Monday, December 16, 2019

United frequent flier updates as market design, by Scott Kominers

Scott Kominers, at Bloomberg (possibly written while flying):

United’s Frequent-Flier Program Gets Some Game Theory
The change is a case study in marketplace design.
By Scott Duke Kominers

"In United’s old program, those who reached top frequent-flier status were given a number of upgrade certificates that could be used to boost tickets from one class of service to another, typically from economy to business. 2  Some of these upgrades were regional, meaning that they could only be used on a select set of flights -- mostly all within North America -- whereas others could be used globally. To obtain an upgrade, customers often had to join waiting lists, where priority was determined by a mixture of flier status, ticket type and request date. As a result, plenty of fliers didn’t get the upgrades they wanted.

"The new program replaces the fixed-format upgrades with a currency-like system called PlusPoints, which, like the old certificates, are awarded to those with top status. Different types of flight upgrades now have different PlusPoints costs, at an exchange rate corresponding to the old upgrade format. Many upgrade requests will still be placed on waiting lists, but there's a new option to skip the waiting list if you're willing to pay a large PlusPoints premium.
"the change is also likely to reduce congestion in the upgrade market; under the old system, transnational long-haul flights such as those from Boston to San Francisco were frequently glutted with upgrade requests, because they were among the longest flights that qualified for regional upgrades.
"There’s also some funny game theory around the option to skip the waiting list. Whereas before everyone ended up on the same upgrade waiting lists, now some people will skip the line. But that means fewer upgraded seats will be available for those on the waiting list, which in turn creates more incentive to jump ahead. So we might see some customers buying the option of skipping the waiting list just to preempt others."

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