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  • United exits JFK as it moves premium transcon flights to Newark

United exits JFK as it moves premium transcon flights to Newark

United Airlines will move its transcontinental premium “PS” service to its Newark Liberty International airport hub in October, allowing it to consolidate its premium operations at the facility while boosting Delta Air Lines at New York John F Kennedy International airport.

In what is arguably the most dramatic change in air service at New York City’s three airports since the Delta-US Airways slot swap in 2011, Chicago-based United will shift all of its flights between Newark and both Los Angeles and San Francisco to PS- or internationally-configured Boeing 757-200s on 25 October. Service to New York John F Kennedy International airport will end the same day.

The move is driven by a desire to maximise its premium offerings with a consistent product at Newark while building off its global gateway at the airport, says Jim Compton, chief revenue officer of United, during a briefing today.

“Our customer base in New York is clearly served out of the Newark hub,” he says. “When we talk to our customers, where they’d like to see that product [PS] is out of our hub.”

United will increase service with the shift. It will initially offer 12 roundtrips between Newark and Los Angeles and 16 roundtrips between Newark and San Francisco this November, says Brian Znotins, vice-president of network at the carrier.

This will increase to 15 Los Angeles roundtrips and 17 San Francisco roundtrips during peak periods in 2016, he says.

The airline offers six peak day roundtrips between JFK and Los Angeles and seven between JFK and San Francisco currently, Innovata schedules show.

United has reached separate but concurrent deals with Delta to sell the Atlanta-based carrier its slots at JFK while acquiring some of Delta's slots at Newark.

“We’ve reached a fair and equitable deal in giving up slots at JFK and acquiring slots at Newark subject to government approval,” says Compton, who declines to comment further on the slot deals.

The Newark flights will be operated with 15 757-200s in a special PS configuration with 28 lie-flat business class seats and 114 economy seats, and up to 12 757-200s in an international configuration with 16 lie-flat business and 153 economy seats. All of the aircraft will be equipped with wi-fi, streaming entertainment and power outlets throughout the cabin.

The internationally-configured 757s will become available for PS service as United replaces them with refurbished Boeing 767-300ERs on transatlantic flights later this year.

“It’s very smart for United to add PS to its Newark transcons,” says Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and founder of the Atmosphere Research Group. “It makes complete sense given the fact that you have a good amount of local, O&D [origin and destination] premium travel in the market plus you have long-haul hubs on both ends of the routes.”

The move ends United’s decades long presence at JFK. One of the first airlines to serve the airport after it opened in the late 1940s, it opened its own terminal there in the late 1950s and operated a focus city there until at least the 1990s.

Times have changed. United merged with Continental Airlines in 2010, providing it with the latter’s Newark hub that far outweighed its then small presence at JFK.

PS at JFK has been losing money. The operation lost money for the past seven years – or only four years after United launched the service in 2004 - says Compton.

The airline discontinued its only other service to JFK from Washington Dulles in October 2014.

“United is basically handing Kennedy airport over to JetBlue [Airways], Delta and American [Airlines],” says Harteveldt, calling the move “amazing”.

United has faced increasing competition from all three carriers at JFK in recent years. While it was the first to debut a specialised premium product for the JFK-Los Angeles and JFK-San Francisco routes a decade ago, American, JetBlue and Delta have all caught up offering their own dedicated premium products in the market.

American launched its premium Airbus A321 transcontinental service in January 2014 and JetBlue its premium Mint A321s in June 2014, while Delta offers its own dedicated subfleet of 757-200s.

All three carriers offer lie-flat premium seats and improved inflight amenities on the routes.

“I don’t think this is really about competition, it’s about making our product more consistent to our passengers,” says Znotins when asked how the competitive service improvements impacted United’s decision.

The move will affect about 270 United employees at JFK, the airline says.

Updated with the correct launch date of PS in 2004, not 2005.

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