First look: JFK-SFO on United. What United brings to the table on the flagship routes
Inaugural flights on high-profile routes usually receive a good bit of fanfare. Parties at the gates, celebrations on board and special service during the flight are all the norm.
But during the pandemic, things have looked different, with muted tones, sparse cabins and few — if any — festivities.
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That context made United's return to JFK on Sunday all the more interesting. Would the carrier keep with the subdued tone that has reflected the state of the airline industry over the past year? Or would United pull out all the stops to drum up excitement over its reentry into the fiercely competitive JFK-California market?
Setting the scene: The key importance of JFK-California
United last operated out of JFK in 2015. At the time, the carrier's daily flights to Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO) were reportedly losing money, and the airline figured the best choice would be to consolidate their premium service out of Newark (EWR), while keeping a handful of flights to connecting hubs at New York-La Guardia (LGA).
It quickly became clear that the airline had made a mistake. By 2017, United's then-president and now CEO — who worked for American Airlines in 2015 — said that leaving JFK was the wrong choice.
“I wish I could roll back the clock and change the decision,” Scott Kirby said then at an employee town hall, according to a recording seen by Skift. “It was the wrong decision.”
The issue was that even if the flights themselves lost money, they were strategically important for keeping major corporate accounts whose travelers valued the JFK option and were willing to pay top dollar for business class or full-fare coach. Faced with the prospect of having to now go to Newark for those California routes, some of those corporate accounts reportedly defected to American, taking significant business away from United.
Now, United comes back into a JFK market that looks different than when it last flew there.
In recent years, competition on the JFK-LAX and JFK-SFO routes has heated up. American has returned its premium Airbus A321T with both first and business class, while JetBlue has doubled down on its Mint business-class product. Delta, meanwhile, has continued to fly the routes with a mix of Boeing 757 and 767 aircraft featuring Delta One lie-flat seats. And while Alaska only offers its usual first-class recliners, the airline nevertheless has a loyal customer base.
Marking a long-awaited return to JFK with a gate-side party
I arrived to JFK by Uber a few hours early, but the celebration was already set up. Balloons made it easy to find United's check-in area, with all the signage fully in place.
The employees there were noticeably excited, including the gentleman who bounded over and helped me print my boarding pass using the self-service kiosk, since I wasn't checking bags.
Terminal 7 is home to Alaska Airlines and a handful of international carriers, most prominently British Airways. Largely because of the emphasis on international travel — which remains severely curtailed during the pandemic — the terminal was relatively empty aside from the United check-in area (and even that wasn't very busy until later).
There are three lounges in Terminal 7: the British Airways Club and Concorde Room, and the Alaska Airlines Lounge. The latter can be accessed with Priority Pass, but — because of the pandemic — all of the lounges are temporarily shuttered.
Related: The best credit cards for Priority Pass lounge access
For now, United's premium passengers at JFK won't have lounge access. Ankit Gupta, United’s head of domestic planning and scheduling, told TPG that the airline is weighing various options. A United spokesperson added that the airline was "potentially" looking at contracting with Alaska or British Airways to arrange access to those lounges.
Unfortunately, most shops and restaurants at the terminal were also closed, save for a Hudson News or two, a Dunkin, and one duty-free shop. Given the choices, I found an empty gate and holed up with a bottle of water to do some work on my laptop for an hour or two before heading over to United's gate.
There was a table set up with drinks, and another with snacks and swag. The latter included bag tags, selfie lights, novelty sunglasses, JFK postcards and chocolate bars with "JFK" stamped across them.
Around 3 p.m., passengers and United employees started to gather. The environment was festive and fun, and light on the social distancing — although everyone was masked. There were a few announcements celebrating the flight. AvGeeks, members of the media and United staffers mixed, chatting about the flight.
At about 4 p.m., the inbound plane which would be operating the first flight — coming from Los Angeles — arrived, setting off a new flurry of activity as people rushed to take photos.
As the first passengers deplaned, they brought a Statue of Liberty-esque plastic torch, which they passed to the JFK employees.
After a few more speeches and a ribbon cutting, it was time to board.
