United bets on sun-seekers with new Florida flights

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A United Airlines Boeing 737-800 and United Airlines A320 Airbus on seen approach to San Francisco International Airport, San Francisco.

Louis Nastro | Reuters

United Airlines is making a play for Florida this fall and winter, a bet that sun-seekers from northern states will become a bright spot for the carrier as it faces a bleak outlook for international and corporate travel because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Chicago-based airline said Wednesday that it plans to add up to 28 nonstop flights to the Sunshine State from northern cities to four Florida airports. Flights from New York’s LaGuardia Airport, Boston and Cleveland to Florida cities Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Orlando and Tampa are scheduled to start Nov. 6. United said that in December it will add nonstop flights to Fort Meyers and Tampa from Columbus, Ohio, Indianapolis, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh.

The new flights are a strategy shift for United. The airline and large competitors have long relied on a model that routes flights through large hub airports. United’s Florida initiative is its biggest increase in nonhub flights, according to vice president of domestic network planning, Ankit Gupta. Such point-to-point flying is used more by discount airlines like Florida-based Spirit. The state is also a major market for competitors JetBlue, Delta and American, which operates a Miami hub.

New York was the top source of visitors to Florida last year, according to Visit Florida, the state’s tourism company.

Airlines are looking for green shoots of demand as the pandemic keeps many travelers at home. The average number of daily screenings by the Transportation Security Administration at U.S. airports is down more than 70% from a year ago this summer, normally the busiest time of year for air travel.

While demand overall remains far off 2019 levels, Gupta told CNBC in an interview that the airline is taking a “surgical” approach to adding capacity. United’s planning team noticed an uptick in searches for flights to Florida.

Gupta acknowledged the recent surge in coronavirus cases in Florida and said the airline will stay flexible to add or remove flights depending on demand trends.

“We’ll adjust our capacity when needed,” he said. 

United in late July said it plans to fly about 37% of its 2019 capacity next month. Demand for end-of-year holidays has started to show up but it remains much weaker than last year and some travelers might prefer to wait before buying tickets, Gupta said.

“The nature of booking has changed,” he said.

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