United Airlines Not Returning To New York JFK In February After All

United Airlines admits it made a mistake leaving New York JFK six years ago. They’ve been trying to get back in, and the pandemic gave them a chance. They announced service but delayed it last month. Now they’re delaying it again, and scaling back their initial flying to both San Francisco and Los Angeles to less than daily. There’s no word yet on whether they’ve found permanent flying rights from the airport, either.

United’s Mistake Walking Away From New York JFK In 2015

United pulled out of New York JFK entirely in fall 2015. When current United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby took over as the airline’s President he declared the decision to leave to have been a mistake.

  • They had been losing money on their limited flights at New York JFK
  • But the bean counters looked only at revenue and expense for the those particular flights and missed the bigger picture — they lost lucrative corporate contracts that made other routes profitable when they dropped service to the airport.

United lost business from Disney and Time Warner to American not just on Los Angeles – New York but also Los Angeles – London and myriad other service as well.

They had retreated to their fortress hub at Newark, where they operated with higher margins than New York competitors, but even that came under attack as the FAA dropped level 3 slot controls and opened more competition.

United sold their slots at New York JFK, and their space was taken over in part by Alaska. They couldn’t get back into the airport.

United’s November 2020 Plan To Return To The Airport

With Covid-19 meaning reduced flying – some of which will be permanent – United found a way back in. They announced a plan in November 2020 to offer two daily Los Angeles and San Francisco transcons with premium-heavy Boeing 767-300ER aircraft out of their old home in terminal 7 starting February 1.

New York JFK departures:

Flight Depart Time Arrive Time
UA 521

UA 523

JFK 8:00 a.m.

5:10 p.m.

San Francisco 11:37 a.m.

8:47 p.m.

UA 515

UA 517

JFK 9:00 a.m.
7:00 p.m.
Los Angeles 12:29 p.m.

10:29 p.m.

Flights to New York JFK:

Flight Depart Time Arrive Time
UA 520

UA 522

San Francisco 9:10 a.m.

1:30 p.m.

JFK 5:40 p.m.

10:00 p.m.

UA 514

UA 516

Los Angeles 7:30 a.m.

2:30 p.m.

JFK 3:50 p.m.

10:50 p.m.


New York JFK Terminal 7

The aircraft will offer:

  • 46 business class seats with direct-aisle access
  • 22 premium economy seats
  • 47 economy plus (extra legroom coach) seats
  • 52 coach seats

This was an early sign that even the airline retrenching the most during the pandemic is looking towards its competitive future, and that we’re likely to see more competition as airlines have to work hard to attract limited passengers as air travel begins to resume in a meaningful way after Covid-19.

Two daily flights isn’t going to be enough for the corporate market when that business returns, but it’s a foothold for the airline that they can grow from and work to obtain permanent and additional slots.

A First Delay, And Now A Second

Last month United announced it wouldn’t actually launch service February 1, after all, delaying JFK until February 28. That’s not going to happen either. With the pandemic continuing to dampen demand, United is again pushing back the start of JFK service.

  • They’re saying they’ll launch March 28, 2021

  • And instead of 28 weekly flights (2 a day to each destination) they’ll only offer 10: 5 flights a week to San Francisco and 5 to Los Angeles

United tells Zach Griff,

Due to the continued impact of COVID-19 on our industry, we are delaying the start of our service between New York’s JFK Airport and our hubs in San Francisco and Los Angeles until March 28, 2021. Throughout the pandemic, United has been a leader in nimbly reshaping our schedule to match customer demand, and we look forward to offering this convenient service and a best-in-class product from New York City to the west coast.

When United returns to New York JFK it won’t be with daily San Francisco and Los Angeles service. The airline also hasn’t said whether they’ve found permanent slots that will let them remain in the market long-term, although one opportunity is the American-JetBlue slot divestiture required by the Department of Transportation in order to approve their Northeastern alliance.

United Eventually Needs To Be At JFK

As someone who grew up there, ultimately Newark isn’t New York. New York Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia once refused to get off a plane at Newark Airport, because his ticket promised he’d travel to New York. He was at the time pushing for construction of what became LaGuardia airport.

