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It's official! United Airlines returns to New York JFK with flights to California in February

Nov. 10, 2020
6 min read
It's official! United Airlines returns to New York JFK with flights to California in February
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United Airlines will make its return to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport early in the new year.

In the latest coronavirus pandemic opening, the Chicago-based carrier will add new flights between JFK and both Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO) beginning Feb. 1. The service resumes the two routes United ended five years ago when it exited JFK.

In addition, United will operate its posh "high-J" Boeing 767-300ER jets with an expanded Polaris business class cabin on both routes. The jets feature 46 Polaris seats instead of the standard 30 seats, as well as 22 Premium Plus premium economy seats, 43 extra-legroom Economy Plus seats and 56 economy seats.

Tickets for the new JFK flights go on sale Tuesday. United will operate from Terminal 7 at the airport and is working on lounge access for its flyers, though Priority Pass members can access the Alaska Airlines lounge in Terminal 7.

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“This has been a long time coming and we’re really excited to be part of the JFK story again," United vice president of domestic network planning Ankit Gupta told media on Tuesday.

United's new JFK flights will complement its existing "premium transcontinental" service between its Newark (EWR) hub and both Los Angeles and San Francisco. However, the Newark schedules remain less than half what they were a year ago amid the coronavirus-related drop in air travel.

With its return to JFK, United joins the growing list of airlines that are taking advantage of the COVID crisis to expand at restricted airports. JetBlue Airways moved its Long Beach (LGB) base to notoriously gate-tight Los Angeles (LAX) in October; Southwest Airlines is adding Chicago O'Hare (ORD), Houston Bush Intercontinental (IAH) and Miami (MIA) to its map; and Spirit Airlines has landed slots at Southern California's Orange County (SNA) airport.

The route map additions come as U.S. airlines continue to fly dramatically reduced schedules. Data from trade group Airlines for America (A4A) show domestic departures down 46% during the week ending Nov. 3 compared to a year ago. Flyer numbers are even more dismal, down 60% during the same period.

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Related: United plans ‘aggressive’ competition on transcons when it returns to New York JFK

United will offer two daily flights on both the JFK-Los Angeles and JFK-San Francisco routes, said Gupta. The airline plans to expand the routes to at least four daily flights each in the future and then — when it can acquire the necessary slots — connect JFK to its hubs in Chicago O'Hare, Denver (DEN) and Houston Intercontinental.

When asked how United got the slots for the new JFK flights, chief communications officer Josh Earnest said a combination of additional runway capacity at the airport and a reduction in service by foreign carriers created the opening. He did not indicate whether the carrier acquired slots from a foreign airline.

A slot allows an airline to operate one takeoff or landing at an airport. Two, or a pair, are needed for a round-trip flight.

Related: Budget airlines muscle into big airports as coronavirus creates new opportunities

United's return to JFK follows the news that it continues to incrementally add back flights during the pandemic. Systemwide, it plans to fly roughly 48% of what it flew a year ago in December, the airline said on Nov. 9. Domestic U.S. schedules will be higher at about 52% of 2019 levels.

In addition, the carrier is confident enough that Americans want to travel over Thanksgiving despite surging COVID infections to temporarily resume an extra 1,400 flights. United expects the majority of holiday bookings to occur within 30 days of departure.

Coronavirus infections in the U.S. have been on an upward trajectory since mid-September. There were more than 105,000 new cases on Nov. 8, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Related: How United Airlines keeps ‘critters’ out of parked planes and gets them ready to fly again

United ended service to JFK when it consolidated its New York-California transcontinental flying at its Newark (EWR) hub in 2015. Prior to that, it had served the airport since at least the 1950s.

Details of United's new JFK schedule are below.

Introductory fares for the JFK-LAX service begin at $109 for coach, $419 for premium economy and $469 for Polaris. Similar (and slightly lower) fares can be found to San Francisco.

Upgrade and award availability is plentiful. There are nine upgrade seats available on most flights. Purchasing a coach ticket and upgrading with 20 PlusPoints is a great value. Alternatively, you could book a Polaris award ticket. There are four seats in Polaris on most flights. If you have United Premier status or hold a cobranded credit card, there's even more award availability.

United now prices awards dynamically, so it's hard to know exactly how much an award will cost. For now, coach awards begin at 10,000 miles, Premium Plus begins at 20,000 miles and Polaris awards begin at 25,000 miles. Note that this could change at any minute. Additionally, United might decide to apply its traditional 10,000-mile surcharge for the premium transcon market in the future.

JFK-Los Angeles

  • UA 515 departs 9:00 a.m., arrives 12:29 p.m.
  • UA 517 departs 7:00 p.m., arrives 10:29 p.m.

JFK-San Francisco

  • UA 521 departs 8:00 a.m., arrives 11:37 a.m.
  • UA 523 departs 5:10 p.m., arrives 8:47 p.m.

Los Angeles-JFK

  • UA 514 departs 7:30 a.m., arrives 3:50 p.m.
  • UA 516 departs 2:30 p.m., arrives 10:50 p.m.

San Francisco-JFK

  • UA 520 departs 9:10 a.m., arrives 5:40 p.m.
  • UA 522 departs 1:30 p.m., arrives 10:00 p.m.
(Screenshot courtesy of United)

Related: United Airlines eyes finish to Polaris retrofits on the 787, wants ‘consistent product’ during pandemic

Contributing: Zach Griff/TPG

Featured image by First United Airlines 767-300ER in new livery. (Photo courtesy of United Airlines)

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It's hard to find a card that competes with the mile-long list of benefits that come with the Amex Business Platinum. While it's certainly not the card for the average consumer, a business owner with tons of expenses -- especially related to travel -- will find this card incredibly valuable. This card is similar to the consumer version that Amex offers, but with more business-oriented perks around statement credits and earning rates that are a better fit for business owners.

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  • Limited high-bonus categories outside of travel
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  • $695 Annual Fee.
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