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Getting bumped from a flight can be a trying experience, as evidenced by the viral video of a passenger being removed from a United Airlines flight. (Thinking of ditching United? Here are four solid airline credit card alternatives.)

While the situation almost never gets that extreme, many airlines overbook flights and getting bumped is a very real possibility for air travelers. If passengers want to keep their seats, having an airline-branded credit card can help.

Membership in a frequent-flyer program generally makes a passenger less likely to be bumped, said Cecilia Minges, a spokeswoman for AirHelp, a company that provides legal advice to passengers whose flights are delayed, canceled or overbooked. The federal Department of Transportation requires airlines to explain how they decide who gets bumped off oversold flights.

While having a certain card won’t directly help keep you on a plane, having elite frequent flyer status often can, and many cards help holders attain that status. The big three U.S. airlines — United Airlines, American Airlines and Delta, (none returned Credit.com’s requests for comment by press time) — have similar policies on bumping, which take frequent flyer status into account. But their branded airline cards vary in their ability to help you earn elite status.

Here’s a closer look at the policies of America’s three biggest airlines.

United Airlines

United Airlines’ contract of carriage — a document outlining the rules it applies to passengers — says the status of a passenger’s frequent flyer program membership, along with the cost of their fare, their itinerary and when they showed up for check-in may determine whether they are bumped or not.

Having a United Airlines credit card won’t confer a higher status in the United MileagePlus frequent flyer program. Only earning the requisite miles by flying with United and its partners will get a passenger to a Premier level. However, having a United Mileage Plus credit card can help you get there faster. United’s credit cards all award two miles for each dollar spent on tickets purchased from United, though signup bonus miles don’t count toward Premier status.

American Airlines

American Airlines’ contract of carriage contains language similar to that of United Airlines. Membership in its AAdvantage program is one of many factors it considers in deciding which passengers to bump.

Both the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard and the AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard help cardholders earn miles faster — two miles for every $1 spent on American Airlines purchases — but only the Executive World Elite card awards 10,000 miles that will help qualify you for elite status, and only after you spend $40,000 in purchases in a year. The lowest level of elite status in the AAdvantage program, Gold, requires 25,000 Elite Qualifying Miles. (Full Disclosure: Citibank advertises on Credit.com, but that results in no preferential editorial treatment.) 

Delta Airlines

Delta Airlines also favors high-status members of its frequent flyer program when deciding who will get bumped from flights. Unlike American and Delta, it specifies exactly how much it favors elite members.

Its boarding priority rules place Diamond, Platinum and Gold Medallion members behind only passengers with disabilities, unaccompanied children, the elderly and members of the U.S. Armed Forces. Silver members are a few tiers down.

In a recent change to its policies reported by the Associated Press, Delta plans to let its employees offer close to $10,000 to coax customers to give up their seats. The airline’s previous max award was $1,350.

Delta’s branded cards offer signup bonuses that count toward qualifying for elite status. For example, you can earn 75,000 Bonus Miles and 5,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles after you spend $5,000 in purchases on your new Delta Reserve Credit Card in your first 3 months.

Before you apply for any new credit card, especially a reward credit card, you’ll want to be sure your credit is good enough to qualify. You can check two of your scores free on Credit.com.

Other Ways to Avoid Getting Bumped

Policies vary by airline. A representative for Southwest Airlines said the company didn’t consider whether a passenger has a Southwest credit card. Rather, passengers are bumped in reverse order from when they boarded, irrespective of other factors like how much they paid.

In most cases, Minges said, the more you pay for your ticket, the less likely you are to get bumped. That’s because when airlines bump passengers, they have to compensate them based on their fares, per DOT rules.

For example, if an airline bumps a passenger and arranges substitute transportation that gets them to their destination between one and two hours after their original arrival time, the airline has to pay 200% of their one-way fare, up to $675 max. Any later than two hours and they must pay 400% of a passenger’s fare, up to $1,350 max. If you paid with miles, compensation will be based on prices for other tickets in the same class.

These compensation numbers are updated every two years to account for inflation, said Charlie Leocha, president and founder of Travelers United, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group. So there’s an incentive for airlines to bump people who paid less for their tickets, Minges said. Because of that, buying a higher priced ticket, in addition to joining the airline’s frequent-flyer program, are among the surest ways to keep your seat, she said. “It’s not guaranteed, but it can help.”

Here are some other moves Minges suggested:

  • Check in early, when fewer people fly.
  • Get to the gate early. Some airlines, like Southwest, bump people based on when they check in or arrive at the gate.
  • Check your luggage. It’s easier for the airline to bump people without luggage because they don’t have to find their bags and get them off the plane before it can take off.
  • Pick the right airline. As we said, different airlines have different policies. Each airline posts their contract of carriage online. Dig through the legalese and you can find their overbooking policy. Some are friendlier than others.

At publishing time, the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard and the AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard are offered through Credit.com product pages, and Credit.com is compensated if our users apply and ultimately sign up for these cards. However, these relationships do not result in any preferential editorial treatment. This content is not provided by the card issuer(s). Any opinions expressed are those of Credit.com alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the issuer(s).

Note: It’s important to remember that interest rates, fees and terms for credit cards, loans and other financial products frequently change. As a result, rates, fees and terms for credit cards, loans and other financial products cited in these articles may have changed since the date of publication. Please be sure to verify current rates, fees and terms with credit card issuers, banks or other financial institutions directly.

Image: Tommaso Tagliaferri

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