money in the near term, but in the long run, this is definitely the right move for the airline.
United’s Big Mistake
When United left JFK in 2016, it gave the short-sighted reason that it had a mega-hub at Newark and JFK just wasn’t necessary. This was unsurprising since it happened under the reign of former Continental CEO Jeff Smisek. From a Continental perspective, Newark was the be-all, end-all. I don’t mean to suggest Newark isn’t a powerful hub, but JFK is still important for a very niche group of travelers.
You could draw a line through Manhattan and those on one side just don’t want to go to Newark. The further they get into Brooklyn/Queens/Long Island, the less likely they are to even consider Newark as an option. For those traveling under 1,500 miles (or to Denver for some weird reason), LaGuardia is the preferred option, but the perimeter rule prevents nonstops going further than that (except on Saturdays, seriously). For longer trips, JFK is the number one choice.
Does United really care about people flying to Phoenix or Vegas or elsewhere beyond the perimeter? No. It cares about business travelers in the incredibly important markets of LA and San Francisco, both also still considered United hubs last time I checked. Those sweet, sweet corporate deals can hinge on being able to provide nonstop service in that market, and when United walked away, American and Delta really benefited, as did JetBlue. (Alaska? Meh, maybe a little.)
When this all went down, Scott Kirby was still President of American, and he must have done a happy dance. As soon as he went to run United, he knew exactly what being at JFK meant, and so he said he wanted back in. That, however, proved difficult. JFK had no available slots, but probably more importantly it had no available terminal space either. United had traded its JFK slots to Delta for some at Newark (which soon after didn’t matter when slots were lifted there). It left its space in Terminal 7 at JFK to Alaska/Virgin America, which also took over the old lounge. There was no room at the proverbial inn.
The Great Thing About COVID-19
Though the pandemic has been disastrous for the airline industry, here is one bright spot for United. The tanking of demand has opened the door for United to step back in at JFK, though it’s not entirely clear how.
United will operate two daily flights to both Los Angeles and San Francisco beginning February 1. And where did those four slot pairs come from? A United spokesperson confirmed to me that the FAA granted them through the rest of the winter season ending March 26, 2021.
I’m trying to get clarification from the government on just where those slots came from, but since yesterday was a holiday, I wasn’t able to get an answer. I’ll update here when that comes in.
Update 11/13: An FAA spokeperson tells me:
These United slots are allocations for just this season and do not carry historic precedence with them. These slots are granted to United on a temporary basis for winter 2020 only. The available slots were returned by other airlines on a temporary basis under the terms of a waiver of the minimum slot usage requirements for flights impacted by COVID-19. Please see our COVID regulatory relief page, which includes info about slot relief
There is a slot waiver in effect through March 26, so airlines can keep their slots even if they don’t fly them. It would seem rather strange for an airline to surrender slots during that time, so I assume that there may be some mechanism for United to fly slots that are temporarily unused for the winter.
What happens on March 27? Well, United does not currently have access to slots then, but it feels confident enough that it will get them to justify starting the service on February 1. If the slot waiver does, in fact, expire on March 27 and not get extended, it seems likely that United expects to get some slots permanently. The question is… who will give them up? I have no answer for that just yet, but there are plenty of candidates.
A Terminal Problem
Meanwhile, what about terminal space? United is coming right back into where it was previously. It’s somewhat amusing to think that a return to Terminal 7 means British Airways had to give the airline space. I wonder how BA’s good buddy American feels about that. But there’s little question that T7 has the space these days.
Here’s a look at Cirium schedule data showing average daily departures by month from Terminals 7 and 8.
Average Daily Departures by Month From New York/JFK
You can see that Terminal 7 had been slowly creeping downward even before the pandemic. Some of that is because as American shrinks, it has more room in Terminal 8 for its partners to move. There’s also just less flying going on in T7, especially in the mornings. Here’s a proposed schedule for February.
Departures and Arrivals by Hour, February 2021, JFK Terminal 7
Other than a single ANA flight, the only departures before 3pm are on Alaska. And Alaska has been operating a severely-reduced schedule at JFK since the pandemic began. It remains to be seen what comes back in the long run for that airline.
In the long run, I’d expect we’ll eventually see United over in Terminal 1. Right now, that’s nearly impossible since, as I understand it, it’s not set up for domestic arrivals and there isn’t much room. But there is a plan to re-build Terminal 1 with more gates. With Lufthansa over there, this would be an obvious place for United to go. That, however, is way down the road.
The Flight Plan
United will bring airplanes in the night before, staggered so the first flight can arrive from SF, disembark, be towed off the gate, and then the LA flight can come in.
- San Francisco 1:30pm –> JFK 10pm
- Los Angeles 2:30pm –> JFK 10:50pm
In the morning, Alaska’s big departure rush is between 7 and 8, but United goes mostly after that. Again, it staggers so it can use a single gate.
- JFK 8am –> San Francisco 11:37am
- JFK 9am –> Los Angeles 12:39pm
The afternoon flights are probably trickier since it comes during primetime, but United will again use a single gate. I tried to ask United whether it will use a dedicated gate or just roam with common use gates, but United did not respond.
- Los Angeles 7:30am –> JFK 3:50pm
- JFK 5:10pm –> San Francisco 8:47pm
- San Francisco 9:10am –> JFK 5:40pm
- JFK 7pm –> Los Angeles 10:29pm
This provides two flights in the morning and two in the evening to get a skeleton schedule that will appeal to business travelers. It makes sense, though it’s very thin compared to what others can offer. That is likely because demand is just so low right now.
A Big Ole’ Airplane With Few Seats Onboard
As if it’s not’s daunting enough to go into a business-heavy market when business travel barely exists, United is using quite the aircraft on this route. It will use its newly-refurbished 767-300ERs which have a whopping 46 Polaris-style flat beds, 22 premium economy, 47 Economy Plus, and a mere 52 in coach. That is a big airplane that is VERY premium heavy.
In the long run, this could make sense. After all, American had done well with its lightly-configured A321Ts on the route, but for now, American has walked away from those, instead turning to more densely-packed 777s. United is doing the opposite, but I suppose there is a reason.
United has retired the old 757s that used to fly under the p.s. brand. The airline wants to offer a competitive premium flat bed from the start, but the other 757s are pretty light on premium and are generally used for short international flying more than anything. Meanwhile, these 767s were refurbished to fly to places like London which have huge business demand. Right now, that does not exist, so there’s no reason to fly them.
In other words, these airplanes are sitting around with nothing else to do, so United might as well use them and show off its nice onboard product to the few who fly. It’ll need that in the long run to make up for its lack of frequency. As an added bonus, these 767s have room for containerized cargo, something United noted in the press release which should help toward covering the cash costs.
Still, that’s why I say this will lose a lot of money. But in this case, it’s an investment in the future, an investment that needs to be made now while the window of opportunity exists. United should be at JFK, and it will eventually benefit. It’s just going to be awhile.