It's shaping up to be a miserable summer for NYC's Newark Airport

July 23, 2021
5 min read
This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

Located roughly 10 miles southwest of New York City, over on the "Jersey side," Newark Liberty International Airport hasn't had the best reputation among flyers.

Despite some ongoing United Club challenges, I've generally had good experiences flying through Terminal C, the biggest East Coast hub for United Airlines. Still, much like at the city's other large airports — New York LaGuardia and JFK — Newark (EWR) fliers can be impacted by lengthy delays, even when everything is fully up and running.

While the enormous peak-period crowds might suggest otherwise, Newark is most certainly not "fully up and running" at the moment. In fact, the situation has quickly deteriorated — to the extent that United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby penned an open letter asking the federal government to step in.

(Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy)

As Kirby explains in his letter to the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the FAA, "Unacceptable delays have returned earlier than expected this summer at Newark because of rapid post- pandemic recovery in operations combined with intense summer weather and the closure of one of two long runways that began on July 6."

Kirby's specifically referring to the closure of runway 4R-22L, which runs roughly the full length of the airport. Paired with the adjacent 4L-22R, one runway can be used for departing traffic as the other accommodates landing planes. But with one closed for construction, that isn't a possibility right now.

The runway closed for construction on July 6 and isn't expected to become available again until after Oct. 1, 2021. At that point, remaining work will be completed on weekends and during overnight hours, limiting the impact felt by airlines and passengers.

Related: Newark’s planned runway work may impact your summer travel

Fortunately, Newark Airport has a third runway — 11-29 — which roughly runs between east and west, at the north side of the airport. It's a far shorter option, however, and on days with stronger winds, it's too risky to land planes there.

On days where air traffic controllers can use runway 11-29 for arriving flights and 4L-22R for departures, things are running relatively smoothly, though that arrangement still results in additional downtime, given that the two configurations intersect.

(Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy)

We predicted that the runway closure would have an impact on operations, and the construction has indeed resulted in significant flight delays and cancellations, at Newark and all throughout the system as well.

The challenge here is that if a flight from Newark Airport is canceled, in many cases an aircraft won't be available to accommodate the return flight — if a Boeing 777-300ER doesn't make it from Newark to Rome (FCO), the return from Italy will almost certainly be canceled as well. With limited flights available, it could take multiple days for the airline to recover, and get passengers where they need to be.

On sunny days with light winds, most of the flights should go out as scheduled. Even so, United's been averaging 70 Newark cancellations a day over the past two weeks. And once you add in other carriers, that figure begins to approach 100.

So, how can the federal government fix this issue? Unfortunately there's no way to open up the runway ahead of schedule — it'll likely remain offline until after Oct. 1, 2021, as originally planned.

Instead, United is asking the DOT and FAA to coordinate with other airlines operating flights from Newark. As Kirby explains in his letter, "United requests that FAA, as it has in similar cases, bring together all relevant parties to reduce the number of flights per hour temporarily and proportionally during July, August, and September."

JetBlue, for example, has expanded at Newark significantly during the pandemic, and if United scales back its schedule, that airline and others could see the move as an opportunity to add flights. That's likely motivating United to sell more flights than it can realistically operate, leading the airline to cancel flights at the last minute, rather than paring back the overall schedule.

If you're flying through the New York City area between now and Oct. 1, I might recommend choosing JFK or LaGuardia, instead. If United's anticipating that poor weather could lead to even more cancellations, the airline will likely issue a waiver letting travelers move their flights to another NYC airport within the next few days — free of charge.

Otherwise, I might take advantage of the carrier's eliminated change fee policy, and consider moving your flight anyway. In some cases, you might need to pay a difference in fare, but it could be worthwhile.

Notably, connecting flights could be impacted as well, affecting customers with itineraries that route through Newark — not just those that begin or end there. For that reason, I'd also consider changing flights with a Newark connection, perhaps routing through Chicago (ORD) or Washington, D.C. (IAD), instead.

The challenges aren't just impacting United. If you're planning to fly JetBlue, Spirit or any of the other carriers flying from Newark, it could make sense to shift your plans to another NYC airport, too.

If you do decide to stick with Newark airport, I'd consider choosing an early morning departure, and keep a very close eye on your flight status. Cancellations and delays are more likely to grow as the day goes on, and many morning flights are assigned a plane that landed the day before, so it's all ready to go.

Featured image by (Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.