July 12 (UPI) — United Airlines said it will begin asking passengers days in advance if they would consider being bumped from a flight in exchange for a travel voucher.
The airline said it would email passengers enrolled in their frequent flier program up to five days in advance of an overbooked flight to offer a $250 travel voucher in exchange for altering their itinerary to either an earlier or later flight to the same destination that day.
The change comes months after United endured intense criticism when an elderly doctor was bloodied and dragged off a plane when he refused to give up his seat after being involuntarily bumped from his flight. Video of the incident went viral and became a symbol of what frustrated airline passengers are sometimes forced to endure as a result of airlines overbooking flights.
In order to reduce costs, many airlines have resorted to knowingly overbooking flights with the expectation some passengers won’t arrive. When flights are full and airlines need to clear space, they usually offer a cash incentive for passengers to give up their seats and take another flight. However, when passengers don’t volunteer, most airlines have a policy that enables them to involuntarily bump ticket-holders anyway.
The Flex-Schedule program was hatched in partnership with the tech start-up Volantio. Only United passengers who booked using the company’s website and signed off on receiving promotional offers will be contacted.
In addition to giving travelers advance notice of potential itinerary changes, the program has a financial benefit for United. Seats freed up at the last minute can often be resold to business travelers willing to pay a premium to book flights on short notice.
“If you can offer a buyout to a customer in advance, everyone will be happier,” Azim Barodawala, the chief executive of Volantio said. “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.”