United Airlines Will Run 32 New York-DC Flights A Day To Squat Their Slots

New York LaGuardia, New York JFK and Washington National airports are ‘slot controlled’. That means there are limits on the number of takeoffs and landings at each airport, and the right to use those have been given (free!) to incumbent airlines as a property right. That’s a huge subsidy to incumbent carriers.

Normally slots come with ‘use it or lose it’ rules. If an airline doesn’t make use of their slots 80% of the time, those slots can be reassigned to another carrier. As a result you’ll see airlines flying more or less ghost flights, service designed to hold the slot rather than meet any economic need. American Airlines, for instance, used to throw 50 seat regional jets on New York JFK – Baltimore which is one of the cheapest ways to hold slots.

During the pandemic the FAA (along with other agencies around the world) waived normal use requirements for slots, with some minor differences in detail. They let airlines keep their slots without actually flying. Governments should be leasing slots for 10 year periods, and then bidding them out again.

The FAA has said that starting November 1 they’re only extending the use waiver on slots (through March 26, 2022) for “slots and approved operating times used by any carrier for international operations only” – in other words, they have to use domestic slots again, or lose them.

As a result last week Delta announced 100 additional New York JFK and New York LaGuadia deparures that will be in place by… November.

Now United Airlines has announced its blatant slot-squatting. Boy, this is egregious: “32 trips per day between NYC-area and D.C., a 78% increase and the most flights of any airline.” This covers them out of LaGuardia and also National airport, while they left JFK five years ago and have been scratching their way back to a limited presence at that airport and don’t have available slots to squat there.

[N]ew nearly hourly shuttle service between New York/Newark Liberty International Airport and Reagan National Airport on Oct. 31, and is adding five new flights between LaGuardia Airport and Washington Dulles Airport.

At least United will operate many of these flights with premium-configured 50 seat regional jets.

United Airlines CRJ-550

United and Delta are flying planes to avoid losing their government-subsidized slots. Meanwhile, as a result of the American Airlines-JetBlue Northeast Alliance settlement with DOT, those airlines actually have to increase their total flying out of New York JFK and LaGuardia. They don’t get more slots, so they’re flying bigger planes.

During the American Airlines ‘State of the Airline’ employee session after last Thursday’s earnings call, Chief Revenue Officer Vasu Raja reported that 300,000 customers flew on the American-JetBlue alliance in the third quarter, bigger than any of American’s international partnerships.

The Department of Justice is suing to block the deal – that the federal government approved this year – on the grounds that American might co-opt JetBlue as a low fare provider even as they increase the supply of seats in the market and give New York customers a realistic third choice beyond United and Delta.

Oddly the federal government seems to believe it’s better for consumers to protect the United-Delta large carrier duopoly in the market. American Airlines has said in its two most recent employee meetings that it plans to go to trial – and win – rather than seeking to settle the suit.

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. Gosh – that’s a lot of seats between NYC and DC. Fares, which were already pretty low should drop further.

    I will often buy a revenue ticket to/from DC to catch an award ticket out of JFK or EWR if there is no availability for the award ticket out of DC’s airports.

  2. Some people would pay more to ride on a place from NYC to DC vs. save money and drive to DC from New York. NYC 2 D.C. should only be about a 4 hr. drive, right?

  3. Why don’t all the sanctimonious east coast hypocrites take the train between these two cities–a real chance to put their green money where their mouth is. After all, it was good enough for Joe while he was VP for 36 years.

  4. 25,000 people flying into Glasgow for a “climate summit”.

    UA/DL flying a shitload of unnecessary flights.

    Iron Eyes Cody would be sobbing…

  5. A few facts might do wonders to help understand what is actually happening.
    First, the New York City to Washington DC market as United is defining it (which matches industry convention) involves the 3 largest NYC area airports including Newark, a United hub which is not slot-controlled. It also involves 3 Washington DC area airports and Dulles and BWI are not slot-controlled.
    Of all 4 airlines that serve the NYC to Washington DC metro areas via multiple combinations of the 3 airports, only United flies Newark to Washington National (as of Nov 2021 schedules) and they are increasing that far more than any of the other 4 airlines in any of the other airport to airport combinations for the 2 metro areas.
    United operates a hub at Newark as does Delta at both JFK and LGA, American at LGA and JFK (at least in name) and Southwest at Baltimore. Nearly all of the flights between these two metro areas are to/from hubs/focus cities at one of the two ends of the flights.
    The second largest INCREASE in seats compared to Nov 2019 is by American in the JFK to Baltimore market. The largest absolute number of seats by any airline/airport pair combination is American in the LaGuardia-National market because they are using Airbus aircraft instead of regional jets 2 years ago.

    Delta, as the largest slot holder at JFK and LGA and the 2nd largest slot holder at DCA is scheduling fewer flights than it did in November 2019, in part because international slots are still protected from non-use through the winter. Delta’s capacity in the combined NYC to Washington DC metro areas is down. Its longer haul domestic flying is up.

    This article conflates two different dynamics and inaccurately represents what is happening.

    American and JetBlue scheduling more flights and/or using larger aircraft at all slot-controlled airports as a result of the Northeast Agreement.

