ADVERTISEMENT

>Q: On a recent Southwest Airlines flight, a flight attendant told the 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 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 in my 20 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 (including this one) 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.

***

>Q. If I check the status of my flight before leaving home, and see that it's been delayed by two hours, is there any real reason I should stick to the original check-in time? According to the airline, yes, but if they themselves are late, then I just don't see the point. What do you think?

A. As tempting as it is, we think you're better off playing it safe. Whatever the cause of the delay (mechanical? late incoming flight?), there's always the slim change it could suddenly and miraculously be corrected. Your airline could switch things up and use an alternate plane, or that incoming flight could very well make it on time. In the end, status is just an estimate, and you'll probably have a much smoother trip if you show up on time or even earlier than suggested, rather than risk missing the flight and scrambling to get on the next. Also, if you ever find yourself at the gate waiting for a severely delayed flight, you risk wandering off at your own peril. You just never know when a mechanical problem that was going to take two hours to fix is magically solved, and the plane could leave without you. So stay close to the gate.

***

>Q: I booked a flight to Honolulu with a tight connection in Houston. Is there any way to predict if my inbound flight to Houston and my outbound to Honolulu will be on time?

A: Yes. The U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics maintains on-time data for most domestic flights. For example, were you to search Continental's Flight 001 from Houston to Honolulu, you'd see that from Jan. 1, 2009, to Jan. 1, 2010, the average departure delay for this flight was 16.73 minutes with an average arrival delay of just 12.63 minutes. No flights were canceled on this route during this time period. To search any flight, visit www.bts.gov/xml/ ontimesummarystatistics/src/index.xml and then click on "flight number" and follow the instructions. If you're still concerned about making your connection in such circumstances, next time you fly try to build in a longer layover, which you can sometimes do on line when booking, or with the help of an airline reservationist or travel agent.

***

>Q: I recently had to book a flight between Newark and Boston for business and wanted to take a nonstop. I couldn't believe my eyes. Continental was charging $423 one-way, with tax, for flights in December. What's going on here? I've never paid that much. I could literally fly to London for less. Is this the result of consolidation? I ended up taking the subway (PATH train) to Manhattan, and then the NYC subway to New York's JFK airport, where I caught a $56 one-way flight to Boston on JetBlue.

A: This is indeed what happens when airlines have a virtual monopoly on a route. Only Continental flies Newark to Boston nonstop. Perhaps when United and Continental finally merge, Continental will have to give up some gates at Newark and another airline will fly that route, which is crying out for some competition.

Have a question about air travel? Send it to askairfarewatchdog.com.