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Is it legal to kick you off an overbooked flight?

Viral video of man dragged off US flight sparks questions on overbooking

A viral video of a passenger - Vietnamese-American Dr David Dao - being dragged off an overbooked United Airlines flight in the US on Sunday has sparked the question: Can airlines legally kick someone off a flight that is too full?

The answer is yes. Just read your ticket.

Overbooking is a common industry practice to offset the perceived likelihood of no-shows.

US federal rules dictate that a carrier must first check whether any passenger is willing to voluntarily give up a seat before bumping anybody off, reported CNBC.

"Airlines overbook because people don't show up for flights and they don't want to go with empty seats," Mr George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, told CNN.

Airlines decide what the compensation is, usually a travel voucher towards a future flight or a gift card.

These voluntary swaps occur "probably thousands of times every day on a national scale", said Mr Robert Mann, the head of airline consulting firm R.W. Mann & Company. If airlines can't get enough passengers to forgo the flight, they are allowed to bump them off involuntarily.

TACTFULLY

"Even when passengers are forcibly denied boarding, the idea is to handle this as tactfully and sensitively as possible," aviation expert John Strickland told CNBC in an e-mail.

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz has said that it "followed established procedures" when aviation police removed the passenger from the plane.

In Singapore, there have been no complaints against overbooking since January last year, a Consumers Association of Singapore spokesman told The Straits Times.

While overbooking can be a frustrating experience, Singapore Management University's transport specialist Terence Fan said: "Customers who are bumped off are typically well-handled and well-compensated here.

"The staff might tell you they could upgrade your ticket to business or first-class for your next flight, for example."

Aviation analyst Shukor Yusof of Endau Analytics said overbooking is not illegal but United managed the situation poorly: "There are many other ways to persuade passengers to not fly apart from using brute force."

A Jetstar spokesman told ST: "Airlines in this part of the world have a much more conservative approach to overbooking than airlines in the US."

In Singapore, he said, the passenger bumped off is placed on an alternative flight at the check-in counter, rather than be made to deplane after boarding.

Singapore Airlines also carefully manages such passengers, said its spokesman.

"We are generally able to accommodate or make alternative arrangements for our customers who have a confirmed booking," the spokesman added.

FOR MORE, READ THE STRAITS TIMES TODAY

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