Just How Bad Is It in Newark?

United

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

Schedule data via Cirium

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

Schedule data via Cirium

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

Schedule data via Cirium

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

Ops data via Anuvu, Schedule Data via Cirium

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.

21 comments on “Just How Bad Is It in Newark?

  1. United (any airline, at any airport) can choose to manage its own operations, reliability, quality, revenue, expense, or it can choose to complain. It’s cheaper to complain about others, without stating their competitive effect, although FA has, especially with some of the social media uptake. But it doesn’t improve native outcomes.

    Manage what you can, actively improve your own circumstances, gate to gate, and ignore the rest. The rest (and their customers, for the moment at least) will have to live in the bed they make. Make this a switching opportunity.

    1. If UA cut operations to make EWR more reliable, B6 and NK would probably just add more to compensate. This is something that has to be dealt with at an airport-wide level.

  2. Wah, wah. Did little spirit & JetBlue mess up your operation in Newark? Grow up & run your own operation better & stop wining about others.

  3. It isn’t often that one post encompasses multiple personal dislikes. Newark my most disliked airport, and United my most disliked airline. I avoid both, and haven’t used either in more than a decade. There is nothing about either that is user friendly or takes a traveler’s needs or priorities into consideration. The fact that Newark and United are having trouble playing nice together isn’t really a surprise. They’re like two dysfunctional parents who are too busy slugging it out to realize the kids are packing to run away.

  4. Brett,

    Any chance you could show the Ops/hour graph with buckets of carriers (such as, say, United + United Express, Spirit + JetBlue, and all other carriers)?

    I’d love to see how much Spirit & JetBlue really fly during the 15:00-20:59 timeframe, when EWR’s scheduled operations average out to about its capacity, with no slack… If Spirit/JetBlue have an extremely disproportionate share of the airport’s total ops during the afternoon/evening rush, I might be a little more sympathetic toward United.

    In the end, however, United is the big carrier at EWR, and complaining is cheap. I’ll have a bit less scepticism about United’s complaints regarding other carriers’ operations if/when United’s operations/service are affected to the point that United reconfigures its schedule at EWR to take advantage of less congested times at the airport. Until then, complaining to Uncle Sam about the issue seems like as a marketing move as an operations move.

  5. Do the United stats above include United Express?

    Also, I’m not quite clear on how JetBlue and Spirit cancelling flights affects United – if anything, unless the planes are sitting around blocking apron or parking space, I’d think fewer departures would, if anything, help a bit. And unless the delays cause aircraft movements to spill into peak hours that weren’t scheduled there, not sure how that would affect UA as well. (I don’t believe EWR has CUTE gates, do they?)

    There are fair points here, but it looks like UA is either running a stealth “look at how good we are” campaign or campaigning for reduced competition at EWR. Or both.

    1. CraigTPA – Yes, this includes United Express. I don’t know how cancellations would make a difference, but delays I get, because those end up getting pushed into peak times that just clogs up the runways more.

    2. Just UA being snarky about the early April cancels affecting both B6 and NK with ATC shutting down the north/south corridor for hours

  6. I notice how many other airlines did not get shade/praise but is basically not mentioned at all. AA, Delta, and of course all of UA’s Star Alliance partners. Sure, many fly a few individual flights a day, but especially the internationals are all arriving in the afternoon, and all departing late afternoon/early evening. Surely must have an impact on those over-subscribed timebands between 2pm and 8pm.

    1. Delta and American are running their international operations over at JFK. That might contribute to airspace congestion, but anything they’re doing on the ground at EWR would be mainly just domestic hub flying.

  7. The removal of EWR from slot-restricted, slot-controlled status has Senator Schumer’s fingerprints all over it. From its inception, JetBlue has New York political power 100% behind it. From Senator Bradley “finding” the start-up slots at JFK JetBlue needed to launch its very first flight up to JetBlue’s pandemic growth at EWR (and now the fall-out from it), and the extremely beneficial NEA, rest assured JetBlue is the home team in New York. Previously, Delta was the victim at JFK and now a double-dose of hurt at LGA with the NEA. Now, United is the prey at EWR. And there is NOTHING any other carrier can do about it. Due to JetBlue’s political power, I fully expect their acquisition of Spirit to pass any DOT/DOJ smell test. And it would not surprise me if the NEA emerges intact, as well. And I’ll save the machinations involved in JetBlue’s obtaining LHR slot for another day.

  8. EWR has been a hellscape for decades. Honestly, it makes ORD look like a precision Swiss watch. I remember actively avoiding it (which was not always possible) during the late 90’s and 00’s – when it was a CO hub. A typical night had me connecting from somewhere like MEM to MHT and then that last EWR-MHT flight was delayed for 5 hours. It would have been a lot quicker to drive! I even flew through EWR using CO’s Latin American network as EWR actually had some flights to/from places like GYE (a red eye on the return). The am flight connections were fine because the day was young, but anytime after 4 pm was a disaster at EWR. Looks like some things never change.

  9. Is it Newark – or is it Newark in the context of the crowded airspace in New York and an air traffic control system that’s decades out of date?

    1. I suspect that it’s the latter and that you’re getting to the heart of the matter. Though it doesn’t explain the differences between individual airlines regarding performance. Though it does explain one big reason why EWR sucks so badly.

  10. Let’s not forget that EWR was stripped of slot controls because United did not use its slots to the same percentages as other carriers at LGA and JFK. UA still controls a larger percent of EWR operations than nearly every other large airport in the country.
    EWR was never designed to operate a large hub operation. It is effectively a 2 runway major hub w/ a high percentage of widebody flights which reduces capacity further; very few major hub airports have as few runways.

    And what does UA really want the FAA to do? Punish airlines that cancel flights when operations meltdown? There are plenty of days when that same rationale could be applied to ORD and SFO – and UA’s operations.

    As for B6, their stock is in free fall after telling Wall Street that it will not be profitable in the 2nd quarter – something just about every other airline can do. It is doubtful that a lot of their EWR flights didn’t make money so United will benefit from a lot less competitive capacity at EWR this summer. You would think they would be rejoicing about a smaller, weaker competitor.

    1. Why is there a tendency for some people to rejoice over others’ troubles? Maybe it’s a sign of relief that the same things aren’t happening to them.

      1. who is rejoicing in anyone’s misfortune?
        I simply noted that UA might get what it wants because of market forces – B6′ flights might not meet profit targets – rather than government intervention.

        and even if B6 does not add flights, other carriers might. That is the nature of being under voluntary schedule coordination rather than slot controls.

    2. Maybe the ulltimate irony will be that JetBlue’s stock price will go so low that Spirit can buy it out. Now that would be a hoot.

      1. If Spirit bought out JetBlue’s planes and completely modified them (from the livery to the seats) to match the Spirit standard, the “NYC taxicab” livery (as Crank described it) would fit really well in JFK/NYC. ;-)

        Then again, I guess traditional taxicabs have started to become a bit of an anachronism, as there are increasing numbers of people who have little memory of life in major cities before Uber/Lyft/etc.

  11. FAA does attempt to limit ops per hour but level 2 is voluntary meaning the FAA does not have any enforcement mechanism.

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