United Airlines Will Let You Bid To Be Bumped Off An Overbooked Flight

a plane parked at an airport

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It hasn’t been the best of years for United Airlines. As if the airline didn’t have enough on its plate with the Basic Economy roll out performing well under expectations (it has cost the airline over $100m so far), it has also had to deal with a public outraged over the treatment of a passenger who was violently dragged off an overbooked flight back in April.

Since that incident United has been in a somewhat contrite mood and has been examining how it deals with flights where there are more passengers than available seats.

Since the Dr David Dao incident United has said that it will no longer call law enforcement to remove paid and seated passengers if they don’t agree to give up their seat and it has raised the maximum amount it is willing to pay a passenger for voluntarily giving up his/her seat to $10,000.

Now United looks set to introduce a new program that it hopes will further minimize the chances of another David Dao situation arising.

United Airlines 787-9 Dreamliner

The LA Times has reported that United will soon introduce the option for passengers to state (in advance of a flight) how much they would be prepared to accept in compensation should there be a need to ask for volunteers to give up their seats on an overbooked flight.

In a statement to the LA Times United is quoted as saying:

As part of our commitment to further improve our customers’ travel experience with us, we plan to test an automated system that will offer customers an opportunity to voluntarily bid for a desired compensation amount in exchange for potentially changing travel plans if faced with an overbooked flight

The LA Times further reports that this program will begin testing in “select markets” in October but the airline has chosen not to provide any further information on what we can expect.

a row of seats in an airplaneHow much is your seat worth to you? United wants to know.

Still, that’s not really all that big of an issue as United won’t be the first US airline to implement such a program – Delta started doing this back in 2011.

We know how United and American love to copy Delta so it’s reasonably safe to speculate that whatever United comes up with will be similar to what Delta implemented 6 years ago.

Here’s how the Delta system works (worked? I’m not sure if Delta still does this so if someone could confirm….)

When Delta thinks there’s a chance that flight will be overbooked it offers passengers an option (during online or kiosk check-in) to state how much compensation they would be prepared to accept (in the form of Delta travel vouchers) in return for giving up their seat should their flight be overbooked.

This is pretty clever because it means that Delta gate agents usually know in advance who is willing to give up their seat and that gives them a number of useful advantages:

  • They can start with the passengers who have said they’re willing to accept the least compensation…so that saves the airline money
  • They avoid a scrum at the gate by calling up passengers they already know are prepared to give up their seats – no need for a public address system announcement and passengers crowding the gate desk.
  • They save time at the gate because they don’t have to waste time looking for volunteers. If the system is working they’ll already have a list of volunteers in front of them and that helps get the aircraft out on time.

Delta has recently joined United in saying that it is prepared to pay passengers up to $10,000 to give up their seat but, if this system is working, the price should never get close to getting that high (although one lucky passenger did get $4,000 recently).

Most travelers are inexperienced and are therefore likely to lowball whatever a more experienced traveler may bid….and that’s more good news for the airline.

Bottom Line

It will be interesting to see which markets United uses to trial this new program and it will be more interesting still to see how closely United’s “bid for bumps” program resembles the program Delta rolled out.

If you happen to be traveling on United in October keep an eye out for this trial – flights get overbooked pretty regularly so it shouldn’t take too long before we start getting reports of what this new program looks like.

[HT: Business Traveller for pointing out the LA Times article]