United Airlines is launching its new Flex-Schedule program this week. They are partnering with Volantio, a third-party aviation technology startup based in Atlanta, to alleviate the problem of oversold flights and angry passengers.
Recently in the news for a few incidents of involuntary bumping (including one in which a passenger was dragged off of a plane by security), United is hoping this new program will help improve their image, make passengers happy, and possibly even increase their bottom line.
How Does Flex-Scheduling Work?
Up to 5 days in advance of a flight, United will begin sending emails to eligible passengers with subject lines like, “Are you flexible with your travels to XXXXX?”. The emails will contain offers to change your flight time in exchange for a travel voucher up to $250. If a customer agrees, they will be able to follow a link to complete the change.
To participate, customers must be members of the United MileagePlus loyalty program. They must also book their flight on United’s site and agree to receive marketing messages from United.
Passengers will never be asked to change airports or dates, and any change in class of service will be clearly spelled out. Downgrades will be rare, and upgrades almost non-existent.
Who Benefits From the Program?
If it works properly, both United Airlines and their passengers will see the positive side of the Flex-Schedule program.
For United, the benefits are mostly financial. More passengers accepting low payment bumps in advance means fewer passengers receiving higher payouts at the gate. Gate areas will be less chaotic, and involuntarily bumping passengers at the last minute will become less common. In addition, exchanged seats can be sold last minute for higher prices.
For passengers, the benefits could also be financial. Leisure travelers who have the ability to change their schedules can make a bit of extra cash to cover some future travel expenses. As a result, business travelers who need to book within a few days of a flight will have a better chance of finding available seats on their desired flights.
Perhaps Azim Barodawala, CEO of Volantio, said it best: “If you can offer a buyout to a customer in advance, everyone will be happier. For airlines, it represents a release valve—a way to shuffle people around when you’re capacity-constrained. This benefits the customer as well, you’re creating choice for them, and that’s what gets me really excited. [Passengers] get the short stick a lot.”
This new program sounds like a great way for passengers to take a bump without actually having to sit around the airport for hours waiting for their next flight. Instead, they will know the new schedule ahead of time and can plan their travel accordingly.
However, the payments of up to $250 are much lower than what people typically receive when taking a bump at the gate for an oversold flight. In addition, these payments will be made as travel vouchers rather than cash. This seriously limits your ability to use the rewards.
If this program does not lead to fewer oversold flights, it is possible that frequent travelers with flexible schedules and access to lounges will forego this smaller limited payment. They can go to the airport, hope for a higher cash offer at the gate, and head out on their original flight if they don’t get it.
As United expands this program, it will be interesting to see how it actually changes overbooking, or whether they need to up the dollar amount to get customers to accept the offers. United recently made big news for upping the compensation limits to a maximum of $10,000, so many people may hold out for a bigger payout to change their plans.