United Airlines is preparing to downgauge its transcontinental flights out of New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK). Currently, the airline serves the routes using three-class Boeing 767-300ER aircraft in a highly premium configuration. The downgrade to the Boeing 757-200 will lead United to offer far fewer premium seats on the route known for its competitive nature and indicative of some of the work United has to do in New York.
United’s downgrade of JFK flights
Starting October 5th, United Airlines will run 169-seat Boeing 757-200s from New York (JFK) to San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). This will replace its current 167-seat Boeing 767-300ER.
Premium travelers have the most to lose on this swap. Moving from 46 authentic Polaris seats in a comfortable 1-1-1 configuration to 16 lie-flat seats in a 2-2 configuration, premium customers lose out on direct aisle access from every seat and a newer seat.
For customers who like to book premium economy, all United offers on the Boeing 757-200s are extra-legroom economy seats. The Boeing 767-300ERs featured an authentic Premium Plus cabin, the airline’s branded premium economy product.
United’s position in New York
While two of United’s largest competitors, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines, have hubs at JFK, United’s New York City area hub is actually in Newark, New Jersey, at the Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR). United abandoned its JFK position in favor of a large EWR hub. Now-CEO Scott Kirby thought it was a mistake for United to get out of JFK when he first came to the airline.
While Newark provides some easy access to part of New York City, and United has invested heavily in getting people to recognize EWR as an alternative, JFK gets much more attention from premium travelers and is easily accessible to other areas of New York, like Queens and Brooklyn.
United also has a small position at LaGuardia Airport (LGA). However, LaGuardia only allows transcontinental flights on Saturdays, thanks to its perimeter rule. United mainly flies to its hubs out of LaGuardia.
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United’s return to JFK
In late September 2020, it became public that United Airlines was plotting a return to JFK. Just a few weeks later, the carrier revealed that transcontinental flights were on the agenda. Finally, in early November, United Airlines confirmed that it was returning to JFK.
Initially, the plan was to start flights to JFK in February 2021. However, the airline delayed its plans to March in the wake of ongoing demand softness – especially from premium travelers. Then, at the end of March, United Airlines finally returned to JFK with paying customers.
United found space in Terminal 7 at JFK for its flights. This terminal sees operations by a host of airlines, including Alaska Airlines, British Airways, and All Nippon Airways (ANA).
A lacking ground product
When it comes to premium customers, a ground product at New York-JFK is key. To understand this, it is first important to look at what the competition offers. For example, Delta Air Lines offers its premium customers flying between New York and Los Angeles access to its SkyClubs.
JetBlue, another major player on the route with its Mint business class, has made the route work without offering any lounge product on the ground. However, there have been rumors that JetBlue is looking to start offering a lounge product as it makes a bigger play for premium customers – especially now that it is offering transatlantic flights to London.
Arguably, the airline with the best ground product is American Airlines. Customers flying to Los Angeles or San Francisco on the airline’s Airbus A321T three-class jets featuring Flagship First, Flagship Business, and economy, passengers in a branded Flagship cabin have access to the airline’s Flagship Lounges, which are a notch above the airline’s Admirals Club.
An even more exclusive offering is available for Flagship First customers. This is the airline’s Flagship First Dining, an exclusive dining experience with multiple courses with menus curated by top-tier chefs. Flagship First Dining will reopen in September.
United Airlines does not offer any lounge product to its customers at JFK. At other airports, transcontinental premium customers can access the United Club lounges, but the airline offers no access at JFK, which is a drawback.
The work United has to do
It is telling that United is showing the Boeing 757-200 operating JFK flights into summer 2022. This takes away some credibility that United is responding to near-term reactions to the health situation with reduced demand. Given that United has also cut the 767s on flights to its large hub in San Francisco, it is clear the airline has a problem with JFK.
Alaska Airlines will be pulling the plug on its JFK-LAX route just a few days after United switches transcontinental routes to the Boeing 757-200. Alaska flew Boeing and Airbus aircraft offering recliner-style first class seats. The airline has stated previously that it is “thankful” it does not have lie-flat seats and had no plans to install them.
Next summer to Los Angeles, American Airlines will continue to fly its Airbus A321Ts on transcontinental routes. Delta has plans to operate a mix of Boeing 767-300ERs and Boeing 767-400ERs on the route – with the latter having a far superior premium product. JetBlue will continue to offer its Mint product, including both the older Mint and the new Mint Suite onboard the Airbus A321neo.
United only offers two flights a day on each route, far from the large schedule other airlines offer. However, United offers a large transcontinental schedule out of Newark. It does not want to undermine its hub, where it has heavily invested in offering a robust schedule to the West Coast.
It appears that United right now is more concerned about keeping its position in JFK over aggressively going after travelers. British Airways is set to leave Terminal 7 to join American Airlines in Terminal 8 in the coming years. This will free up plenty of real estate in Terminal 7, where United can take over and add lounges to offer a more premium experience to its customers.
While this is not confirmed, the crisis offered United an opportunity to come into JFK – one of the busiest airports in the world and one of the hardest to get into in the United States. So, the airline took it. Now, the question will be what United does with its position. It has some work to do. Without offering a cutting-edge ground experience, taking away its top-notch premium product, and maintaining a balance between Newark and JFK, United Airlines has a lot of work to do to make JFK work.