With the summer travel season drawing to a close and business demand not picking up due to continuing pandemic concerns, United Airlines is downgrading its service to New York JFK from three-cabin 767-300s to two-cabin 757-200s. Is this move necessary to match falling premium cabin demand or will this kill off the premium advantage United currently enjoys on the route?
Downgauge Or Not: United’s JFK Dilemma
United currently utilizes Boeing 767-300ERs on its transcontinental routes between Los Angeles/San Francisco and New York Kennedy. These specially-configured aircraft are premium heavy, featuring:
- 46 business class seats
- 22 premium economy seats
- 47 extra legroom economy seats
- 52 economy class seats
Business class is arranged in a 1-1-1 configuration giving each passenger plenty of space and of course direct aisle access (review here).
United’s premium economy class includes extended recline, footrests, wider seats, and a full meal (in fact, the same meal as in business class).
United operates two flights per day between LAX and JFK and two flights per day between SFO and JFK.
But on October 5th, all four daily flights are downgraded from a 767 to a 757-200, which features:
- 16 business class seats
- 0 premium economy seats
- 45 extra legroom economy seats
- 108 economy class seats
I’ve reviewed the 757-200 here. While the lie-flat seat in business class is comfortable enough, there is not direct aisle access for window seat customers. There is also no premium economy section and economy class, arranged in a 3-3 configuration instead of a 2-3-2 configuration, feels much tighter. These aircraft, holdovers from the Continental era, are also very much showing their age.
This is not about trimming overall passenger capacity. United is trading its 167-seat 767s for its 169-seat 757s, actually adding two seats. Rather, this move totally reorients the focus from premium service (41% of seats on the 767) to economy class (91% of seats are economy class on the 757-200, a notoriously bad ratio for upgrades).
United confirmed the change will take place, but refused to discuss the reasons behind it. It is not clear how the JFK routes have performed this summer, though I routinely see flights going out with a handful of open seats in both business class and premium economy class. I also see many flights go out with every seat taken. Neither observation speaks to the yields on the route, though United has certainly not been running $99 fares this summer.
This is a curious move by United. While it makes sense for airlines to trim capacity according to consumer demand, I am frankly shocked there is so little premium demand on this route that United can drop from 68 premium seats to just 16. Furthermore, Alaska Airlines is also pulling out of the JFK-LAX market, which should theoretically direct even more traffic to United.
With CEO Scott Kirby at the helm, I am confident United will continue service to JFK. But the move demonstrates what a difficult transcontinental market New York is and probably is exposing bean counters at United to the same consideration these unprofitable routes did six years ago before they were pulled.
Finally, it should be noted that United still does not have a lounge at New York JFK for business class passengers. Both the British Airways lounge (used by Star Alliance partners ANA and LOT Polish) and Alaska Airlines lounge have re-opened, but no partnership has been announced.
United Airlines is swapping its relatively swanky, premium-heavy product onboard the 767-300 for a much older product on its 757-200 in early October on its JFK routes. While the net change in seats will only be +16 for the eight daily flights between SFO/LAX and JFK, the number of premium seats will drop by over 90%. Will this swap still attract the kind of high-value business United had hoped would sustain the route or hinder it even more? This is United’s JFK dilemma.