United Says JFK Can Handle More Flights. Can It?

United

Not long ago, United was busy arguing that there were too many flights scheduled at Newark and flights needed to be cut back. Now, it is preparing to make the exact opposite argument on the other side of the Hudson. United has sent a letter to employees saying that JFK needs more flights, and if United doesn’t get some, it’ll leave the airport once again.

Below I’ve pasted the letter in its entirety. (If you can’t see it, download it here.)

You’ll remember that United had served JFK for ages, but once the Continental merger went through, the airline began to re-examine its presence at the airport considering it had a mega-hub over at Newark. By that time, United had already shrunk JFK down. London and Tokyo service ended in 2006. In October of 2014, United ended its long-lived service to Washington/Dulles which was meant to provide feed into the Dulles hub. And in October of 2015, the last remaining flights to San Francisco and Los Angeles ended, marking the end of United service at the airport.

At the time, United CEO Scott Kirby absolutely loved this idea… because he was still at American. He figured United leaving the JFK market would only help American to get more of that important business travel market that did not want to go to Newark. Once he got to United, he publicly said that he wanted to get back in, but he wasn’t able to acquire slots. That changed during the pandemic.

With service down during the pandemic, United was able to get a toehold back again. It went to its old home in Terminal 7 and after some delays, finally flew in March 2021. Since then, United has flown 2x daily to both LA and San Francisco which is, as it notes in the letter, significantly less than the other airlines in the market. That, according to United, is hugely problematic, and if it can’t get more slots to become competitive, it will pull out entirely at the end of the summer season in late October.

United says it has been trying to get more permanent slots, but it can’t. So now it is calling on the FAA to make more slots available, creating them out of thin air. Isn’t JFK completely jammed? Not according to United.

Newark has three runways and a “desirable” limit of 79 operations per hour. Meanwhile during peak times, four-runway JFK is capped at 81 operations per hour. That seems strange, so I turned to an expert, Mark Ahasic, President of Ahasic Aviation Advisors, LLC to help explain. I think this sums up Mark’s feelings quite well.

The presence of LGA airspace immediately to the west of JFK makes JFK a 3-runway airport, even though it has 4 runways.

Damn you, LaGuardia, always messing things up. And it is certainly true that the placement of LaGuardia compared to JFK creates quite the crunch.

Even with that realization, what does it mean for actual capacity? Again, Mark comes to the rescue. He put together charts showing the max movements (ATMs) per hour in different conditions. Here’s what JFK looks like.

via Ahasic Aviation Advisors, LLC

And now here’s a look at Newark.

via Ahasic Aviation Advisors, LLC

There’s a lot to digest here, but obviously you can’t just set slots at the maximum possible capacity or you’ll end up snarled on days that don’t have perfect weather. At the same time you can’t be overly conservative at the minimum, because you’ll end up with plenty of good weather days that have nothing but room.

The way Mark looks at it, “Given that JFK’s highest-capacity runway configuration provides 6.9% more ATM capacity than EWR’s highest-capacity configuration, one could argue that the FAA hourly flight cap at JFK should be 6.9% greater than the EWR hourly flight cap of 79 ATM/hour → 84.5 ATM/hour (versus the FAA’s current cap of 81 ATM/hour).”

That may not sound like a lot, but it would add up quickly, and United doesn’t need there to be that many more flights for it to get enough slots to satisfy its needs. Still, United really pours it on thick in ths letter, making it sound like that extra runway at JFK is really something huge.

So, the verdict is that yes, there should be room to squeeze some more operations out of JFK. The airport hasn’t seen anything change in that regard since 2008, and it is probably time for the FAA to revisit this. United is just trying to shine the spotlight on the issue.

The story could end here, but I’ll add one little piece of information that Mark shared. Those 4 runways at JFK could be used simultaneously according to a report put together by the Port Authority and the FAA. You can read the report and dream of what could be, but consider this. With the recategorization of wake turbulence allowing less spacing between aircraft, hourly movements could rise to 150 or more in the best conditions.

If that were to happen, United could definitely get its slots. It could also start a new hub on the side if it felt like it. But until that happens, we’ll keep living in a world where wringing out a couple extra flights per hour would be considered a victory, and one that should be possible.

42 comments on “United Says JFK Can Handle More Flights. Can It?

  1. B6 does 12 daily (really?) and AA does 8 to LAX, how many does UA need to be competitive? “We’re losing money, we need to fly more” isn’t a typical argument but I see the point here, UA needs better schedule coverage.

