United goes digital to ease overbooked-flight aggravation

The airline's Volunteer Solicitation Program leverages automation, data analytics, and gamification to boost customer satisfaction when flights are overbooked.

United goes digital to ease overbooked-flight aggravation
United Airlines

It's a travel experience reviled by most: the overbooked flight. When it happens, it can leave customers upset and airline gate agents at wit’s end. But with all the data at airlines’ disposal, couldn’t analytics and automation help alleviate some of this aggravation? That’s what United Airlines asked in 2017, launching an overhaul of its overbooked flight process with a goal of pleasing customers, reducing stress on employees and ultimately cutting costs.

Flights can be overbooked for numerous reasons, explains Jason Birnbaum, vice president of operational and employee technology at United Airlines. Weather, mechanical problems, and traffic control issues, for example, can necessitate changing from an aircraft with 250 seats to one that only has 220.

Most travelers are familiar with what comes next. Gate agents make an announcement and offer money or a different flight, essentially starting a live auction at the gate. If there aren't enough takers, agents must select passengers to boot from the flight, leading to irate customers and potential social media disasters for the airline.

"It was a tough situation for our gate agents and it was obviously a tough situation for our passengers too," Birnbaum says. "We realized that if we could connect with them and communicate with them earlier in the process and get some information from them through the mobile app or our kiosks or the website, we could make the process significantly better for both our customers and for our gate agents."

Automation and data help United please customers

That was the genesis of United Airlines' Volunteer Solicitation Program. The initial version of this automated program was simple: If a flight was overbooked, United Airlines would notify passengers through their check-in channel (United.com, the United Mobile app, or airport kiosks) and would ask them how much compensation they would accept in the form of travel vouchers in exchange for their seat.

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