Southwest, You Either Have Open Seating or You Don't!

Q: On a recent Southwest Airlines flight, a flight attendant told we passengers that if enough of us did not agree to move (which meant taking a middle seat in this full-to-capacity flight) so that a family with three kids could sit together, "we are not going anywhere. We will push back only when enough people switch with them, and if we have to we'll just sit here and wait for as long as it takes." As you know, Southwest has open seating, and there are three things you can do to ensure you have a decent place in the line. You can pay 10 dollars a seat extra for Early Bird Check-in, which guarantees you an “A” boarding pass, or you can sit at your computer exactly 24 hours before your departure time and check in. You can also purchase a Business Select fare, which is more money, but boards before everyone else. So, to threaten a plane full of passengers with delaying the flight's departure because this family did none of those things--well, you can imagine how that went over. They finally did get enough people to switch, but that's beside the point. We left the gate late. Southwest, you either have open seating or you don't! I have never seen either of these things happen on a Southwest flight before, and I fly quite a lot. My question: were we required by law to follow the flight attendant’s command, and what would have happened if no one changed seats?

A: Never if my 20 plus years of following the airline industry have I heard of such a thing. Shame on this flight attendant, however well intentioned she or he was. Technically, you are required to follow crew member instructions, but if a flight attendant told you to stand on your head, would you? This flight attendant should be written up for bullying passengers and causing a late departure, and he or she most likely would have been had no one changed seats, causing a severe delay. I suggest that you write to Southwest and complain. I understand that you are a fan of the airline, and there are many reasons for being one, however many travelers refuse to fly Southwest precisely because of its open seating policy, which is designed to keep fares low but which many deride as a “cattle car” approach to customer service.