While Newark is convenient to parts of the city, especially Staten Island, many New Yorkers don’t even consider it as an option. United Airlines needs to be at JFK, and their Star Alliance partners need them to be as well – even just for connections to San Francisco and Los Angeles.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. For me as a New Yorker, the problem with arriving at Newark in either the morning or evening rush or departing in the evening rush (which in normal times seems to begin at 3PM) is that the traffic through the tunnels (or even the GW Bridge) can involve hour long delays. While traffic to JFK is certainly no picnic at those times, it is relatively predictable and there are multiple alernate routes one can take if something serious occurs on any of the approaches. At mid-day or late at night, Newark is a fine alternative. Otherwise it’s an unfavorable crap shoot from Manhattan.

  2. Even without JFK, United was the market leader in terms of share and fare on NYC-LA and NYC-SF for the past several years.
    Their Star Alliance partners at JFK absolutely do not need them. Most of the Star Carriers at JFK fly to LAX and SFO anyway, and get most of their pax on their JFK flights from the local area. In addition, most of them fly to Newark, so if they really need feed, they can simply get UA feed at Newark. Most of the Star carriers also go to Chicago, so if they really need feed they could get the feed at Chicago.
    United is not starting this to provide low yield flow to star partners at JFK; it’s positioning itself for the higher yield point to point traffic between NYC and these two west coast markets. You can see that evidenced by the type of airplane it’s using. These are nice to haves, not need to haves, and United is simply taking advantage of a down time in aviation demand to position themselves to extend their already dominant position in the NYC-LA/SF markets to a few additional geographies.

  3. I never thought I’d see UA (my old flame) back at JFK. And 767’s no less. This is where I came in on the old 762’s back in 1989. I loved the P.S. service, but disliked the 757 one aisle plane.

  4. Re: slots – wasn’t JFK only slot restricted in the evenings due to the TATL bank? Maybe less of an issue now.

    Oh, nice to have more simple arguments again like Henry LAX sprinting to the defense of UA at all times…some things never change

  5. Let’s not forget JetBlue’s new flights at United’s fortress hub, Newark, including nonstops to/from LAX & SFO using its Mint configured Airbus A321s.

  6. @Alex

    Yes, similar to the P.S. transcons from EWR, Premium Economy is being sold as a separate cabin and service. PE fares appear to be quite high, pricing only slightly below Business Class.

  7. United: Let’s start JFK flying while there is a slot waiver due to COVID-19
    Also United: We’ve delayed our launch due to COVID-19

  8. My second cousin lives on the upper east side of nyc and is a GS on United. She flies out of LGA for all of her Chicago trips, and has zero trouble going to Newark. She likes the way GS takes care of her.

    Star alliance carriers at jfk do not need United feeed. They either fly to lax or sfo on their own or can get lax/sfo feed at other United hubs such as Chicago, Newark, Washington, or Houston. United is absolutely not in the business of providing low yield fees to partners. That’s not a reason for them to restart jfk.
    United did not fully lose any corporate contracts. They simply renegotiated the terms of the contracts. I’ve worked in that department before and know that it’s very very rare to lose a large corporate customer entirely. They all contract with multiple airlines as no one airline can satisfy all the needs of their travelers.
    United going back to jfk is an ego and nostalgia thing, but it’s not really necessary right now as theirs no demand. In the long term it’s a nice but not necessary. Even though it was at Newark, United still commanded the highest average fare on flights from
    NYC to la and SF per the dot fare data. This is just chest beating and ego. And a nice to have.

  9. One big problem with having a bean counter like Kirby run things is that if something is not measurable on a spreadsheet it becomes an abstract and therefore worthy of less consideration. Kirby wasn’t the particular bean counter in the exiting JFK fiasco but United leaving then trying to reenter JFK shows that having his type in charge can be a terrible mistake. They’re great for advice but not so much on ultimate decision making.

  10. @J – agree and the other card in the mix is Jetblue starting up at EWR – this is retaliatory signal on them and the AA/B6 alliance

  11. Jason,
    according to DOT data, Delta was the largest carrier in the NYC (3 airports) to LAX market based on local market revenue.
    United was the largest carrier on the same basis to SFO.

    Delta is operating 5 767 flights/day right now on JFK-LAX.