    United has aggressively increased its capacity in the Newark to National market but it will either simply revenue manage to not fill seats or will dilute its own revenue – or it will fill more connections at Newark which is how the majority of seats in that market have been used. In fact, most seats between the two metro areas are used for connecting traffic between the two hubs on all airlines.

    United isn’t flying National to Cleveland and cut flights between National to Chicago which is where the slots for extra flights to Newark came from.

    So, no, there isn’t wide-scale slot-squatting going on and, if it is, it involves American due to requirements of the Northeast Agreement and United which is shifting the use of its DC flights from longer to shorter flights.

  6. The DOJ investigation is quid pro quo for United to get permanent JFK access by the narrow relief of an AA/B6 slot divestiture, in exchange for UA carrying the administration’s water on a corporate vaccine mandate. No other rational explanation

  7. “United and Delta are flying planes to avoid losing their government-subsidized slots.”

    These a$$es got subsidy on the slots and are wasting resources on keeping them. And they got bailout money.


    You and I are paying for this, Seamus.

  8. What duopoly does Delta and United have? United barely has a presence at JFK and over at LGA United is actually the smallest carrier out of American, Delta and United. If we then scoot over to EWR that airport isn’t slot controlled it is a schedule 1 facility so both American and JetBlue can add flights out of EWR if they wanted. Down at DCA, United again is in the same position they are in at LGA they are the smallest carrier with the fewest number of slots at DCA out of American, Delta and United. If United were to give up or loose their LGA and/or DCA slots what prevents the FAA from awarding those slots to American or jetBlue. If United were not to do the slot squatting and lost their slots the probability that 100% those slots would end up in the hands of Southwest, Spirit, Frontier or any carrier other than American or jetBlue is low because for now demand remains depressed at both those airports.

    I don’t like slot squatting as much as the next person but without real reform in this entire slot process an airline like United or Delta could find themselves at a real competitive disadvantage down the road if they simply gave up their slots at LGA and DCA. I do agree with the suggestion that the government should lease slots for 10 years than redo the entire process. However the likelihood of something like that actually happening is zero, so airlines like United are force to slot squat as they wait on demand to recover.

  9. as noted, Delta is not slot squatting. Gary can let us know what slot squatting means to him but it generally means high frequency service out of a slot controlled airport to a short destination.

    Delta is flying LESS between NYC and Washington DC area slot controlled airports and using its slots to fly longer distances. That is the opposite of slot squatting.

    United has increased the number of Newark to Washington National flights but has not increased its total number of flights at National airport because it has cut Cleveland and Chicago flights.

    Gary writes alot and doesn’t get alot of facts right about what he rights at least one news source is saying that the Inspector General of the Dept. of Transportation is launching an investigation into the big 3 (AAL DAL and UAL) with a particular focus on United because of United’s terminations of employees via vaccine mandates which could be in violation of their commitment to not layoff employees as part of receiving federal aid. The request was made to the IG by Sen. Josh Hawley.

    American and Southwest have said they will not lay off employees while Delta does not have a vaccine mandate.

  10. correction. It is the Treasury Dept. IG that will be looking at no layoff violations of UAL

  11. Gary,

    Do you realize that it’s only 800 seats each way with the CRJ-550? That’s less than six A-320s, each way. This is called competing with the resources that you have at your disposal. Were you complaining when Jetblue added a slew of unnecessary flights out of EWR in the middle of a pandemic when no one was flying? How about a nice slice of STFU? Don’t be so dang dramatic..

  12. My first reaction before getting into the article – will there be any seats or cabin crew on these planes? Answered. Next thought – will they be running the smallest, lightest old but fuel efficient junk they can yank out of desert storage? Sooner or later, I guess, possibly. Someone asked will prices drop – my guess they will go up to cover all the wasted fuel, manpower, wear and tear. Will pollution increase per actual passenger flown? Yep!

    In parts of Western Europe, they have banned short distance flights in lieu of fast rail. Much cleaner and fuel efficient, and runs city hub to city hub. But our NEC needs huge repairs (after several decades of underfunding) and improvements. The Gateway Taj Mahal project and new tunnels and existing tunnel repairs will take, maybe a decade if we are lucky?

    What’s wrong with this picture?

  13. 800 seats each way each day. That’s the capacity of only three Amtrak Acela Express trains, and there are 12-15 of those trains each day, plus the Northeast Regional trains of which there are many and which have many more seats. And you get to go center city to center city, and no going through TSA checkpoints or having to get to the airport an hour early.

    Nope, still going to take the train.

  14. In pre-pandemic days, Acela and NEC regionals had ~80% of the NYC-DC market. So, yeah, I would say that this definitely looks like squatting the route with ghost flights.

  15. Slot Rulings like this causes the increase of crowded skies, fuel usage, crew shortage, and waisted efficiency. Exactly the opposite what the government and the airlines have been trying to do. This is like forcing all the trains to New York to be replaced by cars instead. It increases the loads of the ATC when they are already short handed. How does this make sense? There needs to be a real head of the FAA for policy. It cannot be done in an Acting Head position. Stop the intentional blocking of legitimate picks for Heads of important positions. It’s been over two years that the American flying public has been squeezed because of politics.

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