    Also can someone explain the wake turbulence thing?

    1. If you’ve ever felt your car get sucked/pushed towards or away from a tractor trailer on the highway when you approach the tractor trailer from the rear in another lane (or if you’ve felt something similar when you’re biking on the side of a road and a large vehicle passes you), think of wake turbulence as like that, but much worse and more dangerous, and planes have crashed because of it.

      To a large extent, the number of airliners that can takeoff or land from a given runway (or travel through a given stretch of air) is driven by the minimum separation distances between them. These, in turn, are often driven by the minimums established by different wake turbulence limits. Put another way, even if Aircraft A lands (and is clear of the runway) while using only 1 nautical mile of runway length, Aircraft B (taking off behind Aircraft A) may need to be positioned 4-8 miles behind Aircraft B (thus reducing the number of planes that can be landed per hour) in order to avoid dangerous turbulence from the aircraft flying ahead of it (especially if Aircraft B is small compared to Aircraft A).

      Regulators are working on more refined rules (tighter limits that are more specific to aircraft speeds, weights, wingspans, etc than the previous classifications) in order to allow for tighter spacing between aircraft, which would thus increase the number of aircraft per hour that can takeoff/land/fly through a given spot.

      1. Thanks for the clear explanation.

        I also had questions on wake turbulence Do the current limits at JFK reflect the fact that there are more international airlines there, and thus more widebodies and thus more wake turbulence and thus a lower limit? And do Mark’s calculations assume a standardized/average mix of aircraft type/size?

        1. Private pilot here; I’d be surprised if the number of movements per hour is determined by the size of the aircraft (and by extension, the wake turbulence the aircraft produce). Other factors impact spacing for wake turbulence. For example, if there’s a decent crosswind or the wind is offset the center line (versus coming right down the runway), the wake turbulence will dissipate much faster since it’s literally being blown off the runway. So it’s hard to make generalizations but when I’m in my little Cessna lined up behind a 777 (happened recently in RFD), I definitely take my time starting my roll.

          Wake turbulence is not something to take lightly. Consider the example of the business jet that flew 1,000 feet underneath an A380 a few years back. They say that aviation consists of years of boredom punctuated by seconds of sheer terror. I can’t even imagine what those pilots thought as their plane dropped 9,000 feet, rotating multiple times and causing multiple systems to fail. The fact that the aircraft could not “be restored to an airworthy condition” speaks to the stresses put on the aircraft during the recovery.
          https://flightsafety.org/a380-wake-turbulence-encounter/

          Final comment – I lived in the same dorm on the same hall as Mark in college. He knew more about commercial aviation at age 18 than most people learn in a lifetime. Glad to see he’s continuing to share that knowledge.

          1. Your comment about lining up in a Cessna behind a 777 reminds me of “Kennedy Steve” (an ATC at JFK who retired 5 years ago, and who was a minor celebrity in some avgeek circles for his ability to squeeze in one-liners while still doing his job).

            Kennedy Steve once told an A380, “After the single engine Cessna, continue via BRAVO, caution propwash,” which made the 380 pilot do a double-take and stammer before repeating the instructions back. Still one of the best quips I’ve heard.

          2. Wake turbulence needs to be taken extremely seriously. Wake turbulence from a Boeing 757 caused a much smaller private jet to crash on approach to SNA some years ago. If I recall correctly, the crash claimed the lives of In N Out Burger executives.

        2. Hi Simon,

          The data I presented in my charts comes directly from the FAA. It’s their declared capacity for each JFK runway configuration under each of the different meteorological conditions. The JFK-specific fleet mix composition is an input to the FAA’s determination of the Aircraft Arrival Rate (AAR) and Aircraft Departure Rate (ADR) capacities for each config.

          Regards,
          Mark

          1. It is a good chart but to be most helpful it would have the incidence of each category as that tells you how difficult the challenge is–as is I suspect the chart overstates the operational challenges by having each one with the same assumed probability.

            1. Steve — that a good point and something I thought about… determining the weighted average hourly ATM capacity of the airport based on the frequency of each runway config/weather. I don’t believe such frequencies are readily available on FAA.gov, but I believe I have some other data that references them.

          2. Do you feel that slots should be set at a lower level so “bad days” are “normal days”, meaning don’t allocate slots for the best of times, but the bad (not worst). I’ve felt that way for years.

