United to End Service to New York’s JFK Airport Unless It Gets More Slots

A little more than one year after returning to the hub following a five-year break, the carrier is now considering pulling back out.

HONG KONG - NOVEMBER 03, 2015: check-in area in Hong Kong Airport. Hong Kong International Airport is the main airport in Hong Kong. It is located on the island of Chek Lap Kok

United’s time at JFK could be short lived.

Photo by Shutterstock

In spring 2021, after a five-year hiatus, United Airlines once again started offering service from John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) in New York .

“I have been waiting a long time to say this—United Airlines is back at JFK,” United CEO Scott Kirby said at the time in a release about the return, which kicked off with one daily flight each to San Francisco and Los Angeles.

But the return to JFK could be short lived. United this month said it will suspend service at JFK at the end of October unless federal regulators allow it to operate more flights so that the carrier can better compete against rivals such as JetBlue and American.

CEO Scott Kirby expressed the airline’s intentions in a letter last week to Billy Nolen, acting head of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The FAA responded in a statement Wednesday that if additional takeoff and landing slots at JFK are offered, it will follow a “well-established process of awarding them fairly and to increase competition.”

United’s return to JFK was in part made possible by new slots that opened up because of a slowdown in air travel due to the pandemic.

“There is more capacity at the airport than there used to be prepandemic,” Josh Earnest, United’s chief communication officer, said during a press call when United initially announced the move in November 2020. “There has been some recently completed runway construction [at JFK] and that . . . combined with a pretty significant reduction in foreign carriers flying to JFK . . . has added a lot of [available] capacity.”

Consequently, United was able to secure slots that allowed the airline to begin offering round-trip, nonstop flights between JFK and San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and JFK and Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) as of March 28, 2021. The move meant that United has since been flying into and out of all three New York area airports, including Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) in New Jersey (its current East Coast hub) and LaGuardia Airport (LGA) in Queens.

“The opportunity that we see here is to better serve those travelers who prefer JFK airport,” Earnest stated.

United pulled out of JFK in October 2015 when it transferred much of its service to Newark in a move that has been described by travel industry publication Skift as a “head-scratcher” and one even United later admitted was a mistake in part because there are West Coast fliers who prefer to fly into the New York airport rather than New Jersey, Skift reported.

The FAA limits takeoff and landing slots at the major New York City–area airports to prevent congestion. United, which has been unable to get slots from other airlines, argues that JFK has room to grow because of improvements, including wider runways and new taxiways.

United currently only operates two daily flights from JFK to both Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Associated Press contributed reporting.

Michelle Baran is a deputy editor at AFAR where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined AFAR in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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