A 2019 lawsuit by discounter Spirit Airlines has brought Newark Liberty International Airport to center stage — and now made the long-time United Airlines stronghold a part of the Biden administration’s competitiveness agenda.
The Department of Transportation (DOT) on Thursday announced that it will award 16 runway slots at Newark during the peak afternoon and evening periods to a single low-cost carrier. Spirit, as well as Allegiant Air, Frontier Airlines and Sun Country Airlines, all likely will qualify for the timings. And, if all goes according to plan, the regulator could award them in time for an airline to begin flying this winter, though the winner is unlikely to need the timings until next summer due to Covid-19 schedule reductions.
The fact that the DOT will award the slots at Newark is not unusual. This process usually plays out in a quiet corner of the Federal Register, interesting to the vested companies and airports but not to the general public. But for the regulator to publicize the process as part of President Biden’s larger economic competitiveness initiative is unusual.
“DOT’s action today is part of the Biden-Harris administration’s broader effort to create a more competitive economy that benefits the American consumer,” Deputy Transportation Secretary Polly Trottenberg said in a statement.
Although increasing airline competition certainly fits with the administration’s stated goals, airport access was not an obvious part of that. President Biden’s executive order on promoting domestic competition, which was cited by the DOT, makes nary a mention of airports. In fact, its brief airlines section focused solely on establishing clear rules around fee disclosure and refund policies, including for bags, seat assignments and inflight Wi-Fi — not on opening up competition.
One can almost see the Biden administration promoting a standard procedural process with the aim of some political gain.
Politics aside, the proceeding is a win for Spirit. The process sets up an avenue for the Florida-based discounter to expand in the New York City area, where it had long pushed for more access prior to filing the November 2019 lawsuit. In May, the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the Washington, D.C. Circuit agreed with the airline that the FAA’s decision to retire the Newark timings was “arbitrary and capricious” and revoked the action in its decision.
What is unclear is how much the Covid-19 pandemic has recalibrated the access calculus. JetBlue Airways used the crisis to more than double in size at Newark to up to 61 departures a day in September, compared with up to 26 two years ago, Cirium schedule data show. Even Spirit is bigger with up to 21 departures a day versus 13 in 2019. One carrier that is not bigger is United; the hub carrier will fly nearly 40 percent fewer flights — still up to 245 daily departures — this September compared to 2019.
Many of those new flights are likely to stay once air traffic ratchets back up to pre-crisis levels. The FAA manages Newark as a “schedule facilitated” airport, where airlines must file their preferred schedule with the regulator that then allocates runway times up to 79 takeoff or landings per hour. Priority is given to an airline’s schedule during previous seasons, which makes it difficult for non-incumbent carriers to grow. This is different from a slot-controlled airport where airlines own specific takeoff and landing times, or slots.
The Newark timings in question were vacated by Southwest Airlines when it ended service to the airport in November 2019. They were originally held by United, which sold them to Southwest as a condition of its 2010 merger with Continental Airlines.
A Spirit spokesperson was not available to comment on the Newark proceeding.