  2. Oops forgot to ask my question.

    Could you please elaborate on “recategorization of wake turbulence allowing less spacing between aircraft”? DId the FAA or others decide wake turbulence was not as pronounced as previously thought so they allowed planes to fly closer together on approach and to takeoff sooner after the previous departure? Is there a standard separation distance/time or does it depend on the aircraft? Obviously widebodies leave more in their wake than RJs.

    Many thanks as always!

  3. The trial date for the NEA lawsuit is currently scheduled for September 26. That’s less than 3 weeks from today (Sept. 8). One can’t help but wonder if this isn’t part of a ploy to extract a few slots from JetBlue and/or American.

  4. I find it interesting that United is not trying to have the perimeter rule at LGA overturned. Should the LGA perimeter be abolished, they could fly between SFO, LAX and LGA in addition to the relatively few services they have at JFK. I know LGA is also slot constrained, but any west coast services at LGA could likely be marketed very nicely as complementary to those at JFK.

    Does anyone know how Spirit’s Saturday-only LGA-LAX service is doing? I would be curious. It is an interesting way to take advantage of the Saturday exemption in the LGA perimeter.

    When Breeze starts its HPN-LAX service, it will also be interesting to see their load factors. If the LGA perimeter were abolished, some (not all, but some) of the business case for using HPN to get to the west coast would be mitigated by the ability to use LGA for many people.

    And Cranky (and Mark) – your use of Mark Ahasic’s dataset here was incredible and well worth it. A very cogent and well-presented set of data! Very much appreciated!

    1. I don’t know of any airlines which would want LGA’s perimeter rule lifted. It would dilute UA’s transcon service at EWR by allowing other airlines to offer the same service at a more convenient airport–an airport which UA does not hold enough slots to compete effectively. UA is happy to serve the furthest west point out of LGA (DEN) and serve high priced connections.

      1. Anthony: I am unsure about that – the fact that United wants those slots so badly at JFK indicates (to me) that they recognize the need for an east-of-Hudson transcon presence. If JFK can’t accommodate that, then the lifting of the perimeter rule at LGA might. It’s a tradeoff between how “diluted” the EWR market gets and how much business they feel they are losing with such a weak east-of-Hudson transcon presence. Clearly, United is willing to risk diluting its own EWR service with a ramping up of service levels at JFK, so a removal of the LGA perimeter is something I thought they might at least put on the table.

        Given the number of slots at LGA that United has (and I understand it is also quite constrained), a mix of transcons from LGA and JFK (should the perimeter at LGA be lifted) might work for all parties involved. I think they might be okay – maybe – giving up a few ORD frequencies for LAX? In any event – should the perimeter at LGA be lifted, then United wouldn’t perhaps be so desperate to get back into Kennedy.

        I think that United REALLY regrets the 2015 retreat from Kennedy. The idea that a fortress hub at Newark would be sufficient with zero presence at Kennedy was (in my opinion) folly. Makes all those taxicab-rooftop “time to EWR” ads from the beforetimes seem foolish, given JFK’s proximity to Westchester, Connecticut and Long Island. United (I guess) thought people only travel to and from Manhattan! ;)

        1. Maybe UA could try adding ISP-LAX service? That would be convenient for those who live on Long Island.

    2. The perimeter rule is there for a reason and nothing has happened for it to be lifted. United is mostly my airline of choice but the mistakes (leaving JFK in the first place) and the whining (crying about slots at EWR) really are tired.

  5. United’s stockholders don’t pay the executives to run the nation’s ATC system. They pay them to run an airline.
    Even based on financial metrics from the most recent quarter, UAL did the worst job of the big 4 airlines in generating net profits.
    For the month of June, according to DOT data, JFK had a 65% on-time ratio, well below historic levels and below nationwide levels although better than EWR’s 60% on-time ratio. LGA won the NYC on-time race at just 67%. AA, B6 and DL all operated less flights at JFK than their slots allowed in June.
    No NYC airport can handle more traffic right now. We can debate the reasons but the operational performance that has been the lightning rod of Secretary Pete’s ire should be centered on NYC. When other airlines can generate OT percentages 20% higher at other hubs, the problem is NYC.
    Let’s also not forget that Scott Kirby was the architect of the DL DCA/US LGA slot deal that ended up giving DL one quarter of LGA’s slots for $60 million dollars. Then United, not under Kirby’s leadership, decided to leave JFK and did a slot swap with DL that ended up giving DL another dozen plus JFK slots for nothing in return because UA still didn’t learn even after the DL-US slot deal that the DOJ does not approve slot deals that increase a carrier’s supermajority of slots at slot-controlled airports.
    UA and only UA chose to walk away from one of the 3 NYC airports and is paying the price for their failure to understand that the NYC market requires a presence at all 3 NYC airports – which AA, B6 and DL all have.
    Telling the FAA that JFK can handle more slots deflects from the complete strategic failure that was UA’s decision to leave JFK and the fact that UA’s self-proclaimed post-covid strategy of rapid regrowth of capacity backfired badly and resulted in lower margin performance that AA – and degraded operational performance in NYC.
    If JFK eventually can afford more capacity, then slot controls need to be removed so B6 and DL can add more flights, new carriers can enter the market, and the AA-B6 NEA is not protected by slot swapping that benefits just 2 airlines. Removing the LGA slot perimeter (which is a Port Authority, not FAA rule) would benefit far more airlines than those that just serve JFK.
    United needs to let the FAA figure out the airport capacity issues at JFK with the potential for UA being detrimentally impacted for the same reason that UA had to figure out that having the FAA remove slot controls at EWR because of UA’s underutilization of slots created demand that neither UA or other carriers could possibly push through the system.

