United eyes return to JFK next year after a more than 5-year absence

Key Points
  • United ended service at New York's JFK in October 2015 after losing money there.
  • United's New York-area operations are concentrated at Newark Liberty International Airport.
  • A lull in service because of the coronavirus pandemic could allow United to return to JFK, what is normally one of the country's most congested airports. 
A United Airlines Boeing 737-800 and United Airlines A320 Airbus on seen approach to San Francisco International Airport, San Francisco.
Louis Nastro | Reuters

United Airlines is planning to resume service at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport in 2021, possibly early in the year, according to people familiar with the matter.

The early plans are a bet that the coronavirus pandemic's lull in air travel could help United end its five-year absence from what is normally one of the country's most congested airports.

Airlines have pulled back service more in the Northeast compared with other regions as business travel remains largely halted. Airline capacity in New York state will be down nearly 70% in October compared with the same month a year ago, more than the national average of close to a 50% decline, according to Airlines for America, a trade group that represents most U.S. carriers.

Service could start early next year but a firm timeline or decision hasn't been finalized. It isn't yet clear whether officials will grant United space at the tightly controlled airport, or which airline's slots the carrier will try to use.

United serves the New York-area from its hub at Newark Liberty International Airport, where it dominates flights, and out of New York's LaGuardia Airport.

Scott Kirby, who became CEO in May, in 2017, then United's president, said leaving JFK in 2015 was a mistake. He has since expressed a desire to return to JFK because moving those transcontinental flights allowed competitor American Airlines to win some lucrative corporate clients. JFK has been a key airport for carriers like Delta Air Lines, American and their international partners.

United's potential return to JFK isn't the first strategy shift to emerge during the pandemic. In a surprise move in July, American announced a partnership with New York-based JetBlue Airways that would let the two carriers sell seats on each other's flights. It would give Fort Worth, Texas-based American more access to New York and Boston.

United declined to comment. 

Former Continental CEO on the future of the airline industry after the pandemic
Former Continental CEO on the future of the airline industry after the pandemic