MIAMI – United Airlines (UA) has confirmed it will return to New York John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK) after a 5-year absence. CEO Scott Kirby stated the airline plans to  “compete aggressively” on transcontinental routes to the West Coast.

United ended direct flights out of JFK in October 2015, shifting all flights from LAX and SFO to its hub at Newark (EWR). However, CEO Scott Kirby — who joined from American Airlines in 2016 — has since admitted the move made by previous management was “the wrong decision.”

Kirby confirmed previous reports of a return to JFK in a UA earnings call on October 15. “We have been working very, very hard to use the pandemic as a way to get back into JFK and I have reasonable confidence that we’ll be successful,” Kirby said.

“The good news is that all the work that’s happened at JFK in the last few years means there’s actually more airport capacity. There are not many places in the US where there’s additional airport capacity, but there should be more airport capacity.”

United reported a net loss of US$1.8bn in Q3, slightly larger than the prior quarter’s US$1.6bn deficit. Total operating revenues were down 78% as passenger revenues plunged by 84%.

United Airlines over NCY. Photo: © Tyler Lorenz

Stiff Competition

United will face stiff competition when it returns to JFK, with American Airlines (AA), Delta Air Lines (DL), and JetBlue Airways (B6), each considering the airport a hub. UA intends to compete by offering premium products to corporate clients flying the lucrative West Coast route.

The airline intends to use the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to its advantage by muscling back into busy airports like JFK, whilst demand is low. This allows UA to increase its operations at airports where previously slot restrictions and gate availability were a big obstacle. Airlines like Southwest (WN) and B6 have also used this strategy.

Furthermore, the addition of new terminal buildings has increased ground capacity at JFK allowing for additional flight capacity.

United Airlines. Photo Luca Flores

Looking to the Future

United’s Executive VP and CCO Andrew Nocella said on the Q3 earnings call that the carrier expected flight capacity to reach 45% of 2019 levels in Q4.

He added that “incremental capacity we do add back in the fourth quarter is expected to be tilted towards our Houston and Denver hubs, with the goal of getting us back on track to our original network objectives of building connectivity from our interior hubs and service to smaller communities,” he said.

Due to historically low levels as a result of the pandemic, United has also been able to commence new services to Chicago O’hare (ORD), Los Angeles (LAX), and Orange County (SNA).

Featured image: United Airlines Boeing 787. Photo: Luca Flores