United’s pandemic-era move to restart flights at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) is coming to an end.
The Chicago-based carried officially announced plans on Friday to pull out of the JFK Airport at the end of October. The carrier currently flies four daily flights from JFK, two to Los Angeles and two to San Francisco. These are known as some of the nation’s most premier and competitive routes.
When the service ends, United will consolidate its transcontinental operations at its Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) hub, where it has historically offered a robust schedule of multiple daily flights between the coasts.
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In an internal memo obtained by TPG and confirmed by a carrier spokesperson, United said that “given our current, too-small-to-be-competitive schedule out of JFK – coupled with the start of the Winter season where more airlines will operate their slots as they resume JFK flying – United has made the difficult decision to temporarily suspend service at JFK. “
Affected customers will be offered a refund or rebooking options.
This move shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise, as United had already warned that it might be forced to suspend service to New York’s busiest airport earlier this month.
At the end of October, the airline will lose the slots that currently allow it to operate from JFK – a key driver of the move. Slots are essentially permissions granted by the Federal Aviation Administration to allow an airline to land or depart at a given time at capacity-constrained airports, including JFK.
United’s 100 JFK employees have already been notified about the airline’s withdrawal, and the carrier promised that no one will lose their job if they’re willing to move to other nearby airports.
In a statement, the FAA shared that it “is dedicated to doing its part to safely expand New York City airports and airspace capacity. We will follow our fair and well-established process to award future slots to increase competition between airlines so passengers have more options. We are encouraged United will retain and relocate its JFK staff to its other New York City airports. “
United has historically served JFK for many years, but it pulled out of the airport in 2015 under the direction of former CEO Jeff Smisek. The withdrawal, since dubbed a “strategic mistake” by current CEO Scott Kirby, caused the airline to lose important (and lucrative) corporate contracts with some of its most valuable customers.
United strategically used the demand downturn associated with the pandemic to muscle its way back into Kennedy in March 2021. At the time, the airline was able to temporarily pick up eight slots – enough for two daily round-trip flights – from some international carriers that weren’t using them.
The airline relaunched service to JFK with one of its most premium jet, the “high-J” variant of the Boeing 767-300 that features 46 Polaris business-class seats, as well as a 22-seat Premium Plus cabin.
The airline struggled to fill many of the plane’s premium seats, leading to frequent fare sales and plenty of award and upgrade availability. To better match supply and demand, United switched to using a Boeing 757-200 on the JFK routes. This plane features just 16 Polaris pods in a less ideal 2-2 configuration.
But now that travel demand is returning, these carriers want their slots back, leaving United with no other option but to pull out of JFK.
Interestingly, United does still own 40 slots at JFK, but it leased them to Delta Air Lines in a long-term arrangement that doesn’t allow for United to take them back at this time.
United warned earlier in September that it might be forced to suspend service to JFK. At the time, the carrier shared an internal memo with its employees saying that “now that customer demand has surged back, the operators of those slots are resuming their use at the start of the winter season and beyond.”
After exhausting its options to obtain more permanent slots, Kirby sent a letter to acting FAA administrator Billy Nolen urging the agency to increase the slot cap at Kennedy. These discussions “have been constructive,” according to United, but it added that the “process to add additional capacity at JFK will take some time.”
“We think New York customers deserve more choices, and robust United service to JFK is good for our customers, our employees and our airline. As a result, we will continue our pursuit of a bigger and more desirable schedule for our customers and be ready to seize those opportunities if and when they surface, “the internal memo read.