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.
And now here’s a look at Newark.
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.