Passenger bumping: Atlanta startup has new way for airlines to do it

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. (Photo by Phil Skinner).
Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. (Photo by Phil Skinner).

An Atlanta startup wants to change the way airlines bump passengers. Its new method would ask travelers via text message if they would be willing to give up their seat in exchange for incentives such as miles or vouchers.

Volantio, which is based in downtown Atlanta with 16 employees at an office in the Flatiron building, has developed the technology for the passenger bumping system and recently struck a deal with airline booking firm Amadeus for funding from Amadeus Ventures and a partnership to boost its ability to expand to more customers.

Last year, Volantio got $2.6 million in Series B financing from JetBlue Technology Ventures, Qantas Ventures and International Airlines Group, and won an Amadeus Accenture Alliance pitch competition.

Being involuntarily bumped from a flight is one of the most aggravating experiences for a traveler, and airlines have been working to reduce involuntary bumpings, particularly since passenger David Dao was dragged off a United Airlines flight in 2017.

The idea behind Volantio is that there are better ways to handle excess demand for a particular flight. Some flights at certain times suddenly become sought after — whether because of a major sports event, or a storm causing travelers to fly out early, or another reason. And days before the flight, airlines can make more money by shifting some passengers from that flight in order to sell tickets to other people at a higher fare that reflects the last-minute demand.

Some travelers with flexible schedules may be happy to switch to another flight if they can get a voucher for future travel, an upgrade or another incentive.

"Our thesis, our belief, is that airlines are going to run out of ways to bundle things and charge extra" through baggage fees and other ancillary fees, said Volantio CEO Azim Barodawala. "This (Volantio system) allows airlines to make extra money, while delighting their customers."

Volantio CEO Azim Barodawala. Source: Volantio
Volantio CEO Azim Barodawala. Source: Volantio

Volantio’s platform, called Yana, uses data to target passengers who might be flexible. For example, people traveling in pairs tend to be more flexible than those traveling alone or in groups of three or more, Barodawala said. That might mean couples on leisure trips are more flexible than families going on vacation or individuals traveling for business or other reasons.

The Yana platform sends a text to those passengers who might be flexible, offering 2 or 3 options of alternative flight times to choose from.

“We give certainty” to passengers willing to be bumped to another flight, rather than simply asking if they would take a later flight without specifying a departure time, said Barodawala.

And while bumping often happens at the gate right before a flight leaves, Volantio allows airlines to shift passengers around and sell more seats well before the day of the flight.

The company also has software to help airlines manage denied boardings at the gate.

The partnership with Amadeus allows faster integration between Yana and the airlines, since Amadeus deals with everything from reservations to the flight manifest to rebookings and customer data.

Volantio charges the airlines an initial set-up fee, then charges for use of its software on an ongoing basis and gets a share of revenue generated through the use of its technology.

Volantio’s customers include Alaska Airlines, Australian airline Qantas, Spanish carrier Iberia, Mexican airline Volaris and Indian carrier IndiGo.

But it has not signed on the biggest airlines in the United States, such as Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines, American Airlines and United.

Atlanta-based Delta years ago pioneered its own system for taking volunteers willing to be bumped from a flight. “While we are continually examining ways to expand this functionality, Delta has led the industry” in this area, spokesman Morgan Durrant said in an email.

In 2010, Delta started taking bids from travelers willing to be bumped to another flight when they check in online or at an airport kiosk. Since Delta designed the system to take lower bids first, it can mean smaller amounts are paid out in compensation, thus lowering costs for overbooking and bumping.

The system was also designed to speed boarding by cutting down the time gate agents spent sorting through volunteers.

A Delta spokeswoman said the company wouldn’t comment on potential interest in partnerships.

Southwest Airlines, the second-largest carrier in Atlanta, has said since 2017 that it does not overbook flights. And in cases when it might need to swap out one Boeing 737 for another with fewer seats, Southwest said it would follow its process for rebooking.

A Southwest spokesman said the airline might boost capacity by adding additional flights to a market for a major event, “but it would not be our policy to bump existing customers to sell previously booked seats (even for incentives).”

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