Airline Plans for Summer in New York City Crystalize at a Higher Level Than You Might Expect

JFK - New York/JFK, LGA - New York/La Guardia

We are now one month removed from the Federal Aviation Administration’s announcement that it would beg airlines to reduce flying in the New York City area this summer to help relieve congestion. Most airlines have made adjustments, but the results weren’t exactly what I thought we’d see. It’s time for a breakdown using Cirium data.

The FAA announcement effectively asked airlines to fly less this summer due to a lack of staffing in air traffic control. To help ease congestion, FAA said airlines at all three of the primary New York airports could decide to not use up to 10 percent of their slots (or runway timings at Newark) and be able to keep them after the summer is over. This is a change from the normal “use it or lose it” policy, and I expected some airlines to take advantage.

In the end, nearly all airlines took advantage of the opportunity but it hasn’t resulted in a 10 percent reduction across the board when comparing year-over-year. Why? Well, let’s go to the numbers.

Let’s start with departures year-over-year from all three New York City airports. I took a sample week later in July to avoid any holiday impacts, and I focused on domestic departures since last year there were still significant hurdles internationally.

July Sample Week YoY Domestic Departures from New York Airports

Data via Cirium
Includes JFK/Laguardia/Newark Departures July 17-23, 2023 vs July 18-24, 2022

Might as well clear out the easy ones first…. Southwest has clearly decided not to engage. It has no Newark or JFK flying, so this is all LaGuardia slots, and it will be flying them all this summer. That’s not a surprise for an airline that just doesn’t have that many in the first place.

Then there’s American and JetBlue, both airlines I thought might not participate. But participate they did, and they have pulled their departures down in line with what you might expect to see. The other three airlines however, well, they may look a little different than expected.

Let’s start with United, because that’s an easy one. How is it that United is actually increasing flying? Well, we have to remember what happened last summer to put that in context.

United Domestic Newark Departures by Month

Back in the summer of 2019, United was running about 10,000 monthly domestic flights from Newark. Once air travel came roaring back lats year, it was ready to exceed that number. But then… gridlock. The airline quickly reduced domestic departures by 12 percent.

Only having to cut by 10 percent this year must feel like quite a victory for the airline. It is actually up over last year for that reason.

Spirit is up as well, but of course, that’s off a very small base. Spirit had bigger plans to grow, but it did scale those back a bit in recent weeks. Still, it has more flights than last year, and that’s in both Newark and LaGuardia. It’s just up less than it originally planned.

Lastly, we have Delta. What is up with Delta being nearly flat? The airline did reduce flying, including another 2 percent haircut last week to try to bolster its operation systemwide. But if we break airports down, there is a little more to consider here.

Newark is a rounding error for Delta, so no need to think about that. But at LaGuardia, departures are down 2.1 percent while JFK is actually up 1 percent. Delta spokesperson Drake Castaneda explains the JFK issue:

Last spring and even into the beginning of summer there were many restrictions on international travel and with many of our domestic flights into JFK carrying connections to/from international we scheduled lower levels of flying as a result.

International may be booming this year, but last year that was not the case. Put it this way. During the July sample week, international departures for Delta at JFK are up 22 percent over last year. With far fewer flights last year, you need fewer domestic departures to feed those flights. This year a lot more would have come back if not for the pulldown.

As for LaGuardia, it seems a bit murkier. Drake did say that summer planning was done during the peak of Omicron and “the demand environment was severely depressed.” But as far as I recall, the slot usage waiver from COVID times expired for domestic travel before last summer, so you couldn’t just opt to not fly them without there being risk.

Of course, slot rules don’t require 100 percent usage at all times, so there was some slack available for Delta. And let’s also remember that while LaGuardia is mostly domestic, there were Canadian flights which Delta could keep out of the schedule last summer using the international waiver. That would have at least had a minor downward impact on overall numbers at LaGuardia.

This wasn’t mentioned by Delta, but I also wonder if ongoing construction at the new terminal for Delta could have had an impact on what it could fly last year. But that’s just speculation.

Regardless, the current filed capacity suggests that FAA isn’t going to get nearly as much relief as it would have liked when compared to last year. During the sample week in July, overall departures (including international) from Newark are showing up 7.4 percent while JFK is up 3.9 percent. Only LaGuardia is actually down, but that’s by 2.3 percent.

Not that this is an issue for air traffic control, but airlines have dealt with this issue by upgauging to use larger airplanes this summer. That means seats are up 12 percent in Newark, 6 percent at JFK, and down only 1 percent at LaGuardia.

