United Airlines has asked the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to intervene in a growing dispute with JetBlue Airways and Spirit Airlines over the voluntary limit of flights at Newark Liberty International Airport.
United Airlines Attacks JetBlue + Spirit Over Newark Airport Expansion, Asks FAA To Intervene
Newark is congested, but not slot-controlled. Classified as a “Level 2” airport, airlines are asked to voluntarily limit schedules in coordination with the FAA, but are not bound to do so. While JetBlue and Spirit Airlines have ramped up flights, United says it is operating the same peak-hour flights this summer that it operated at Newark over the past five years. It warns the actions of JetBlue and Spirit are creating congestion which leads to flights delays for all passengers. Now it wants the FAA to step in, even introducing slot controls if necessary. A letter from Executive Vice President Andrew Nocella to the FAA warns:
The traveling public, FAA air traffic controllers, and airport employees at EWR bear the
brunt of the effects of JetBlue’s and Spirit’s operations above the capacity cap of 79 movements per peak-hour. United implores the Secretary to take more aggressive steps and clearly communicate those steps to protect EWR passengers from avoidable delays and preserve the optimal functionality of the airport.
Spirt and JetBlue have a different take. They say United is simply trying to squeeze out competition from its hub, to the detriment of consumers. In its own letter to the FAA, Spirit alleged that United operates with “reckless inefficiency” at Newark. JetBlue has even charged that United “appears to have specifically taken steps to worsen operations at EWR” in a ruse to convince the FAA to re-introduce slot restrictions.
That may be a stretch, but the objectives are clear: JetBlue and Spirit wish to keep the door open for future expansion while United seeks to protect its strong position at Newark.
In a related manner, Spirit Airlines sued the FAA after it retired the flight authorizations of Southwest Airlines rather than re-assign them when Southwest pulled out of Newark in 2019.
The DC Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Spirit Airlines, ruling:
“We conclude the FAA’s decision was final because it prevented Spirit from operating as many peak-period flights as it would otherwise have done in the Summer 2020 scheduling season. We also conclude the FAA’s decision was arbitrary and capricious because the agency disregarded warnings about the effect of its decision on competition at Newark. We therefore grant Spirit’s petition for review and vacate the FAA’s decision to retire the peak-period flight authorizations previously held by Southwest.”
Spirit says the decision validates its decision to grow in Newark while United says the decision is narrow and it does not allow Spirit to grow carte blanche.
Now, the FAA must consider the positions of United, Spirit, and JetBlue and decide if it will intervene to block flights in order to reduce congestion.
This is a complex issue. But at the root is a competitive game of chess between United and anyone which tries to challenge it at Newark. While Newark is right that the addition of flights by Spirit beyond the recommended cap has led to congestion, it conveniently fails to mention that Spirit also helps to hold fares in check. United is now asking the FAA to choose efficiency and punctuality over competition, but it isn’t clear that will be a winning formula for consumers.