United Airlines Examines A Return To New York – JFK

John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) could get a new carrier in 2021. United Airlines is reportedly eyeing a return to the iconic New York City airport. However, there are still many steps for United to complete before it can make its comeback.

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United Airlines is examining a return to JFK, which it abandoned in 2015 in favor of its Newark hub. Photo: Getty Images

United examining a return to New York-JFK

Sources told CNBC that United Airlines is planning to resume services at New York-JFK. John F. Kennedy International Airport is arguably the most well-known airport in New York and has turned into a huge battleground for air service.

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There are no concrete details yet, such as where the airline will fly nor when the carrier would launch flights. However, exploration is not surprising. CEO Scott Kirby has been vocal in the past about United making a mistake in pulling out of JFK back in 2015 in favor of the airline’s hub at Newark, where it has grown impressively. United does maintain some operations out of LaGuardia, though United is not a major player there.

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United Airlines already flies out of Newark and LaGuardia. Photo: Getty Images

Adding flights at JFK is not very easy. United first needs to secure slots, then find gate space (which might be its own colossal challenge), source aircraft, and then get a ground game at the airport.

There are some major pull factors for United to fly out of JFK. For one, it is one of the most well-known airports in the New York-area, and United can target passengers who would traditionally forego a flight on them because of Newark’s distance from boroughs like Queens or Brooklyn. However, it is unclear how big of a passenger base might be available to United.

The situation at JFK

Heavily slot-controlled, international airlines constantly jockey for slots, and even US carriers have faced intense competition. According to data from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, these are the top airlines at JFK:

  1. Delta Air Lines (18 million passengers in 2019)
  2. JetBlue (14.4 million passengers in 2019)
  3. American Airlines (6.3 million passengers in 2019)
  4. Norwegian Air (1.6 million passengers in 2019)
  5. Alaska Airlines (1.5 million passengers in 2019)
  6. British Airways (1.4 million passengers in 2019)
  7. Virgin Atlantic (1.2 million passengers in 2019)
  8. Air France (1.1 million passengers in 2019)
  9. Emirates (910,600 passengers in 2019)
  10. Lufthansa (643,004 passengers in 2019)

Ultimately, if United gets into JFK, it will have to put its best foot forward. But, getting in is a big if. Most carriers have held onto their JFK slots tightly, even amid the ongoing crisis. And, with demand forecasted to rebound in the next few years, some may not wish to give up some slots permanently but may be forced to if losses pile up.

American and JetBlue
American Airlines and JetBlue announced a new partnership that will see the airlines codeshare on routes out of New York-JFK, which could mean some boons for United if regulators ask them to give up slots, although that ask is not a guarantee. Photo: Getty Images

One area where United could get some slots is if international airlines relinquish them. International travel demand is at its lowest point in recent history, meaning a lot of people are not very excited about getting onboard an aircraft and crossing the Atlantic Ocean, not to mention Europe is still closed off for most Americans. The issue with that will be, if United wants to fly domestically, to ensure that it can get the proper gate space to do so.

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United already has a massive connecting hub in Newark, so JFK would be a spoke in the airline’s network. Photo: Getty Images

Another option could be if regulators see the AA/JetBlue pact and decide one of those airlines (or both) need to give up some slots to competitors– United could easily benefit there by staking a claim that it would bring a new carrier to the market and give passengers more choices.

United could be able to snatch up some slots of foreign air carriers drop them. Regulatory agencies have long been focused on making sure there is enough competition in JFK, so no airline gets a monopoly, and giving United some slots would not be out of the ordinary and further that goal.

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Delta Air Lines has a sizable hub in JFK– meaning United will have plenty of competition. Photo: Getty Images

Where would United fly?

This depends on a myriad of factors– including what gate access United gets. Not every gate can accommodate every type of plane nor every kind of flight. But, should the airline have a choice, then there is no dearth of options.

JFK is unlikely to be a connecting hub for United– Newark already fits that purpose. So, the airline is likely going to focus on origin & destination (O&D) demand. Some routes that instantly come to mind are Los Angeles and San Francisco in the US and London in the UK.

However, on all of these routes, United has its work cut out, and it will not be easy for the carrier to turn a profit. It will also need to market heavily to JFK’s frequent fliers, who might already be wedded to one airline.

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A transcontinental hop from JFK to Los Angeles or San Francisco would likely be on United’s radar. Photo: Getty Images

Of these, London would be the riskiest bet since United has limited connecting feed on either end. Meanwhile, a Los Angeles or San Francisco route could easily be supported not just by O&D demand, but also some connections from its Star Alliance partners such as Lufthansa and its group of airlines, TAP Air Portugal, and Turkish Airlines.

However, even these would not be big connecting opportunities– maybe a few passengers if the price is right– since San Francisco and Los Angeles already see nonstop European service from some of these airlines.

There are strong arguments for and against United returning to JFK. In the current environment, United might end up getting some slots at the airport if other airlines pull back their operations. This might make it an excellent time to at least get into JFK and make service work later on. It is hard to imagine United getting slots in a 2019-like environment at JFK, but 2020 could be just right.

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Newark-Liberty is still going to be a major United hub; it does not make sense for the airline to cut it and lose prominence where it has it in New York City. Photo: Getty Images

JFK is also undergoing a major redevelopment. Getting in now, even if the slots and gate space is unfavorable for the carrier, could mean the airline has a seat at the table in the redevelopment and be able to carve out a little niche for itself in JFK where it can operate from. The project is ongoing, so there is still some room to make some changes, if necessary.

Do you think United should return to JFK? Why or why not? Would you fly United to or from JFK? Let us know in the comments!

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