United’s New Overbooking Plan Is … Surprisingly Agreeable

It’s still our last-choice domestic airline (er, except for Spirit) — but United Airline’s new overbooking policy is intriguingly even-handed

The move was necessitated by the airline’s moral and PR failing earlier this year, when it sicced airport cops on passenger David Dao after he refused to give up his seat for United staff. 

Industry critics wondered why gate agents hadn’t upped the offer to passengers before boarding — airlines desperate to seat overbooked passengers (or staff) routinely offer over $1,000 in order to free seats up. 

United’s new plan will try to circumvent that (and prevent additional violence). Passengers on overbooked flights who opt-in to airline communications will receive an offer for $250 in flight credit to change to another flight on the original departure day. 

The big difference from normal overbooking procedures? The offer is considerably less. Airlines often start their offers to “volunteers” at around $400 and go up from there — but the early warning here is key: it means that travelers can avoid extended camp-outs at the airport and simply schedule around their new, less popular flight. It could be a good deal for passengers with a flexible schedule — $250 in flight credit won’t get anyone far, but the ability to plan around the new flight is a big plus. 

The change could also be a win for the airline — which, as mentioned, is usually forced to shell out considerably more than $250 to convince a passenger to change flights. Some experts, though, are skeptical that at $250, they’ll convince enough people to fix the overbook. 

Win-win? Lose-lose? Time will tell.