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United to cut 12% of daily Newark flights to boost performance

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WASHINGTON, June 23 (Reuters) - United Airlines (UAL.O) announced Thursday it will temporarily cut about 50 daily departures from its Newark airport hub starting on July 1 to address congestion and as concerns mount over the U.S. summer air-travel season.

The summer flight cuts, which were first reported by Reuters, apply only to domestic flights. They represent 12% of United's 425 daily flights at Newark and will not result in the airline exiting markets. United shares fell 4.9% in afternoon trading to $34.93.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on June 17 granted United approval to temporarily cut Newark flights after the Chicago-based carrier petitioned for a waiver, citing airport construction and air traffic control (ATC) staffing.

The agency said in a previously unreported letter seen by Reuters that it expected the move would "help the FAA and carriers manage delays during terminal and runway construction projects."

An email sent on Thursday to United employees by Chief Operations Officer Jon Roitman, seen by Reuters, said the cuts "should help minimize excessive delays and improve on-time performance." He added that the moves were made even though the company had "the planes, pilots, crews and supporting staffing necessary to fly our current Newark schedule."

On Thursday, airlines cancelled 10% of Newark flights and delayed another 10%, giving Newark more disrupted flights than at any other U.S. airport, according to FlightAware.

Travelers are bracing for a difficult summer as airlines expect record demand and are still rebuilding workforces after thousands of employees left the industry during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many U.S. carriers have already made significant flight cuts to summer schedules to improve performance.

Newark, the 14th busiest U.S. airport in 2021, is one of three major airports in the New York City area.

Service disruptions at Newark, where United operates about 70% of flights, can have a ripple effect across the country.

Last Thursday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg urged major U.S airline CEOs to ensure they could reliably operate planned summer schedules after thousands of Memorial Day weekend flight disruptions.

Roitman said in another email to employees earlier this month: "Because JetBlue and Spirit are scheduling unapproved flights at Newark, customers at what is already the most delayed airport in the country are enduring longer delays and more cancellations."

Spirit Airlines (SAVE.N) has rejected what it termed United's "misleading efforts to blame Spirit and JetBlue Airways (JBLU.O) for congestion delays" while JetBlue said United "should look in the proverbial mirror first when seeking a carrier to blame."

The FAA approval letter acknowledged "ATC staffing can pose challenges during certain time periods; however, this relief is granted based on the unusual circumstances due to airport construction."

United does not anticipate schedule changes at its other six U.S. hubs this summer. It has FAA approval to continue flight cuts "for the remainder of the summer" but hopes to reinstate the 50 daily departures "as soon as possible," according to the latest employee email.

Reporting by David Shepardson in Washington Editing by Bradley Perrett and Matthew Lewis
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