United is gearing up for big New York-JFK launch in less than 2 weeks

Mar 16, 2021

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It’s almost time for United Airlines to land at New York-JFK.

On Tuesday, a United jet flew to JFK for the first time in years, in preparation for the much-anticipated service relaunch on March 28. The 21-year-old Boeing 767-300, registered N670UA, flew as United Flight 3345 for 2 hours and 50 minutes from Houston (IAH) to JFK. It landed at 11:09 a.m. local time.

The Chicago-based carrier confirmed to TPG that this is the first in a series of test flights to prepare for the re-launch of JFK service. Additionally, Tuesday marks the beginning of a 12-day intensive training for local employees, along with some testing at the gate and airport.

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All the training will culminate on March 28, when United will fly its first scheduled flight from JFK in over five years. United plans two flights from JFK on the re-inaugural date, one to Los Angeles (LAX) and another to San Francisco (SFO).

The original plan was to relaunch service on Feb. 1, but the carrier has postponed that date twice, citing the “continued impact of COVID-19 on our industry” as the reason for the delay. The third time is seemingly the charm, though, as all the training is getting underway.

Returning to JFK has been on the carrier’s agenda for a while. In fact, United CEO Scott Kirby admitted that pulling out of JFK was a strategic mistake and “the wrong decision.”

When United left the busiest airport in the tri-state area, the carrier consolidated premium transcon service between the New York area and California at its Newark (EWR) hub. Some deep-pocketed passengers and corporate customers defected to other carriers that continued to serve JFK.

More: United Airlines plans ‘aggressive’ return to New York-JFK

UA is strategically using the pandemic to muscle back into JFK, one of the country’s busiest, slot-restricted airports. With an overall reduction in air service, the carrier was able to secure slots to make the flights work.

When announcing plans to return to JFK in November 2020, 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.

United will use Terminal 7 at JFK, which is shared with Alaska Airlines, British Airways and others. It remains to be seen if the carrier will arrange lounge access for its premium passengers.

The airline will fly the premium-heavy “high-J” Boeing 767-300 on the route, which sports a whopping 46 Polaris seats instead of the standard 30, as well as 22 Premium Plus premium economy recliners, 43 extra-legroom Economy Plus seats and 56 coach seats.

More: Pods, lie-flat seats and recliners: A look at premium transcon service by airline

The original plan was for two daily flights on both the JFK-Los Angeles and JFK-San Francisco routes, but that’s been slashed to five-weekly frequencies on each leg for that re-launch of service. Cirium schedules show that United will boost the flights to double-daily in May.

United will face intense competition when it resumes JFK flying. American Airlines is bringing back its swankiest jet, the Airbus A321T, to fly its premium transcon routes. JetBlue is gearing up to launch an overhauled Mint product on the JFK-LAX route, and Delta continues serving the market with a mix of Boeing 757 and 767 aircraft.

For those looking to score a seat on the inaugural, coach fares currently start at $335, while a Polaris pod is running $2,209. There is no upgrade or saver award availability for either cabin. Instead, United’s dynamically pricing awards starting at 32,500 miles for economy and 122,900 miles for biz.

Featured photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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