United removes its posh Boeing 767 from JFK, upends New York strategy
Less than five months since its splashy return to JFK, United's New York strategy is getting upended.
In a move that might surprise some industry observers, the Chicago-based carrier is swapping the aircraft that's flying to New York's largest airport.
Effective Oct. 5, United will no longer deploy the premium-heavy "high-J" Boeing 767-300 on its JFK routes. Instead, it'll fly the far-less premium Boeing 757-200, as originally seen in Cirium schedules and later confirmed by the airline.
Want more airline-specific news? Sign up for TPG’s free new biweekly Aviation newsletter!
Though most aircraft swaps don't grab headlines, this one is different.
For one, United made a big deal about returning to JFK after its more than five-year hiatus from serving the airport. Scott Kirby, the carrier's CEO, conceded that pulling out of JFK was a "strategic mistake," which ultimately caused United to lose lucrative corporate contracts and high-value flyers to its competitors.
United strategically used the pandemic to muscle back into JFK, a busy slot-restricted airport. With an overall reduction in air service and additional runway capacity, the carrier was able to secure slots to make the flights work.
But returning to JFK wasn't just about getting its foot into the door. To win back those valuable accounts, United decided to deploy the swankiest jet in its fleet, the "high-J" Boeing 767-300, on its two transcon JFK routes, one to Los Angeles (LAX) and the other to San Francisco (SFO).
This plane variant sports a whopping 46 Polaris seats instead of the standard 30 on the other 767s, as well as 22 Premium Plus premium economy recliners, 43 extra-legroom Economy Plus seats and 56 coach seats.
These transcon routes are some of the most hotly contested in the entire country — the Big 3, as well as JetBlue, all offer lie-flat pods upfront and other first-class touches to win customers.
By returning to JFK with its poshest plane, United was serious about going up against the other top-notch premium products offered by American, JetBlue and Delta. In fact, the carrier even paid an employee at LAX to hold up a "thank you" sign that was displayed before its JFK flight.
Now, however, that strategy appears to be changing. United's Boeing 757's sport just 16 lie-flat biz pods in a 2-2 configuration, as well as 45 extra-legroom Economy Plus seats and 108 coach seats.
Though this technically represents an upgauge in the number of total seats available (169 on the 757 compared to 167 on the 767), it's a massive reduction in the percentage of premium seats — and a night-and-day difference in the business-class product offered on the route.
United's 757s don't have a premium economy cabin, so that cabin will no longer be available to JFK. Additionally, the 757s have 30 fewer Polaris biz pods compared to the 767s. This will likely make it harder to find both award and upgrade space, which was previously readily available on the JFK routes.
Additionally, the actual business-class product itself is getting a massive downgrade. The 767s are outfitted with lie-flat Polaris pods in a 1-1-1 arrangement, with direct aisle access for each passenger. They also have an enclosed storage compartment, large tray table and high-definition seat-back monitor.
Polaris on the 757 spans just four rows in a 2-2 arrangement without direct aisle access. The seats are tighter and significantly less private than the pods on the 767.
Related: Every United business-class seat ranked from best to worst
With United's latest move, it appears that the carrier isn't going to be competing as fiercely for the business-class traffic on these premium transcon routes.
Of course, it's possible that United will redeploy the "high-J" 767 or another wide-body jet to JFK, if and when its largest corporate accounts start traveling again in large numbers. Until then, you'll want to stick with American's premium-heavy Airbus A321T or JetBlue's new Mint product if you're after the best possible inflight experience.
Or, you could fly United's premium transcon routes to Newark. For now, at least two daily frequencies on each route are scheduled to be operated by a wide-body jet.
But, as United learned the hard way five years ago, Newark isn't a replacement for flying to JFK. It'll be interesting to follow how the carrier's aircraft strategy evolves over time.