What does it take to claim a “Shuttle” service between two airports? Is it hourly service throughout the day? Is it more flexible fees and policies? Is it improved catering on board? For United Airlines and the new “shuttle-like” service between Newark and Washington’s Reagan National Airport (DCA) the answer is just a more frequent and consistent service, without any extras. That’s good news for passengers focused on more frequent flights between the two airports – and more connections to United’s global gateway at Newark – but probably not really a Shuttle.
Dating back to the early 1960s, Shuttle service between New York and Washington, DC has seen its ups and downs through the years. More recently, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines have dominated the market, connecting from LaGuardia to DCA or Boston. Delta added a Chicago spur in 2010 and American Airlines did the same in January 2018. Even smaller carriers like JetBlue have experimented with Shuttle-like operations. Most recently the carrier adjusted its Boston-based service to fly near hourly to DCA and the NYC area, though the latter is spread across three airports.
United now wants to play, at least in the NYC-DC market. The carrier will boost its service to 13x daily, delivering hourly flights for passengers beginning in the Spring of 2020. The new service will operate on regional jets, all offering a first class cabin and economy plus, in addition to the regular economy class seating. The company will use its 70-seat Embraer E175s and new Bombardier CRJ550 aircraft to operate the route. The service will commence on 29 March 2020 according to a company spokesman
Using the smaller planes helps control capacity as the flight frequency increases, though also presents potential operational challenges. When air traffic delays hit the region – and they often do – the smaller planes and shorter routes are far more likely to be affected. But for the passengers flying the E175 and CRJ550 both offer a higher quality on-board experience, including room for roller-board bags and sizable first class cabins. For United this also means a better opportunity to sell more premium seats onward to the rest of the world, with DCA as the origination rather than forcing those passengers to fly a segment in economy or depart from Dulles.
But it is still not quite a shuttle, and United knows it.
For American Airlines the Shuttle means dedicated gates, separate check-in areas (for shorter lines) and free beer & wine on board, according to VP Network & Schedule Planning Vasu Raja. Delta’s Shuttle also typically has improved complimentary catering.
And even that is a downgrade from what the Shuttle brand used to mean, with more flexible change rules, shorter boarding/check-in cutoff times and, for a while, guarantees that the company would roll out a new plane if a Shuttle segment was oversold, leaving no passenger behind.
JetBlue tries from time to time on the catering front, though it seems to come and go with little fanfare. United will not offer anything special on those fronts.
What really matters for a Shuttle??
Chief Commercial Officer Andrew Nocella notes that in the company’s research those features were far less compelling than the schedule, “It is about the convenience of the hourly pattern. We’ve debated internally what are the most important features of a Shuttle and as we do the surveys and analysis offering a flight every hour on the hour is key.” He also suggests that the flight is too short for the increased catering to be compelling to travelers, though a couple cold beers on the flight home after a long day on the road has proven refreshing for plenty of passengers over the years.
Perhaps most importantly, United will not call it a shuttle. At least not publicly. While the company used that term in the announcement at its Flight Plan 2020 Media Day event last week Nocella noted that it is an internal branding only. On the public side it is just more flights between the two airports.
Looking at the United timetables, that level of frequency is not unique to the DCA-Newark market. That may also be why the company is stopping short of designating it truly a “Shuttle” service. San Francisco gets 14 daily flights from 6a to 9p, but it does skip a couple hours during that period. Los Angeles gets a nearly identical schedule, with the last flight at 8p instead of 9p. Even LaGuardia to O’Hare flies hourly from 6a to 9p, plus an extra flight at 4:30p. Which is to say that there are several markets where United operates mighty similar to a Shuttle and DCA-Newark now joins that group.
But none of them are shuttles. And that’s just fine.
More from United's Flight Plan 2020 Media Day event
- What to expect on board as United’s new CRJ550 takes flight
- United Airlines’ 50-seat RJ refresh will not include IFE/C…Yet!
- MilePlay: Inside the numbers of United’s loyalty gamification & personalization push
- Does hourly service a shuttle make??