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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, July 16, 2017 1:00 am

United hopes flex schedule limits PR gaffes

Nikki Ekstein | Bloomberg

Last week, United Airlines quietly unveiled a new technology platform that it will use to manage the problem of oversold flights – and, in the same breath, turn them into a profit opportunity.

With the help of its new flex-schedule program, the airline is piloting a way to buck the trend of involuntary bumping – the term for kicking passengers off oversold flights – without necessarily offering four-figure payouts to passengers at the gate, or curbing their practice of overselling inventory.

The airline suffered a publicity black eye this year when police dragged a man off an overbooked plane, and has since promised to offer high-price rewards to fliers who agree to change flights at the last minute.

Instead, it'll offer buyouts earlier – up to five days in advance. The upside for United? The chance to resell your ticket at a wider profit margin.

In partnership with Volantio, a third-party aviation technology startup based in Atlanta, United will soon begin sending email newsletters with subject lines such as “Are You Flexible with Your Travels to Los Angeles?” Inside, travelers will have the option to sign up for potential rewards – so long as they're willing to budge a little on their flight itineraries.

Only those who book on United.com and opt in to receive marketing messages will be eligible for the sign-up offer – and signing up doesn't guarantee that you'll be asked to change your flight.

If it's looking like your seat has turned into a hot commodity, though, you'll be offered the chance to tweak your itinerary in exchange for a travel voucher up to $250.

And tweak is the key word: You'll never be asked to change dates or airports, and your seat preferences will carry over, with clear indicators if you're taking a downgrade from Economy Plus to regular Economy. (Downgrades will be rare, but upgrades will be rarer.) Accept the bid if you wish, and you'll be rebooked within 24 hours.

After months of negative press – the doctor who was dragged off the plane, the infant whose $1,000 seat was inadvertently resold – United's image has taken a nosedive.

According to Azim Barodawala, the chief executive of Volantio, the Flex-Schedule Program could be an opportunity to change the narrative with the help of innovative technology, rather than cumbersome regulations.