United Asking for Volunteers Online

Overbooking, Technology, United

Though I obviously like it better when my fiancée is here in town, it seems to be much better for my blog when she’s traveling. Last time, it was the infamous United dinner roll debacle. This time, there was gum all over the tray table and the seatback pocket. Yep, it was United, and they still haven’t figured out how to clean their planes. But I’m in a good mood, so let’s focus on something positive.

When she went to check-in online last night for her flight today, she was shown this message:

07_11_12 easycheckin
I don’t know how long United has been doing this, but it’s a great idea. Think about it. When you’re already through security, sitting at the gate, you really don’t want to give up your seat. But in the past, that’s the only place they’ve tried to get volunteers when the flight is oversold.

Now think about when you’re sitting at home, the day before your flight. There’s a much better chance you’d be willing to just go on a later flight in exchange for a free ticket if you didn’t have to deal with the airport experience at all until your new flight time. It’s a win-win in most situations, but not all.

I assume United only wants to use this on flights that are significantly oversold. See, if it’s only oversold by a couple of seats, there’s a good chance there will be enough no-shows that they won’t need volunteers at all. So, if they take volunteers that far in advance, it may end up just being an unnecessary cost for the airline. Still, I would think that the customer service benefits and the ability to get more volunteers would make this worthwhile. Nice work, United.

CORRECTION 11/12 @ 920p: Thank you AS and Jonathan Reed (look down in the comments section), for pointing out that I completely misinterpreted this one. This just puts you on the list and you still have to go to your original gate and wait. So, it’s helpful for United, but it does just about nothing for the passengers. Bummer.

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15 comments on “United Asking for Volunteers Online

  1. It’s a good idea, but it looks like you still have to show up at the airport and take your chances. It would be nice if they offered you the compensation and alternate flight times there-and-then, when you do the online checkin. Otherwise you still have the airport hassle and volunteer lottery.

  2. Are you sure you are intepreting this correctly? Notice that United says volunteer “may” earn a free ticket, not that they “will” earn a free ticket. Notice also that if you elect to be a volunteer you proceed to your normally scheduled departure date. So, to get the free ticket, you have to be prepared to take your normal flight, including going thru security to your departure gate and then only if they end up needing your seat do you get the later departure and free ticket.

  3. I think this is definitely a good thing–I agree with you that a lot of people are more likely to volunteer if it doesn’t mean committing to spending several hours at the airport after they’ve already checked in. Just wondering, did they offer alternative forms of compensation, or just the free ticket?

    As another new item, UA seems to have taken to printing elite passengers’ status in big, very visible, block letters on the boarding passes from OLCI.

  4. jonathan reed is correct.

    All that UA is doing is allowing you to get on the VDB list while checking in online (similar functionality exists at EasyCheck-in Kiosks as well). In order to see whether your seat will be needed, you will need to go to the airport as usual, and see whether your seat will be needed.

    Due to the nature and timing of determining the need for denied boardings (you can imagine that airlines would like to wait as late as possible for connecting/late-check in customers), the call for VDBs doesn’t happen until less than 30, most likely 20 minutes before departure. Therefore, it would not be feasible to offer any kind of compensation or process any kind of rebooking/reprotection while you are checking in online.

  5. Oh boy, thanks for catching that AS and Jonathan Reed. I suppose I should have known that I was giving United too much credit. Now it’s just helpful for United but it does absolutely nothing for the passenger. Bummer.

  6. I read this and came to the same conclusion as the other commenters, all they’re doing is automating populating the volunteer list, nothing more nothing less. Plus the fact that they’re offering a flight on a high volume but low fare market mitigates some of the costs. (Okay, I might be completely off base here, but the fact that this is limited to Orlando says something.)

    I still think its a good idea since it cuts down on labor and coordination at the gate, and also makes clear the offer for a lower fare market.

    What I really think is that there is some benefit to offering even cheaper alternatives. What if United offered to give you a free upgrade to first class on a later (or even an earlier flight?) Since they’re giving this away as a loyalty thing anyway for the most part they save the whole thing as well, and provide two tangible benefits for the person taking the voluntary boarding denial. (Namely first class, and the fact that they know what time they’re flying, instead of waiting around at the airport.)

    Its a good idea, but I’d like to see it taken farther.

  7. I like that idea a lot, Nicholas . . . but they probably don’t have First Class available most of the time. Most airplanes in United’s domestic fleet have small First Class cabins. Right now, they have A320s on the LAX-MCO route and those only have 12 seats (tonight’s redeye was sold out). And remember, most other flights into Florida are on Ted so they don’t even have a First Class cabin on connections.

    Still, that doesn’t mean there can’t be availability up front, and I agree that they should offer it in advance if the flight is oversold.

    Is there anything else they could offer that wouldn’t cost them much and would still convince you (anyone who’s reading) to take a later flight? I can’t think of anything that would do it for me other than money/vouchers. Maybe if they gave me a Systemwide Upgrade for a future flight.

  8. The goal of course is to get the right number of customers to accept the cheapest offer to get the exact number of volunteers needed, no more, and no less.

    Honestly some type of yield management should come into play here. Combined with some data mining (especially through frequent flyer programs, and tickets sold directly) is what should be in play here.