      1. Not to mention that I’m pretty sure that the sainted DL executives have written the occasional letter to the FAA.

        Like when they went begging for even more waivers for flying their slots like a month ago. It is to laugh!

      2. Ghost,
        there is a big difference between where revenue or income comes from and who pays the bills. Customers don’t pay executives any more than your employer pays your mortgage. The proxy statement for any large corporation should make it clear that shareholders choose the executive team and board and nowhere in UAL’s proxy statements does it say anything about running ATC or serving in an advisory capacity to the FAA.

        Bill,
        there is nothing saintly or devilish about companies petitioning government officials to do something that is in the company’s best interst.
        But let’s be clear that Delta’s request for the continuation of slot exemptions did not solely or even largely benefit Delta; every federal slot holder in the US benefits and, in fact, American has more slots that it is not using by FAA slot requirements not just as part of covid impact – including at DCA – but also at LGA and JFK which is what was the impetus for the NEA which the DOT blessed as part of their desire to see improved slot usage.

        Despite all the political aspects, the only real consideration for increased slots or exemptions should be solely the operational ability of the FAA to administer the airspace at and around the 3 remaining federally slot controlled airports – LGA, JFK and DCA. Even if you go back to DOT data 10 years ago, the NYC airports have significantly underperformed in on-time compared to the rest of the US and EWR in particular has been at the bottom, even when it was slot-controlled.
        The FAA didn’t wreck EWR’s operation by removing slot controls; the on-time percentage has remained pretty constant.
        JFK does better than EWR but nowhere near national averages or even near DCA’s on-time
        There is no justification for saying that because EWR’s on-time sucks and there are no slot controls so anyone can get in, we as a country need to further degrade the already poor operational performance of JFK and, because of its proximity, also LGA, because UAL doesn’t have access to JFK because of UAL’s own decisions.
        Using that logic, the number of slots at DCA should be increased because their on-time isn’t as bad and alot of carriers don’t have access or have near as much as they want.

    1. That is a really interesting question!

      Guessing it’s pretty far off if they are going this route but would be interesting to know regardless.

  6. Interesting point about the LGA airspace. I guess this explains why I once had a 45-minute flight from EWR to JFK (on a TWA 747), going pretty far south before turning west and then back north to JFK.

  7. Imagine what could be done at JFK if LGA were closed. Increasing hourly ops from 81 to 150 would nearly replace LGA capacity.
    Expanding JFK into Jamaica Bay has been discussed (and opposed by environmental concerns) for over 50 years. Doing so would greatly improve efficiency and safety of NYC airspace!

    1. Bravenav – Sorry, I must respectfully disagree. LaGuardia will never close as long as commercial aviation is a viable mode. Because:

      1) “Nearly replacing” LGA’s capacity is a non-starter – bottom line: the closure of LGA would not result in a net increase of slots at JFK equal to or greater than the zeroing out of LGA. The last thing this region needs is to reduce total capacity in any way, I feel.

      2) Ground transportation access and the O-D numbers show that LGA is “uncloseable”.

      As I have mentioned before, LaGuardia’s O-D traffic has (in some years) been comparable to Newark Liberty’s. LGA’s proximity to Midtown Manhattan and certainly to the Westchester and Connecticut suburbs essentially preclude its closure. Even if the world’s best public transit access to and from JFK and Manhattan were to be built, the level of auto traffic between the aforementioned suburban areas (and parts of Long Island) and LGA would cause quite a traffic issue if it all were to somehow need to get to JFK. The equity issues alone in terms of added traffic through Jamaica and South Ozone Park would guarantee so many protests that I can’t even begin to think about it.