A premium plane for a premium route: United's 'High J' Boeing 767-300ER
I managed to board the flight first to snap photos; I had only 90 seconds of an empty plane before United began boarding to attempt an on-time departure. You’ll see photos from the inaugural itself, but I’ve also pulled from the TPG archives for some clean shots of the cabin.
To attract big corporate accounts and compete with other airlines more firmly entrenched in JFK, United plans to fly its premium “high-J” Boeing 767-300 on the routes.
The 767 subfleet features 46 Polaris business-class seats in a 1-1-1 configuration across 16 rows — an increase from the usual 30 on that plane type.
Just behind the Polaris cabin, there's a mini-cabin with 22 Premium Plus seats in a 2-2-2 layout. The seats are more spacious and have better padding than what you'll get in coach. They also feature a more generous recline and come with footrests.
The coach cabin is in the back, with 43 extra-legroom Economy Plus seats and 56 regular economy seats. The seats on the side of the plane — the "A" and "B" seats and the "K" and "L" seats — are mostly Economy Plus, except for the last few rows. Aside from the first row, the middle seats — "D," "E" and "F" — are all regular economy.
United designed the luxury concept specifically for use on flagship and premium routes, particularly New York to London, on which there’s more demand for the better seats — meaning corporate and individual customers willing to pay more to fly in comfort. But it also means a better chance of upgrades for elite passengers using PlusPoints or upgrades.
Modified service during the pandemic, but a full meal and a comfortable flight
We booked my flight and bought up to Polaris fairly close to travel, so there were only a few seats to choose from. I went with 7L, a more private Polaris seat on the right side of the plane.
The only downside to that seat is that it only has one window, instead of the regular two, but I was able to see no problem.
Waiting at the seat was a blanket, a pillow and a cooling gel pillow.
There was also a headset for the inflight entertainment.
Finally, there was United's premium transcon amenity kit, a scaled-down version of what it offers on international flights, but still packed with the essentials.
Many of the passengers upfront had specifically booked the inaugural, so I stood and chatted with a few as the rest of the passengers boarded. A flight attendant came by passing out full-sized water bottles.
We pushed back from the gate, with airline and airport workers all along the ramp taking pictures and videos.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey also arranged a water cannon salute. After we passed through that, we were on our way to San Francisco.
Following a bumpy climb due to the weather in New York, the purser came by to introduce himself to each passenger and take dinner orders.
Another flight attendant came by afterward taking drink orders. I had United's signature old fashioned — which is delicious, although not always the smartest choice when you're planning to work during the flight!
For dinner, I opted for the butternut squash ravioli over the lobster mac and cheese, though both sounded delicious.
It was served with a salad, a roll, mixed nuts and a cup of mango sorbet. The entire meal was plated at once rather than coursed out like usual in Polaris — a pandemic service change. Nonetheless, it was tasty and filling, and meant that I could eat and get back to work quickly.
United offers in-seat screens in every cabin of the 767-300. After I filed my story, I ended up watching "Coneheads," a classic and personal favorite.
The Polaris seats also have a built-in tablet stand to accommodate your own device, if you prefer.
After the movie, another drink — they were out of the old fashioned, so I had a Buffalo Trace bourbon — and a quick nap, we landed in San Francisco. Although there was less fanfare on this end, a few employees could be seen filming and photographing as we deplaned.
All in all, it was a comfortable and pleasant flight, and definitely felt worthy of such a big inaugural. The lounge situation was disappointing, but it was not surprising given United's options in returning to JFK during the pandemic.
More broadly, the lingering question is: Will United be able to make the route work this time, or at least be able to use it to woo back big corporate clients whose travelers prefer JFK to Newark?
At launch, the airline will fly each route five times weekly, before increasing to a twice-daily frequency in May.
For now, the airline envisions the JFK-California routes as a stand-alone service, although Gupta — the head of domestic route planning — said the airline would also reassess whether to add additional routes from JFK, despite slot control challenges. The airline also has connections to numerous Star Alliance partners available at JFK, including Lufthansa and Swiss.