    Part of what annoys people about the whole voluntary denied boarding, and involuntary denied boarding is how it seems kinda arbitrary. Come to think of it this is the same thing that annoys people about airline fares, but I digress.

    Here is what I think they should do. Throw everything that is cheaper than an involuntary denied boarding into the pot. Include things like free coupons for the buy onboard meals, tickets for attractions at the destination (this is where the vacations division gets to play), first class, free alcoholic drinks, a single night hotel stay, frequent flier miles, a day pass to the airport club, a meal voucher at the airport, etc. This is the spot where brainstorming is important.

    Then instead of offering the screen that says “would you like to be on the list” ask “would you like to take a quick survey?” Then you’d have four questions in this format: “If United offered you (item) and called you by (time) to (delay/push up) your departure time to (time) which would get you to (city) at (time) would you accept?” Ask this question four time with different fill ins, if necessary incentivize people to answer this with 50 or 100 frequent flier miles.. Perhaps you’d want something really big to change your flight at the last moment, but if you changed it at an earlier time you’d accept something of a lesser value.

    You might not use this data directly but it would provide a huge database to mine as to how time and reward preferences work. At the same time you would also use it to preemptively change people’s flights. I’m not sure how far in advance airlines reliably that the flight is overbooked, but by a certain time before departure there is must be a certain confidence that the flight will be overbooked and overchecked-in. (We’re really worried about overcheck-ins, not overbooking.)

    So in action this works by having Joan Q Public check in, letting her preferences be known, and receiving a phone call on her cell phone that her flight has been changed. Hopefully that is early enough that she can enjoy a more relaxed dinner, or maybe catch a movie. And since Joan has gotten benefits out of it as well its cheaper all around.

    So a Question for you CF… Any clue why I go after all these ideas without getting paid? This isn’t the first time that I’ve done something like this on an airline blog….

  9. Ok, Nicholas – that was a heck of a comment. Thank you for posting it. I can’t tell you why you don’t get paid for it, but everyone knows that the best way to get paid in this industry is to not work in it. Alternatively, go work for a consulting firm and recommend that your airline client start an airline within an airline. That seems to get people paid.

    Back to the comment. Your idea makes a lot of sense, but I worry that it’s too complicated in the form you suggest. Asking people how they feel about four different options would make passengers think they’re getting screwed somehow. I think most people assume that’s the case with airlines in general. This needs to be kept simple.

    The revenue mgmt guys can put things together here as it gets closer to departure time. If the operation goes as planned, you’ll be able to guess if you’ll be oversold or not. But as you say, the problem is being over-checked in. If you have primarily passengers on short haul flights connecting, you really won’t know until the last couple hours if the flights went on time or if the passengers will misconnect. If passengers are connecting from long hauls, you’ll have more notice, and that’s beneficial for the purpose of finding misconnects.

    On the other hand, when you’re soliciting volunteers online, the people who have no connections are your best bet. The true cut off with a passenger is that time when they’d have to leave home to get to their flight. So, you should be targeting the local passengers since they have the most leeway.

    Let’s say you’re looking at a flight from LAX to Orlando at 1045a. Someone starting their day in LAX may only need to leave home at 9a, so that’s their cutoff. Someone leaving San Diego probably has to leave at 7a to catch their flight up to LAX, so that’s their cutoff. And someone coming from Sydney is going to have to know probably 20 hours before the flight.

    So, you can take your idea and focus on the local passengers since it will be easiest for them closer to departure time. Say “We are offering xxx to take a later flight. How far in advance would you need to know about this for it to be acceptable to you? We promise we will call you by that time to let you know.”

    That way, you keep it simple and just offer one option. You can easily set up an auto-dialer to make the actual call. And then you get happy passengers who don’t have to leave home until their later flight.

  10. CF, the more and more I think about it you’re right its a little too complicated in my initial edition.

    One thing to consider is that I don’t think that only connecting passengers are a less likely group to go after for voluntary bumping. So say you’re flying BGM-PHL-SFO, on your way home from visiting your aunt. What happens if US Airways on check in pops up with “Would you like to spend a free night in the birthplace of America? If so, we’ll let you know once you land in Philadelphia if we’ll give you a free hotel stay and transportation in the nation’s capital!” (Works for Chicago, NYC, among other hubs.)

    Plus if the airline plays their cards right they work out a rate with the hotel that allows them to book rooms at reasonably nice hotels 6 PM for $50 or so if the hotel has an excess of rooms. The hotel will usually happily lower the price to get something for the room.

    US Airways in this case gets the benefit of giving their customer something tangible as a cool benefit, and perhaps the passenger doesn’t even realize they’ve been bumped. Sure there are some logistical issues to crack with bags and notifications but its within reason.

    BTW, I like what you’re doing with the blog upgrades..

  11. Sorry for the followup comment.. But of course implicit in this idea is airlines are going to have to give up the fact that planes where denied boarding compensation has been given will always be full. Sure the goal for that to be the case, but if you can bump someone cheaper earlier in the day, in the end it’ll save money and grief all around. You might not always win, but they’ll win enough that it’ll all work out..

  12. I think connecting passengers are less likely to work in this system because they would have to make their determination earlier than a local passenger. Also, for the airline, it is a cost increase since they’ll have to provide lodging and meals while that person is in the hub city. It doesn’t mean connecting passengers won’t be interested, but it’s less than ideal for the airlines.

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