July 23, 2021

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – United Airlines wants the federal government to step in to address congestion problems at Newark Liberty International Airport as a runway repair project that began July 6 causes headaches for many summer travelers.

United Chief Executive Scott Kirby asked Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) chief Steve Dickson “to temporarily and proportionally reduce the number of operations per hour at Newark while airport capacity is constrained by runway construction.”

Newark, which was the 15th busiest U.S. airport in 2020 by total passengers, has seen lengthy flight delays, long taxi delays and numerous cancellations in recent weeks.

United, which has a hub at the northern New Jersey airport, flies about 65% of all Newark flights.

In the July 15 letter, which has not been previously reported, Kirby said that during a six-day period in July “the average number of (Newark) flight cancellations by all airlines was more than 100 flights per day” which placed a “severe strain on employees and operations.”

Kirby told regulators that United, which plans to resume a full schedule at Newark this fall, wants the FAA to step in to ensure that flight reductions are shared equitably among the airlines who fly in and out of the airport. He did not advocate returning to slot controls like those at New York’s JFK and LaGuardia airports, however.

Kirby asked FAA to “bring together all relevant parties to reduce the number of flights per hour temporarily and proportionally during July, August, and September.”

An FAA spokeswoman said the agency is “reviewing the letter and will respond directly to” United.

United said it supported the need of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to work on the runways now, when traffic remains below pre-pandemic levels.

But, Kirby added, “it is well established that Newark has consistently been the worst-performing airport in the country from an air traffic perspective over the past few years.”

He added that “During the 15-year period from 2005 to 2019, Newark was the most delayed core airport in the system for 10 of those years.”

The Port Authority did not immediately comment on Kirby’s letter.

United is cancelling about 70 of its current 240 scheduled flights a day at Newark since the runway construction began, airline officials said. Pre-pandemic it flew about 430 flights a day.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)