      3) God willing, ATC safety has not been an issue (since the United DC-8/TWA Constellation wreck) and will continue not to be. If anything, as ATC technology evolves (hopefully) with the ability to provide more precise routes, the proximity of LGA and JFK to each other will become even less of an issue over time.

      4) The ecological health of Jamaica Bay (a wildlife refuge) is not something to be treated in a cavalier manner. The expansion of JFK into Jamaica Bay is appropriately seen as a non-starter, and the opportunity to make “Idlewild” even larger and close LGA passed long ago – and that was when traffic was even lower!

      Let’s be frank – the closure of Flushing Airport (near LGA) and Floyd Bennett Field (near JFK, and only for fixed wing aircraft, anyway, as the NYPD helicopter unit is based there) is the best we’re going to get in terms of “simplifying” airspace in this region. The proximity of Teterboro to EWR is likely also a capacity concern, but as long as it stays open for the PJs then you can bet LGA will stay open for us plebes. The real head-scratcher is how Linden Airport is still open, so close to EWR!

      My two cents.

    2. Where would you park these 150 movements per hour? Gate space is extremely limited at JFK. Unlike European airports, slots do not come with guaranteed gate/CBP accommodations. Remember what happened in 2018 when flights were waiting for hours for gates after landing after a blizzard?

  8. Many thanks to CF and Mark Ahasic for an excellent run-down – but thanks to the many commentaries added above!
    This (IMHO) is the very best of the Cranky Flier – having many very knowledgeable opinions join in – without any acrimonious comments and responses!
    Thanks to all of you!

  9. Who cares if UA pulls out (again). Maybe that will help ease the take-off delays a little.

  10. Could I please have a simple explanation, sans statistical arguments and mini-graphics, of what makes JFK essentially a three runways airport? Those little runway configuration ideograms, pretty as they are, do not connect to approach/departure procedures, so I cannot see the LGA impact on them. What is different between the JFK/LGA relationship and the SFO/OAK relationship? SFO routinely uses all four runways, including standard departures directly across the top of OAK airspace.

    I used to dispatch flights in and out of LGA, so I’m familiar with its standard patterns.

  11. If JFK is essentially a 3 runway airport, is EWR essentially a 2 runway airport? The crosswind runway doesn’t seem to be used very often.

    Is there an end date for the lease of UA’s JFK slots to DL?

    Last question, is 6 weeks even enough time to work through the case and the ability to give UA more slots? Doesn’t seem there will be a decision by the end of October, which is when the slot waiver extension ends and UA will have no choice but to leave JFK, regardless of what they want.

    1. the only way UA will get permanent slots at JFK in 6 weeks is if AA and B6 agree to reduce schedules and divest slots in order to settle the NEA lawsuit. Given that the number of flights AA and B6 individually or collectively is not even the focus of the DOJ’s lawsuit, the chances are slim to none that UA will succeed at this effort.
      By sending essentially a last minute letter to the FAA and trying to get employees onboard, this is just a feeble attempt to say “we tried” when they ultimately have known for months that their return to JFK hasn’t worked financially because they came in with the weakest schedule on the routes they compete on, thinking they would win customers over because of their name.
      All of what UA has to say about the capacity they think JFK can accommodate has to be viewed through their decision to walk away and then their attempts to get back into the airport.
      If JFK really can handle more traffic, it is the FAA’s decision as a neutral party, to make that determination and it is also far from a given that, if JFK can handle more capacity, that it should go to United.
      Given that United is a legacy carrier operating routes which multiple other airlines already serve, there is little reason to change the slot rules based on United’s request.
      In contrast, slot rules at Newark were changed in order to allow low cost competition into the market and because slot usage requirements were not being met.

    1. Dan – Eh, makes it easier to price. I would hope that airlines would still consider them co-terminals for reaccommodation purposes, and searching doesn’t have to change either. I suppose we’ll see how it gets adopted.

  12. While it’s certainly true that LGA airspace impacts JFK operations there are configurations that would allow a 4 runway configuration. The problem is ATC at JFK simply refuses to consider those configurations. Not to mention that we regularly encounter flight delays into JFK for “volume” even when it’s CAVU VFR and JFK is in its preferred 3 runway configuration.

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