United returns to New York JFK after more than a five year hiatus with inaugural flagship routes

Mar 28, 2021

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Nearly six years ago, United Airlines bid farewell to New York’s JFK airport, giving up its operations at the nation’s sixth-busiest airport — and the biggest in the Northeast — and surrendering the airport to the competition.

Today, Sunday March 28, following several delays, United made its grand return.

The airline resumed service to the airport with flagship flights to San Francisco (SFO) and Los Angeles (LAX), operating out of JFK’s Terminal 7.

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Since leaving JFK in October, 2015, the carrier consolidated its premium transcontinental and international services at New York-Newark (EWR) in New Jersey, while offering limited domestic service — mostly to hubs — from New York-Laguardia (LGA).

But in 2017, Scott Kirby — who was, at the time, president of the airline, and is now CEO — described the move as a mistake.

“I wish I could roll back the clock and change the decision,” Kirby said at an employee town hall, according to a recording seen by Skift. “It was the wrong decision.”

Although the airline reportedly lost money on the flights from JFK to LAX and SFO before ending them, Kirby suggested that keeping them in place was a good strategic move, noting that United lost major corporate accounts to American Airlines after the move.

The return to JFK was partly an opportunistic move brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Overall reduced flying meant that the airline could snag the landing slots it needed to stage its comeback.

Celebrations at the gate: A taste of normalcy despite the pandemic

The official ribbon cutting at United’s “new” JFK station. Photo by David Slotnick/The Points Guy.

If the fanfare at the gate ahead of the first flight was any indication, United’s reinstatement of its JFK station was a welcome move — by passengers, AVgeeks, and airline staff.

Despite current suppressed state of the airline industry, United held a special event at the gate before the flights, as the first arrival — flight UA514 from Los Angeles, operated by N670UA, which would fly on to San Francisco after a quick turn — taxied to the gate. It was the type of thing that a flagship inaugural route would have seen before the pandemic, and a preview of a hopeful return to normal (as was the completely full flight to San Francisco).

David Kinzelman, United’s VP of global airport operations, said that a number of employees who had applied to work at the new station had started their careers with United at the Queens airport.

“They’re coming home,” Kinzelman told TPG. “It’s been really emotional and we couldn’t be prouder.”

“All we had to do was post the openings and it started flooding in because so many people were excited to come back here,” he added.

United workers take videos and photos from the ramp as N670UA — the first plane to bring United passengers to and from JFK since 2015 — approaches the gate. Photo by David Slotnick/The Points Guy.

Alongside ramp workers who took videos and pictures as the Boeing 767-300 approached the gate, customer-facing and corporate employees were at the gate for the ribbon cutting — all wearing masks, even as social distancing was forgotten during some photo ops.

Some passengers, who booked the flight specifically to fly on the JFK inaugural, were equally excited. Others were befuddled by the United swag and all the hubbub, while some were simply pleased to find the route available.

United employees and passengers celebrate the return to JFK (the employee’s mask slipped down right before this photo — he fixed it right after). Photo by David Slotnick/The Points Guy.

“We always fly United and usually fly out of Newark, since we can take New Jersey Transit from home in Manhattan,” said Ben Boyd, one of the passengers at the gate who was in the process of moving to San Francisco. “But we have six bags for the move, so we wanted to get a flight out of JFK and take an Uber.”

“We didn’t realize it was brand new,” added Marc Rebarchik.

The fierce competition between California and New York

To attract big corporate accounts and compete with other airlines more firmly entrenched in JFK, United plans to fly its premium “high-J” Boeing 767-300 on the routes. The 767 subfleet features 46 Polaris business class seats — an increase from the usual 30 on that plane type — 22 Premium Plus seats, 43 extra-legroom Economy Plus seats, and 56 regular economy seats.

United designed the luxury concept specifically for use on flagship and premium routes, such as New York to London, in which there’s more demand for the better seats — meaning corporate and individual customers willing to pay more to fly in comfort. But it also means a better chance of upgrades for elite passengers.

One of the Polaris business class seats aboard United’s Bopeing 767-300ER. Photo by David Slotnick/The Points Guy.

As travel continues to pick up alongside COVID-19 vaccination rates, United will face fierce competition on the high-demand routes. American Airlines flies its Airbus A321T between New York and the two California cities — featuring both first class and business class cabins — while JetBlue features its lauded Mint business class cabin on JFK-LAX flights. Delta flies 757 and 767s outfitted with Delta One on the transcon routes out of JFK.

At launch, the airline will fly each route five times weekly, before increasing to a twice-daily frequency in May. One lingering question: whether the airline will expand service with more domestic or international routes.

For now, the airline envisions the JFK-California routes as a standalone service.

A water cannon salute as UA523 to San Francisco — United’s first passenger flight from JFK since 2015 — prepared to depart.

“I would say it’s more of a standalone satellite base, because there aren’t a lot of slots, purely a local market,” Ankit Gupta, United’s head of domestic planning and scheduling, told TPG at the event.

“And we will be connecting to our Star Alliance partners who operate out of here, so we do have some connections, Kinzelman added. European behemoth Lufthansa, All Nippon Airways (ANA), and Swiss Air are among Star Alliance partners with JFK service.

“In due time,” Gupta added about expanding service. “I think there’s more to be figured out before being able to start talking about that.”

United’s lounge situation at JFK

Also not immediately clear: what United plans to do about lounges at JFK.

At launch time, customers flying in Polaris did not have access to a lounge at the terminal, while passengers flying premium out of Newark can access United’s Club lounges.

Notably, however, the two airline lounges which JFK Terminal 7 hosts — British Airways Club and Concorde rooms, and  Alaska Airlines’s lounge — are temporarily closed due to the pandemic.

“There are a lot of premium passengers out of this market,” Gupta said, “so it’s something we’re interested in. We’re working on that, and in the coming few months we should have more.” Robert Einhorn, a spokesman for the airline, noted that the airline’s hands “were tied” due to the lounge closures, and said that contracting with one of the existing lounges when they reopen was “potentially” on the table.

Related: The best credit cards for Priority Pass lounge access

Notably, the Alaska lounge is in the same space as the old United Club. If you carry a credit card that comes with Priority Pass access, you can use it to get into that lounge in Terminal 7.

Featured image by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.

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