United CEO blasts FAA, JetBlue and Spirit over Newark flight woes

Apr 21, 2022

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United Airlines renewed calls on Thursday for the federal government to address congestion problems plaguing Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR), warning that the airport’s unique scheduling system is once again becoming a problem for United Airlines and all air travelers.

During the airline’s first quarter earnings call on Thursday, CEO Scott Kirby accused the FAA of failing to enforce rules that are supposed to limit the total number of hourly flights at its New York-area hub.

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“The FAA has rules that limit the airport to 79 operations per hour, and they are letting airlines violate those rules,” Kirby said in response to a question from TPG. “It’s unheard of behavior for me for the FAA to just let people … brazenly break the rules.”

Kirby specifically called out JetBlue and Spirit, accusing the airlines of overscheduling flights and causing delays for every operator at the airport.

“The two biggest offenders are Spirit Airlines and JetBlue. Spirit Airlines and JetBlue [customers] are paying the biggest price,” Kirby said. “It’s a disaster for their customers because they’re flying more flights [than] the airport can handle.”

“Unfortunately, our employees and our customers are collateral damage to that,” he added, arguing that delays and recovery from canceled flights can upset operations for the other airlines at the airport.

Kirby said that the two airlines had canceled a combined 20% of all flights from Newark for the month, although that number appeared to be out of date, reflecting earlier in the month when JetBlue and Spirit suffered significant operational challenges tied to the cascading efforts of storms in Florida.

Through April 20, JetBlue had canceled just shy of 10% of its flights at Newark for the month, while more than half of the airline’s flights at the airport — 52.5% — had been delayed, according to data from FlightAware. Spirit canceled 15% of its Newark flights and delayed 40%. United, by contrast, canceled 2% of its Newark flights while delaying 33% in April.

United flies roughly 70% of scheduled commercial flights from Newark, including flights operated by regional carriers on behalf of United, according to Cirium. JetBlue is scheduled to fly about 8.3% of Newark’s departures in April. while Spirit runs just 3.5% of flights from the airport.

While Newark is subject to operational frequency limits imposed by the federal government, it differs slightly from the traditional “slot” control system the FAA uses at three other airports: New York’s LaGuardia Airport (LGA), New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA).

At Newark, the FAA sets a limit for the total number of operations, and approves individual airline schedules — effectively the same thing as slots. It does not, however, enforce those limits, according to Kirby’s accusations, something that has consequences for airlines operating through Newark.

“It was the most delayed airport in the country in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019,” Kirby said.

“It’s bad for consumers, it’s terrible for consumers – what is being allowed to happen at Newark,” he added. “It’s simply time for the FAA to enforce the rules.”

While operations at the airport only occasionally exceed the 79 combined takeoffs and landings limit, according to Cirium, that limit does not factor in cargo airline operations, and assumes optimal conditions — weather, operations, air traffic control patterns, and so on — an alignment of stars that Kirby described as “rare at Newark.”

Related: The little-understood government rule that allows airlines to dominate certain airports

With such tight schedules, airlines can only run on-time schedules if every takeoff and landing window is optimized. When flights are delayed or canceled and rescheduled, those windows can be left open, causing a chain reaction of delays for the rest of an operating day.

Kirby’s comments Thursday were the latest in a push by United to pressure the FAA to enforce the operational limits by limiting airline schedules.

Earlier this month, United chief operating officer Jon Roitman said in a letter to employees seen by TPG that the airline was actively in contact with the FAA regarding congestion at Newark, warning the agency that increasing travel demand through the summer would worsen the situation.

“We’ve recently asked specifically for transparency on approved schedules out of Newark and for the FAA’s procedures to be applied fairly and consistently across all carriers,” Roitman wrote. “For our part, we follow the FAA’s rules and plan our Newark schedules accordingly. But our planning depends on other carriers – so it’s time for them to follow the rules, too.”

More: FAA will offer Newark slots to low-cost airline, spurring competition for United

The comments echo those made by United in 2021 as the airport closed one of its runways during the summer for a three-month repair project, exacerbating the congestion issue. In a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in July, Kirby asked the FAA to “bring together all relevant parties to reduce the number of flights per hour temporarily and proportionally during July, August, and September.”

Last fall, the FAA said it would award several available Newark schedule spots to a low-cost airline — with Spirit and JetBlue emerging as front-runners — after Southwest pulled out from the airport.

Featured photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

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