Subscribers of Cranky Daily know that we like to poke fun at Newark for being, well, Newark… but today this is a more substantive issue. I’m specifically trying to understand just how bad the operation is in Newark these days. If you ask United, it is very bad. And despite being the largest operator at the airport by far, the airline is more than happy to point fingers at others for causing the problem.
Jon Roitman, United’s Chief Operating Officer, sent a memo out to employees last week, and that memo was also forwarded on the media, clearly hoping that this issue of Newark gridlock would get more coverage. First, Jon starts pointing fingers at airlines that are running poor operations these days, and the list is not short.
As you may have read in stories like this one over the weekend, some of our competitors continue to
have a really tough time running their operation – including JetBlue, Spirit, Allegiant and Southwest –
and that is also having a ripple-effect on our Newark team.
It’s funny to think that Southwest could be having a ripple-effect on United’s Newark team since Southwest hasn’t flown there since 2019. I’ll assume that was just an attempt at throwing shade. I also find it specious to suggest Allegiant could be causing trouble since it has been averaging just under 2 flights per day out of Newark as of late. But Spirit and JetBlue? Well, yes, tell me more…
JetBlue and Spirit have had an especially challenging time – combined those carriers canceled 600+
flights on Saturday and Sunday alone. For Spirit, that’s about 17% of its Saturday flights and 20% of its
Sunday flights. And as bad as that was, JetBlue had 45% of all weekend departures either being
cancelled or delayed more than an hour.
It’s JetBlue and Spirit’s flying at Newark though – where they cancelled a combined 16% of their Newark
flights over the weekend (and 20% MTD) – and the continued unpredictability of their schedule that has
exacerbated an already difficult situation and looms large as our teams prepare for the busy summer
travel season ahead.
Ok good, no more talk about Southwest and Allegiant. This is a Spirit and JetBlue issue. Looking at Cirium data, JetBlue had about 45 daily flights scheduled from Newark and Spirit just under 19 in April. This sounds completely absurd considering that United and United Express had nearly 380 daily flights scheduled, but there is some sound rationale here.
As the memo goes on to say, the FAA has Newark capable of handling 79 operations per hour in total, but hard slot restrictions went away about 5 or 6 years ago when the airport was moved down from Level 3 to Level 2. Naturally, JetBlue, Spirit, and others jumped into the fray to try to build it up while the getting was good. During the pandemic, this wasn’t an issue, but now, well, yeah. Here’s what today looks like.
Newark Scheduled Operations By Hour – April 25, 2022
The gray area is what the airport can handle, up to 79 operations per hour. Those peak afternoon flight times when Europe is ready to fly? Those are overscheduled. And there’s not much room to recover if something goes go wrong so it turns into a cascade of suck.
What’s interesting about this is that it’s still not back at 2019 levels, looking at a bird’s eye view by month.
Newark Scheduled Operations By Month
And guess what? It was still overscheduled back in 2019. There were just fewer flights during off-peak times.
Newark Scheduled Operations By Hour – April 22, 2019
That means, when we look at masFlight data showing actual operational performance, these numbers look pretty well-correlated.
Operational Performance of Newark Departures by Month
Operations come back up, operational reliability goes back down. It’s the Newark circle of life. But United is really just mad because these other airlines are running such terrible operations that it hurts its own efforts. Looking at the first three weeks of April, for example, United completed 96.55 percent of flights with arrivals within 14 minutes (A14) sitting at 65.62 percent. That is not good, but compare it to JetBlue and Spirit and you may change your tune.
JetBlue completed 90.52 percent of flights with an embarrasing 42.75 percent A14 rate. Spirit was at an atrocious 85.93 percent completion factor and 53.22 percent A14. (I should note that while smaller, Alaska hasn’t been much better than these guys, so they deserve some fire as well.) See, United is looking pretty good. But United’s point here is that its operation is only as bad as it is because JetBlue and Spirit can’t run on time and that snarls everything.
What does United want to do about it? I’m glad you asked. As the memo continues, the airline really begins laying into the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
For our part, we follow the FAA’s rules and plan our Newark schedules accordingly. But our planning
depends on other carriers – so it’s time for them to follow the rules, too. The whiplash caused by JetBlue
and Spirit’s operation has resulted in a volatile and unpredictable environment for everyone, ultimately
impacting all customers.
The bottom line is this: it’s well past time for the FAA to step in, enforce their own rules in Newark, bring
some order to the operating environment there, and let carriers properly plan their summer schedules
and deliver a great experience for customers.
United remains in regular touch with the FAA to express our continued concern that the recovery of air
travel demand will worsen the gridlock at Newark if they don’t proactively manage congestion there.
We’ve recently asked specifically for transparency on approved schedules out of Newark and for the
FAA’s procedures to be applied fairly and consistently across all carriers.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that not only does United want the FAA to step in, but it wants the FAA to ensure that it has the ability to continue all its operations while all those young whippersnappers who have stepped in when the slots opened should have to pull back. That, however, is not a headline that the FAA likely wants written.
It seems entirely reasonable to request that the FAA step in and deal with this airport. I found it surprising that they would change the airport to a lower level of coordination when they did. But if the FAA steps in, it remains unclear if United would actually like the end result if it has to give up anything. But maybe for United, operational integrity is worth the cost at this point since Spirit and especially JetBlue seem to be struggling mightily and foiling everyone’s plans.