  12. Christian’s point above is well taken, as anyone who has done consulting in the area has seen multiple times. You can do a lot of analysis and revenue management, and it is not necessarily bad and may really help, but you never know what you are missing and you should not take it as perfect. I remember an instance of a company asking why their sophisticated pricing software seemed to be leaving a lot of a certain product unsold. And the answer was that it did not accurately take into account how and why people made the particular purchase in question.

    I think I frequently saw this pre-COVID when I looked at lots of international airfare pricing on the same routes for UA and competitors. I didn’t think the expensive software was always smarter than I was – I thought that it could just as easily (particularly for UA) be making a mistake because of its limitations. Probably some of that was just acceptable breakage. But as in the JFK slots, sometimes well-structured analysis can still lead to the wrong result an a material way.

  13. In the FWIW Mode…West Coast to NYC nonstop return with the arbitrarily chosen departure date of Monday, May 10th, returning Friday, May 124th

    San Francisco to New York:
    —> American: SFO-JFK, 5 departures; SFO-EWR, 0. Total 5
    —> Alaska: SFO-JFK, 4 departures; SFO-EWR, 3. Total 7
    —> Delta: SFO-JFK, 7 departures; SFO-EWR, 0. Total 7
    —> JetBlue: SFO-JFK, 6 departures; SFO-EWR, 2. Total 8
    —> United: SFO-JFK, 2 departures; SFO-EWR, 15. Total 17 *****

    UA is showing two flights into JFK (UA520 and UA522 on 767s). But if one adds Alaska’s flights (as a OneWorld partner by then), and JetBlue (via their arrangement with AA, though not a OneWorld member), AA+AS+B6 = 20 flights (15 to JFK; 5 to EWR). That gives the combination 45.5% of the departures, with three-quarters of those going into JFK. UA has 38.6% of the flights but only two into JFK. (Obviously there are the same number of return flights from each carrier.)

    There are NO nonstops OAK-NYC, but DL runs one daily r/t out of SJC.

    /\/\/\/\/\/\/\

    Los Angeles to New York (same dates as above):
    —> American: LAX-JFK, 10 departures; LAX-EWR, 0. Total 10
    —> Alaska: LAX-JFK, 5 departures; LAX-EWR, 3. Total 8
    —> Delta: LAX-JFK, 9 departures; LAX-EWR, 0. Total 9
    —> JetBlue: LAX-JFK, 10 departures; LAX-EWR, 4. Total 14 *****
    —> United: LAX-JFK, 2 departures; LAX-EWR, 12. Total 14 *****

    Here B6 and UA are tied for the total number of daily nonstops, but — again — when you combine AA + AS + B6, they have 32 of the total 55 daily non stops, or 69% of the total number of departures — and 78% of those are into JFK. UA has only 25.5%. of the total departures, with only two flights into JFK.

    There are no flights to NYC from LGB, BUR, or ONT, but UA has four additional flights to EWR out of SNA.

    /\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\

    Seattle to New York (same dates as above):
    —> American: SEA-JFK,0 departures; SEA-EWR, 0. Total 0
    —> Alaska: SEA-JFK, 4 departures; SEA-EWR,2. Total 6 *****
    —> Delta: SEA-JFK, 3 departures; SEA-EWR, 0. Total 3
    —> JetBlue: SEA-JFK, 2 departures; SEA-EWR, 0. Total 2
    —> United: SEA-JFK, 0 departures; SEA-EWR, 3. Total 3

    One might expect AS to be the dominant player out of SEA, and they are with 43% of the departures — *and* they are the only carrier to serve both JFK and EWR. AA offers no nonstops whatsoever out of SEA to NYC, but combine their AS and B6 partners, and they control 57% of the flights, versus 21% for DL and UA respectively.

    Presented as food for thought re: who is, versus who will be, the dominant “powers” in transcontinental flights…

  14. Jason,
    future schedules are meaningless beyond 30-45 days.
    My statement was based on FLOWN REVENUE not scheduled flights.
    We won’t know flown revenue – based on DOT data – for the current period until late summer 2021.
    For the 3rd quarter (the most recent that has been reported), Delta’s average fares were much higher than the rest of the industry and total revenue carried ended up being about the same even though Delta carried far fewer passengers.
    American is a codeshare partner with B6 and with AS. They cannot share revenue which means a passenger’s revenue on a transcon flight is allocated to only one of the three airlines.

    The beauty of the airline industry is that it produces enormous amounts of data, much of which becomes public at some point.

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