United Airlines could soon be bidding farewell to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) — again.
At the end of October, the airline will lose the slots that currently allow it to operate from JFK — a key driver of the move. The Chicago-based carrier on Tuesday told employees that it still wants to grow at JFK but needs more slots to do it.
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“If you recall, United had an opportunity during COVID to gain access to some temporary slot times at JFK held by other airlines,” the unsigned note to employees said, which was obtained by TPG. “Now that customer demand has surged back, the operators of those slots are resuming their use at the start of the winter season and beyond.”
A slot is a permission granted by the Federal Aviation Administration for an airline to use the airport’s runway at a given time for a takeoff or a landing. JFK, along with a small handful of other airports, is slot-controlled.
United had long served Kennedy but left the airport in 2015 — a decision made by disgraced former United CEO Jeff Smisek. The airline then leased 40 slots that it owns at Kennedy to Delta Air Lines. A source familiar with the deal said that under the terms of the lease to Delta, United is unable to access those Kennedy slots. Slots are frequently leased and sold among airlines on a secondary market, and they are immensely valuable assets.
United re-inaugurated service at JFK in March 2021 during a period of depressed demand, especially among international carriers. The airline leased eight slots from some international airlines, enough for two round-trip flights a day to both Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and San Francisco International Airport (SFO).
Now that demand is returning, the airlines that leased the slots to United need them back. In a sign that United has exhausted its existing options to obtain more slots, it said in the note that it is urging the FAA to increase the slot cap at Kennedy. United CEO Scott Kirby sent a letter to acting FAA administrator Billy Nolen last week urging a cap increase.
“JFK has four total runways (compared to just three at EWR) — two pairs of parallel runways — with the ability to consistently shift between two arrival or two departure runways to accommodate arrival or departure demand spikes,” the note to United employees said. “Yet, the airport capacity has remained the same: 81 operations per hour since 2008, just two more movements per hour than EWR’s stated limit of 79.”
United currently serves Kennedy using a 757-200 with 16 lie-flat business-class seats. It originally launched the service using 767s in the super-premium “high-J” configuration, with 46 business-class seats; it changed to the 757s last October.
Should United lose out on Kennedy, it will still have extensive transcontinental service at its nearby hub at Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR). From Newark, the carrier currently has seven daily round-trip flights to LAX and eight daily round-trip flights to SFO, according to Cirium schedule data.
United’s move back to JFK was a symbolic way for the Star Alliance carrier to plant its flag back in New York City proper on a flagship route. It was also a chance to compete against Delta, American Airlines and JetBlue at the same airport. So, despite having a diminutive presence at the airport, losing its Kennedy slots would be a tough loss for United.
Featured photo by Steve Parsons/PA Images/Getty Images.