A United Club agent pauses between welcoming guests to steal a furtive glance toward a pair of Japanese dragon statues on the adjacent wall, one of the last remnants of United’s heyday at JFK. She has been with United for 37 years and now finds herself squeezed out of the airport she called home. United has offered her a transfer to Newark, but her 30-minute commute now becomes a 3-hour commute. She wonders out loud if she should retire, then concedes that she cannot afford to.
United’s final flight from JFK departed at 6:30p yesterday for Los Angeles to a water-cannon salute. As employees tearfully gathered for one final picture together, hugs and memories were shared. Reminiscing about the days of round-the-world service from JFK, one service director simply mused, “They done a bad thing here.”
She’s referring to United’s decision to abandon JFK and shift its premium transcontinental service to Newark. As one pilot told me on Friday, “These economic decisions are above my pay grade, but I’ve been flying the LAX-JFK route for 25 years and it seems short-sighted to me that they would abandon New York’s favorite airport.”
Is this a case of employees holding on to a legacy that is no longer viable in 2015? United claims it lost money for seven consecutive years at JFK and its gate lease was up for renewal with a dramatic increase in price offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Further, United offered every JFK agent a job at either LaGuardia or Newark airports.
To wit, one ticket agent conceded, “I realize we are expendable and am just happy we still have a job,” wryly adding, “They tell us employees are the most important asset but actions speak louder than words.” Understandably crestfallen, perhaps his next sentence was all the more surprising, “But it does not matter, I am here to do my best and I want customers to remember me for the good service I provide.” His 15-minute commute to JFK became a 90-minute commute to EWR today.
Another lounge agent concedes that Newark won’t be so bad a trek from her Long Island home, but wonders what her role will be at United’s megahub. She’s now on her honeymoon in Bermuda and still waiting for word from United about what she will be doing when she returns.
All United staff had one thing in common – disappointment over the way in which the news was communicated. “We were the last to know!” lamented another gate agent. “Why couldn’t they have told us first? We learned that our station was closing from our passengers, who had found the news online before anything was communicated to us.”
But the writing on the wall was clear – first Hong Kong, then Tokyo, then London, then Washington Dulles. United was a shrinking presence at JFK. “They’ve been trying to close us since the merger–thank goodness the unions fought for us to keep us here four more years,” quipped one ticket agent who has been with United for 26 years at JFK. Most saw this day coming.
As a Million-Miler flyer on United, JFK holds a special place in my heart. In the summer of 2004 I became loyal to United because of one round-trip from LAX to JFK. This was the trip in which I became aware of business class and unsatisfied that I was sitting in economy class. United was using rather ancient 767-200s at the time on the route and upon boarding my JFK-LAX flight I, the 16-year-old kid, decided to help myself to one of the open business class seats.
A pre-departure beverage was served and menus were distributed – I thought I was home free. Then the passenger actually assigned to my poached seat showed up and I sauntered back to economy class with my tail between my legs. It was on that flight that I vowed to fly business class next time.
Sure enough, the next time I was at JFK was one year later and this time I held a gold business class boarding pass.
My first flight in p.s. Business Class from JFK, September 20, 2005, in Red Carpet Club Pre-Flight
My last flight in p.s. Business Class from JFK, October 24, 2015, in United Club Pre-Flight. Same painting!
I remember that flight…I remember the incredible JFK-based crews I have flown with over the last decade, even when the station was closed and they were moved to other domiciles post-merger…they were still JFK. When I lived in DC and Philadelphia I would treat myself to a p.s. flight at the close of every term – back then United routing rules allowed it. I have fond memories of dozens of p.s. flights over the years and warm interactions with staff and crew, particularly the amazing United Club lounge agents.
After eight years of intensive flying, I achieved MillionMiler status with United in 2013. I am not going to even insinuate that it was the United JFK staff that kept me loyal to United, but there is no question that I went out of my way to connect in JFK and even now I can vividly recall the details of most of my JFK trips.
Now I run a highly-successful travel consulting business and I pass on this observation to United – 31 of my clients were affected by United’s pull out from JFK. Only 9 accepted the re-route to Newark. The common refrain I hear is that “Newark is not New York”. Many of my clients are the type that will pay top-dollar for premium cabin seats, but I am booking them on Jet Blue, Delta, and American now – they won’t fly to Newark.
My analysis stops here – I have no doubt United considered consumer preference for JFK vs. EWR, but United seems to be abandoning O/D travel in the NYC market, hoping instead that more will connect on United for destinations in Asia and Europe because the p.s. service now out of Newark will allow business class passengers to enjoy lie-flat seats for the domestic and international portions of their journey.
United will do what it considers best and while I will miss JFK tremendously, I personally don’t mind Newark and will continue to fly on United. If there is a silver-lining to any of this, it is that many wonderful JFK agents will move to LaGuardia and Newark – some are taking buy-outs but most are staying.
Some United employees at JFK will benefit from the closing of this station. A smiling gate agent told me, “I live on Staten Island and my commute will be about the same, but I have much better hours at Newark!” Rather than hold morning, afternoon and evening shifts based purely upon seniority, United employees at JFK worked in a rotation style in which less desirable working times were shared rather than passed to the lowest employees on the totem pole.
Back inside lounge, the ladies wished me a safe journey and thanked me for my patronage over the years to United. One who did not look much older than 41 told me that she has been with United for 41 years and has agreed to take a retirement package rather than commute to Newark. She’s three years away from Medicare and has accrued enough sick time over the decades that United has agreed to fund her healthcare until she turns 65.
Even for those who came out ahead, the familial atmosphere of working together on a small team is now forever dashed. There are worse places to work than Liberty International Airport, but Newark is a mega-hub and the work cultures of the two merged carriers are not aligned, at least not yet.
At Newark, perhaps we will see the merger finally achieved, with legacy United and Continental agents working side by side with the mutual goal of providing truly exceptional customer service.
A JFK Global Services agent gives a big bear hug to her colleague of 29 years and they both began crying. Their families have vacationed together for 15 years and the two have shared in triumph and tragedy together. “Newark won’t be so bad,” says one. “Maybe,” says the other, “But there’s no place like home.”