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United's New Plan for Reselling Overbooked Passenger Seats

After a major public relations black eye, United has a new plan for moving around passengers on busy flights.
Denver International Airport
Airline passengers eat in a terminal cafe as a United Airlines passenger plane is parked at a gate at Denver International Airport on Aug. 25, 2016.Robert Alexander / Getty Images file

After a major public relations black eye, United has a new plan for moving around passengers on busy flights.

This week the airline launched the test of a "Flex-Schedule" program that will email passengers ahead of time on certain flights and ask them if they will consider getting bumped — in return for a travel voucher for up to $250, Bloomberg reports.

The emails will come with subject lines like "Are You Flexible with Your Travels to Los Angeles?" sent in partnership with travel technology start-up, Volantio.

The airline will ask passengers if they're willing to take an earlier or later flight, but it won't ask them to change dates or airports.

The Flex-Schedule program will only be open to frequent flyer members who book directly on and have opted in to receiving marketing emails.

Airlines have for years have offered passengers seat upgrades or $1,000 cash or more if they give up their seats on overbooked flights and take a later flight. And if there are no volunteers, passengers may also be subjected them to "involuntary bumping." This new strategy would be a way to take a care of the problem several days in advance, instead of at the gate of a packed plane about to take off. And there's another upside for United — the freed-up seats could be resold to last-minute business travelers willing to pay more.

In recent months, United has come under fire after video surfaced of a bloodied passenger forcibly removed from an overbooked flight on the carrier, a scorpion fell from a baggage compartment and stung a passenger on the head, and a seat reserved for a toddler was inadvertently resold for $1,000 to a passenger on standby — leaving the mother to hold her child for the entire three-and-a-half-hour flight.

"We breached public trust, and it's a serious breach," United CEO Oscar Munoz told NBC News in an interview after the now infamous dragging incident.

At the time, Munoz pledged to introduce new changes to deal with overbooking, which included increasing the cap on the amount the airline offered to bumped passengers up to $10,000, getting flight crews onto flights one hour earlier, and initiating an automated system at check-in asking passengers if they would like to trade their seat.

United insists the new Flex-Schedule program is about freeing up valuable seats to someone who needs it more — and isn't about overbooking.

"It won’t mean we’re overbooking the aircraft more because we have this tool," Dave Bartels, vice president for pricing and revenue management at United, told Bloomberg. "But I also don’t know why it would lead to less overbooking."

In a statement to NBC News, United Airlines spokesman Jonathan Guerin said, "We are always looking at new ways to innovate and improve the customer experience and this extremely small test is an example of one of many opportunities we are reviewing. United has already taken steps to reduce overbooking, resulting in a nearly 90 percent year over year reduction of involuntary denied boardings for the month of June."

Volantio didn't respond to a request for comment.