United Airlines Yield Management: Please Place Your Bets on Jason Busch’s Flight Cancellation!

Update: Jason's flight made it out, so out of seven people who placed bets, 4.5 of them got it right. 

Let’s hold a fun little competition today that has little to do with regular procurement issues, but everything to do with managing travel spend (and employee productivity) on a total cost basis. So far this year (37,500 PQM on United through February 11th), I’ve had multiple flights cancel prior to departure, including at least one already that looked suspiciously empty based on the online seating chart (and which became clear that the airline was able to entirely accommodate all passengers from on flights later that day, as well as the crew from that flight, a pilot told me).

Cancellations occur for lots of reasons. But a trend I first observed last year was that if a plane was less than half full, the chance of United cancelling it (unless it was a major “hub to hub” flight), was significant indeed. Of course the routing changes for a cancellation need to work as well (e.g., the load level on the originating flight into a city also must be low and easily accommodated). But generally speaking, the bar to cancel a flight seems to be getting lower and lower.

So let’s play a game. I’ve got a flight tomorrow from New Orleans to Chicago. It’s the first morning flight out (I’m returning from a giving a speech and having some meetings and a dinner the day before). It’s important that I get back to my office in Chicago this morning for various reasons (hence the reason for booking the first flight out in the morning). The flight is United 517. You can see, below, from the online seat map taken at 5:25 AM the day before departure, that the flight is almost entirely empty (at least in the front half of the plane).

united flight 1

In addition, the “inbound” flight that gets in the night before is quite empty as well.

united seating map

So the game I pose to readers today is to vote in the comments section on whether my flight is cancelled or not.

Given the games that the airlines appear to be playing more and more of these days – United is by no means the only one – I think the odds make this a toss up.

Comment below (“depart” or “cancelled”) and we’ll tally up the votes and report back tomorrow on what happened! I’ll also let everyone know if it is cancelled the reason that United gave for the cancellation.

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Voices (10)

  1. Jason Busch:

    Thank you United! The flight made it out and arrived on-time. Appreciate the response everyone. Fingers crossed for fewer flight cancellations due to “mechanical” issues and such as the year progresses. The 1 cancellation per 100 flights would be awesome! But I just can’t see it …

  2. Justin:

    I work for united and the seating chart on the united website/app only shows seats taken by individuals that are checked in at that time. It’s not an accurate reflection of how full the flight actually is. Plenty of people check in two hours or later prior to the flight actually departing and are usually assigned a seat at that time.

  3. the doctor:

    Assuming more than half of the people on the plane also booked the flight because they need to get back to the office, then the flight will definitely be:


    After all, while they can’t get away with breaking guitars,

    they can get away with cancelling flights!

  4. Raul De Frutos:

    One out of every 100 flights gets canceled, on average, according to the Department of Transportation.
    The odds clearly favor Departure 🙂

  5. Sydney Lazarus:

    I’m voting depart. But I never guess right. Does this count as a “collar hedge”?

  6. Pierre Mitchell:

    And by voting both ‘Depart’ and Cancelled’, I am using the oldest analyst trick in the book… Guess both ways (although it should be in in separate posts). And when I’m right (and wrong), point out that I called it right.
    The ‘collar hedge’ of pundits.

  7. Pierre Mitchell:

    Depart. Quantum physics says that it will both depart AND be cancelled, but since we’ve opened Schroedinger’s economy class cabin, and posting it to a highly trafficked blog, we are increasing the odds that someone at UA is watching this with their AI-based customer-sentiment sniffing tools (I don’t know if they have this – most airlines aren’t pinnacles of cust sat – but Procurement organizations certainly don’t), but they don’t want this dirty little secret being published. So, they will override the AI engine (you spend analysis geeks know what I’m talking about) and let it fly – literally. But, just to make sure this blog gets seen, and improve the odds to sway the results my sway, and to take a cue from the F-bomb dropping narrator line in the move ‘Student Bodies’ to get it an R rating (and better viewership), let me take this opportunity to say…
    UNITED SUCKS! UNITED AIRLINES SUCKS! WORST UNITED FLIGHT EVER! btw, if anyone from United reads this, don’t cancel MY upcoming flights, OK? You’re a great airline. 🙂
    Actually, I think I just pissed them off. Sorry Jason.
    New Vote: Cancelled.

  8. Lisa Whalen:


  9. Brianna:

    Cancelled! But know that I’m usually a pessimist when it comes to air travel.

  10. Thomas Kase:


    I based my vote on past performance for that particular flight, they seem to have a successful track record.

    Sometime past success does indicate future performance!

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