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

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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 makes its grand return.

The airline will resume service to the airport with flagship flights to San Francisco (SFO) and Los Angeles (LAX). The airline will operate 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.

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.

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.

“We are always looking for opportunities to better serve our customers,” a spokesperson told TPG. “At this time our focus is on providing our customers transcontinental service from JFK.”

It was not immediately clear what United’s lounge situation will be at JFK. While passengers flying premium out of Newark can access United’s luxe Polaris Lounge, JFK Terminal 7 hosts British Airways and Alaska Airlines clubs. Notably, the Alaska lounge is in the same space as the old United Club.

Related: Which lounges are open?

TPG will be at the gate for United’s return to the airport, and aboard the first flight, heading to SFO. Make sure to check back for the latest.

Featured image by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.

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