Spirit Airlines’ two-and-a-half year saga to expand at Newark Liberty International Airport has a happy ending. Late on Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded the discounter 16 peak “runway timings” — in short, rights to takeoff and land at an airport during a given hour — that Spirit sued for in December 2019.
The DOT said the award of the timings, which were only available to budget airlines, would boost “low-cost service options” and improve competition at the New York City-area airport. Alaska Airlines and JetBlue Airways also sought the takeoff and landing rights, according to the regulator.
Newark is a major hub for United Airlines, which operates more than 70 percent of all flights at the airport. The timings were previously used by Southwest Airlines until the carrier ended flights to Newark in 2019. And Southwest acquired them in 2010 as a condition of United’s merger with Continental Airlines.
The award comes amid a three-way war of words between JetBlue, Spirit, and United over congestion at Newark. JetBlue and Spirit blame United, and the Federal Aviation Administration, for over scheduling the already congested airport, whereas United has repeatedly made the argument that its much smaller competitors were the problem. In June, United cut its schedule at Newark by roughly 50 daily flights from July 1 through the end of the summer to combat delays.
In an interesting twist, the DOT may need to re-award the timings if JetBlue wins its hostile bid for Spirit. The former carrier has pledged to divest all of Spirit’s assets in Boston and New York — including Newark — if shareholders approve its plan over a competing proposal from Frontier Airlines. Spirit shareholders vote on the Frontier proposal Friday.