If FAA was hoping for relief versus last year’s stressed system, it isn’t getting that. And if travelers were hoping for more elbow room, they won’t be getting that either. At least growth will be lower than planned, so if there’s gridlock thanks to FAA failures to properly staff, just remember it could have been worse.

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19 comments on “Airline Plans for Summer in New York City Crystalize at a Higher Level Than You Might Expect

  1. cranky, did you happen to contact AA or B6 about the impact the NEA growth commitments to DOT? Strange time to drop departures given those commitments and the lawsuit.

    1. Julie – Nope, I can only assume that the FAA waivers must carry over to apply to the DOT agreement as well. Otherwise, this doesn’t make sense.

  2. What is maddening about the NYC issue is how Mayor Pete jumps all over the airlines when the airlines screw up, but his house is in complete disarray. Someone should invent a saying about glass houses and stones.

    1. I know this is a bit popular and cute to say, but airlines control their pay rates to attract people to come work for them. The Secretary of DOT doesn’t control that with ATC. Congress does. If pay is too low to attract controllers, there isn’t really a ton he can do if pay is the issue. He can’t just start random Controller Academies without, again, congressional funding approving it.

      1. The Secretary/Administration can advocate for creative solutions. He can work with Emery Riddle or UND to have these instituions train more ATC under guidance/directives of DOT. There is also the opportunity to lobby for military controllers during periods of peak demand/stress. The Secretary has to work within a system, but he can influence the process.

    2. “Mayor Pete”? Did you mean Secretary Buttigieg, who was sworn in as the 19th Secretary of Transportation on February 3, 2021?
      See Jake’s comment below. Congress funds the DOT/FAA, and without said long-term funding, important projects like hiring/training of controllers and updating antiquated software can’t occur.

      1. And to echo Jake and Jefe, IMHO this is a big argument for why the air traffic control function should be spun out into its own non-profit with airline, government, and general aviation representation on the board.

        When it was bandied about every major airline except DL was in favor, and who knows maybe with their greater NYC focus and other busy airports they’d also be onboard this time.

        The quick advantages of this is it allows wages to rise with the market, for the organization to have a better long term budget for planning, better ability to higher in house development staff, oh and it gets the FAA out of the strange pickle of regulating itself.

        The FAA should still provide safety supervision just like they do for airlines and airports.

  3. Additional July reductions could be coming as June crew bid is just getting submitted ~this week; perhaps more cuts are coming? Maybe June would be a better snapshot?

  4. This highlights that the NYC market is still highly competitive and reinforces what multiple airlines noted in their earnings calls that the NYC market is rebounding after a slow restart. Increasing requirements by companies for workers to return to the office is undoubtedly helping.

    It is also noteworthy that JFK airport is still the best equipped airport to handle the high volume even considering the high percentage of widebodies it sees. LGA and EWR are both effectively two runway airports; AA, B6 and DL have the greatest potential to spread their largest operations over 5 runways while UA still tries to fit the majority of its NYC operation onto 2 runways.

    Given that JFK delays tend to mount late in the day while LGA and EWR are much more likely to start in the morning and continue if weather remains constant, this summer will be a test about how much capacity ATC wants to push through NYC on an ongoing basis. As LGA construction winds down and if the number of flights remains depressed due to ATC demands, there might be a growing push to start relaxing or remove the perimeter rule and use the slots more effectively using a higher percentage of mainline aircraft

    1. JFK can run operations with three runways most of the time and congestion isn’t as big an issue as it is with EWR and LGA, hence most of the cuts are at LGA and EWR. Also, LGA has been the slowest airport in the region to recover and airlines would probably jump at the chance to ease their slot usage requirements there since their LGA ops are hurting.

    2. Tim, the ATC delays don’t always line up that way. Today, as an example, EWR is at 34 arrival rate with average delays of 31 minutes.

      JFK is at a 28 arrival rate with average delays of 273 minutes. DL will be having a rough day there.

      UA has made EWR a huge priority to increase reliability. Having so much of the capacity there, they can take steps that will benefit the operation, without worrying about B6 or AA to not play ball.

      1. Because JFK was forced into running an ILS 13L operation because of weather. Might as well close the airport if you’re forced to this configuration. Even LGA was forced to land on Runway 13, which you almost never see. This only happens a handful of times a year.

  5. Brett, do you have similar data but related to seat counts versus departure counts? I’m curious how much the airlines will offset less departures with bigger planes.

    1. Matt – That’s in the post. They are upgauging.

      “Not that this is an issue for air traffic control, but airlines have dealt with this issue by upgauging to use larger airplanes this summer. That means seats are up 12 percent in Newark, 6 percent at JFK, and down only 1 percent at LaGuardia.”

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