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Spirit Airlines, JetBlue Fight Back Against United’s Newark Airport Congestion Claims

Edward Russell
May 4th, 2022 at 12:55 PM EDT

A United plane at Newark airport.

Spirit Airlines has a beef with United Airlines at Newark Liberty International Airport. The discounter has long sought 16 peak-hour runway timings that have gone unused since Southwest Airlines left the airport in 2019, and it’s not taking the major airline’s renewed complaints lying down.

“I think United is taking a lot of liberties to blame [us] for their operations at Newark,” Spirit Vice President for Network Planning John Kirby said.

Chicago-based United has in recent weeks highlighted poor operations at Spirit, as well as JetBlue Airways, at Newark as having a negative affect on its own operations there. The way it sees it, the smaller competitors are the reason there are too many flights scheduled during peak times, and United is pushing the U.S. FAA to do something about it.

United’s broad arguments — that smaller competitors are a problem at congested airports — come from a well-worn playbook used by incumbent airlines the world over. Global airlines use similar arguments to defend their monopoly positions in airports from Frankfurt to Hong Kong and London Heathrow. By their measure, they have built up their slot positions over decades both with and without government help, and should not be forced to shrink simply because a new airline wants access.

The FAA limits Newark to 79 flight-operations an hour under a Level 2 “schedule facilitated” classification. However, that limit acts more as a soft maximum — with several hours of the day regularly scheduled for more than 79 flights — than a hard cap. Newark was slot controlled with a hard cap of 81 operations an hour until 2016.

No matter what the FAA does, Newark is perennially one of the most delay-prone U.S. airports. During the last decade, the facility was dead last in official on-time departure rankings in 2011, 2012, 2016, 2017, and 2020, and among the worst performers in other years, Bureau of Transportation Statistics data show. Newark’s performance has changed little during January and February, the most recent months for which data are available.

“The FAA has rules that limit the airport to 79 operations per hour, and they are letting airlines violate those rules,” United CEO Scott Kirby said on April 21. “It’s unheard of behavior for me for the FAA to just let people brazenly break the rules. The two biggest offenders are Spirit Airlines and JetBlue.”

His criticism followed a publicly released memo from United Chief Operations Officer Jon Roitman on April 11 highlighting the operational challenges. Roitman said the carrier has asked the FAA for “transparency on approved schedules” at Newark, and for the regulator’s rules to “be applied fairly and consistently across all carriers.”

United’s commentary is only the latest salvo in a long-standing fight over access to Newark. The Southwest runway-timings now in question were themselves divested by the carrier as a condition of its 2010 merger with Continental Airlines. Following Southwest’s exit from Newark, United pushed regulators to retire the timings, citing congestion. However, Spirit sued in late 2019 and won the case last year. The discounter applied for the 16 timings in a blind auction in February and is awaiting a decision by the DOT.

“We think United doesn’t want competition,” John Kirby said when asked about the complaints. The way Spirit sees it, United dominates Newark and, if they want to ensure flight numbers remain under the 79 hourly operations cap, they should reduce frequencies a commensurate amount based on their share.

JetBlue shares Spirit’s view that United is trying to stamp out competition. A spokesperson for the New York-based airline called United’s comments part of a continual effort by mainline carriers to “take aim at low-cost carriers, which are striving to introduce more affordable fares and needed competition in their fortress hubs.” The spokesperson said JetBlue follows FAA guidelines and has adjusted its schedule accordingly. However, some of the airline’s reductions are part of a broader round of flight cuts it made in response to its own staffing issues.

On Friday, May 6, Newark is scheduled with more than 79 flights during two hours: 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., according to Cirium schedules. United dominates both hours with 73 percent of operations during the former, and 70 percent during the latter. JetBlue operates 6 percent of flights during both hours, and Spirit less than 2 percent.

United is scheduled to operate nearly 72 percent of all departures from Newark in the second quarter, Cirium shows. JetBlue is second with 6 percent of departures, and Spirit is fifth with nearly 4 percent.

“If the FAA believes a reduction is necessary to ensure good operations at Newark, we support that,” John Kirby said. “Just be equitable across airlines.”

Edward Russell
May 4th, 2022 at 12:55 PM EDT

Photo credit: A United plane at Newark airport. Flickr / Anthony Dolce

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