United may test a flight-switching program (and it’s not about overbooking)

United Airlines may conduct a small test of a system that would give passengers the option of switching to a different flight ahead of time.

If United proceeds with the test, a few Mileage Plus members who opt into the program may receive e-mails up to five days before a trip offering seats on another flight departing the same day from the same airport.

Since Bloomberg News broke the story, the pundits have declared the test yet another move by United to avoid overbooking, which led to the now infamous incident of a man being dragged off a plane because he wouldn’t give up his seat.

Except that it didn’t. The flight was not overbooked: Four employees of the regional airline that was operating the flight showed up at the gate, unexpected, at the last minute, and said they needed to get to their next working flight as soon as possible.

And startup Volantio’s software, the subject of the proposed test, has little to do with preventing overbooking. Rather, it is designed to maximize revenue by making sure every seat is sold at the highest possible price.

For example, if an airline finds that a flight on a popular business route has a high proportion of low-fare passengers, it may wish to offer them a few perks – a voucher for future travel, some bonus miles or some other goodies – to switch to an earlier or later flight.

That would clear the way for last-minute business travelers willing and able to pay a higher price.

The airline takes some risk – it’s not likely to have a group of high flyers waiting patiently in the wings – but it also could boost revenue if one or two late-comers show up.

The program, if it works properly, also has the potential to make all concerned happy: The business traveler gets a much-needed seat, the low-fare traveler gets a sweet deal for a small sacrifice and the airline gets additional revenue.

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Michele McDonald

About the Writer :: Michele McDonald

Michele McDonald is a senior editor at tnooz. She has worked as a journalist covering the travel industry for more than two decades. She is a former managing editor of Travel Weekly (US) and former editor-in-chief of Travel Distribution Report. In 2002, she founded Travel Technology Update, a newsletter for distribution professionals. She remains editor and publisher of Travel Technology Update. She also contributes to Air Transport World.



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  1. philippe der arslanian

    Interesting article. From overselling to upselling.

  2. Timothy O'Neil-Dunne

    The move away from conventional sales is driven in part by the airlines supply side control. In the USA with Summer load factors hovering in the high 80%s and the effective “Sold Out” sign on so many flights this is a natural thing to do. Delta airlines for the past 2 years has been engaging in a reverse auction that lets people bid for being offloaded to the next available flight so this is not new. ABB has a series of products and services both attached to a PSS or independent from a PSS which enables airlines to offer different services to their customers at different points in the customer journey. This can take advantage of fixed or dynamic rules to offer alternatives. Conventional wisdom would say if you have 2 flights that go to each location and one is sold out and the other is wide open – the traditional solution was to lower the price of the less popular flight either with a formal price reduction or more usually selling out the seat buckets in the lower classes on the more popular flight. As the world moves to true dynamic pricing the value of all the products – bundled and unbundled can change. For example offering certain users incentives to switch might also come at zero cost or increased revenue OR both! Please move to the different flight time and we will enable you to buy an upgrade for only $100 with no change fees. During IROPS situations this can be very useful at sorting things out. The difficulty here is that most airlines with legacy PSSs are still naturally constrained in what they do because of the arcane “SEAT BUCKET” inventory management systems currently in place. We need to move to more retail based systems for how we provide services to the punter.



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