MIAMI – Today, United Airlines (UA) announced it will resume service to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK). UA had previously served JFK up until October 2015. Service will begin to UA hubs in San Francisco (SFO) and Los Angeles (LAX) on February 1, 2021.

All flights will begin using Boeing 767-300ERs, each equipped with 46 Polaris Class seats, 22 Premium Plus seats, 43 Economy Plus seats, and 56 Economy seats. The use of the 767-300ER is actually quite different as currently, their service at both the SFO and LAX hubs are almost non-existent.

The Boeing 767s mainly fly from Newark (EWR), Chicago (ORD), and Houston (IAH) to Europe and South America, so this will be a welcome change to the landscape of United’s West Coast hubs.

United will likely rotate the aircraft through one of those hubs. Additionally, United will be the only airline that can guarantee a wide-body aircraft on the SFO/LAX-JFK service with Delta Air Lines using Boeing 757-200s and American Airlines, JetBlue Airways, and Alaska Airlines all using A321-200s.

A United 767-300ER on a rare visit to SFO (Photo: Kendrick Dlima)

Each route will see two daily non-stop flights. From the West Coast, both airports will have a morning and early-afternoon departures. From JFK, there will be morning and evening departures as well. It is fairly surprising that there are no east-bound red-eye flights available, but if service were to expand, is it likely that they would be added. United will also use Terminal 7 at JFK. The schedule is as follows:

FlightDestination CityDeparture TimeArrival Time
UA 521San Francisco (SFO)08:0011:37
UA 515Los Angeles (LAX)09:0012:29
UA 523San Francisco (SFO)17:1020:47
UA 517Los Angeles (LAX)19:0022:29
FlightOrigin CityDeparture TimeArrival Time
UA 514Los Angeles (LAX)07:3015:50
UA 520San Francisco (SFO)09:1017:40
UA 522San Francisco (SFO)13:3022:00
UA 516Los Angeles (LAX)14:3022:50

An Historic Change at United Airlines

This marks a very historic change at UA. Until 2006, JFK was a very important spoke in the United network. United offered service to many intercontinental destinations from JFK over the years, including London (LHR), Tokyo (NRT), and many destinations in South America. Additionally, in 2004, United launched its Premium Service (p.s.) product for its JFK flights.

United had 13 Boeing 757-200 configured with 12 First Class seats, 26 Business Class seats, and 72 Economy Plus seats on routes from JFK to SFO and LAX. Notice that the newly-restarted service seems to mirror this United p.s. product as well. This continued until UA left JFK on October 29, 2015, and moved the flights to EWR. As a possible coincidence, each of the flight numbers represent tail number of now-retired United Boeing 757-200s as well.

Taxi Cab with United Airlines advertising (Photo: United Airlines)

A Calculated Mistake

With UA’s large hub in Newark just 21 miles away as the crow flies, it was understandable that UA would leave JFK. There wasn’t a lot of service to JFK, and with EWR closer to Manhattan, it made financial sense for the airline to do this, with former CEO Jeff Smisek claiming that the routes lost money ever since the 2008 recession.

However, this backfired on UA. The airline launched a marketing campaign throughout the city, advertising about EWR and its beneficial distance to the heart of the city. They fitted the roofs of taxi cabs with digital signage showing the time it would take that taxi to drive to EWR vs. JFK. Since the cabs were based in Manhattan, they almost always showed that EWR was closer.

However, companies didn’t seem to agree. UA lost many corporate contracts, not only in New York City but around the world, due to the fact that they weren’t flying out of JFK. These included Disney and Time Warner Cable. In 2017, Scott Kirby, current United CEO, said that leaving JFK was flat-out, “the wrong decision.”

At the time, Kirby also said that because United owned so much of the New York City market share with their operations at EWR and La Guardia (LGA), those chances were slim that they would return to JFK. That was, until 2020.

United Polaris Business Seat (Photo: United Airlines)

2020 and the Pandemic

This year has completely flipped the script on airline profitability in the United States and around the world. With decimated passenger loads and limited government bailout money, the airlines are looking for any way to make money. Southwest Airlines has pioneered this front, starting flights to many destinations which once seemed impossible for the airline, like Chicago (ORD) and Colorado Springs (COS).

In fact, UA acquired the slots due to the reduction in service of other airlines due to the pandemic. But now, airlines need revenue and will channel any possibility to get it. United operates many flights from SFO and LAX to EWR, with all flights offering a flat-bed business class seat, with many flights offering their new Polaris class experience. a

With the addition of JFK, with a very-premium heavy aircraft, U will be aiming to win back those corporate accounts as well as those who would prefer to fly into New York’s busiest airport. With just two flights, it is an easy entry into the once-familiar market, and will not likely have a large impact on the many flights the airline already has to EWR from SFO and LAX, especially with the plentiful connections available from EWR.

Although the pickings are small, UA’s new flights from JFK truly emphasize the importance of Kennedy Airport to premium travelers from around the world.