Every flight is a story in which you are the main character, and you probably just want to get from point A to B without any villains: delays, crying babies, middle-seat tuna sandwiches. You’re probably not paying much attention to the people who actually make that flight happen: the flight attendants. But that’s a mistake, both because they are human beings worthy of respect and because they have absolutely clutch advice for you.
Part of a flight attendant’s job is to smile through it all. They are generally not allowed to express their real thoughts, to the person screaming at them in line or to the media as representatives of their airlines. We’ve spoken with flight attendants under the agreement of first names only, to hear what they’d really like passengers to know: things like what you might be doing to delay the flight, how you might inadvertently be “that person” on the plane, and what you should always have in your hands as you board.
Flying is all about sharing space (efficiently)
Kristen, who works for a major airline and is based in San Francisco, keeps a bulleted list titled Flight Attendant Pet Peeves on her phone. They might seem like small complaints, but it’s important to multiply and remember how flight attendants see a flight: as a day of work in which they are expected to do things efficiently. Kristen herself has had to board about 175 people in 40 minutes, under the pressure of metrics and time performance.
“The biggest issue is not understanding you’re in a small space with 150 other people,” she says.
Her list includes:
When people get up to use the bathroom during service and make flight attendants move the cart to get back so they can get to their seats.
During boarding, when people stand and stare at someone expecting them to move without using their words to say they need access to the row of seats.
Stretching in the galley and sticking their butt in flight attendants’ faces.
The last one, apparently, happens more often than one might guess. Her other pet peeves speak to a general lack of situational awareness of the rhythm of the flight.
During drink service, “It’s a common thing. Like, ‘Oh, can you take my garbage?’ It’s like, well, you wouldn’t put garbage in your fridge, right?” she said. “And then we go through and collect trash. And people are like, ‘Oh, can I get a drink?’ It’s like, we were just here, were we not? I mean, do you want garbage? You don’t drink out of your garbage, right?”
People also ask for water as they board, when flight attendants are not set up for service and also aren’t getting paid yet. (Her pay doesn’t start until the plane takes off. While the pay structure for flight attendants varies from airline to airline, in most cases, they don’t earn money until the aircraft door closes and the brakes are released, and their paid time officially ends when the plane is parked at the gate.)
As a passenger, you have a little work to do. First, read the menu so you’re familiar with their offerings. When you order something like a coffee, make sure you ask if you want cream and sugar. Also, pay attention. Take one headphone out. Remember that you’re speaking to a human.
Flight attendants aren’t picking on you — they’re doing their jobs
Rich and Andrew are flight attendants who often express their frustrations via the Twitter account Two Guys on a Plane. They both work for major carriers; Andrew’s is known for its relatively low costs.
Andrew, who’s about to hit 20 years as a flight attendant, says passengers misunderstand the restrictions flight attendants are under by law.
“I think ultimately we want it to be fun and lighthearted and we want everyone to have a great experience, but I think people put us in such an adversarial role because we have so many things that we are required by the FAA … to enforce,” he says. For example, telling people to fasten their seatbelts, stow their tray tables, and put their seats in the upright position.
“You think that’s us picking on you. It’s really a whole plane that we’re worried about,” he says, “and the little things that we have to do that involve you, it’s really not even about you. It’s about everyone else on the airplane, and we get put in such an adversarial role when we’re forced to do those things.”
It’s not a power trip. Flight attendants can be personally fined thousands of dollars by the FAA for not following these guidelines.
What to know about boarding
You might think that to be an A+ passenger, you should be all zipped up with your personal item and your carry-on as you prepare to board. But that could actually waste time, according to Roger, who works for a major airline.
“One of the things that I wish that airlines would do is empower our gate agents a little more to be more hosts to travelers,” he said, because what he sees often is the person in 1A arrive at their seat and before they slide in, remember that they need their book, or their charger, and stand blocking the aisle to grab it. “Even just a minute of that, we only have 35 or 40 minutes to board. And if you have 200 people, and you’re taking a minute away from that, that’s a big deal.”
So while he wishes the gate agents were given more permission to remind you, you’ll have to remember yourself. Anything you want in your seat with you as you board should be in your hand.
Another thing you should handle before getting on the plane: using the restroom.
“Bathrooms out there are larger, bigger, and cleaner; why are you waiting?” he said. “And waiting for a lavatory on the plane, which is basically a flying porta-potty.”
He understands that passengers are afraid to miss their flights. But for most people, instead of using the restroom during boarding, “If you peed in the airport, then I would be able to better do my job.”
Remember that you’re in public
Roger was leaving Mexico City when there was an issue with a white American woman, who was very upset because someone put a bag in the bin above her seat.
“And so she comes to the galley and freaks out on the crew because she doesn’t have space,” he said.
He went to her seat and saw an empty bin in the row behind her. She started to yell that she should get the bin above her seat. But when you’re on a plane, you’re in a shared space.
The woman Roger was dealing with then went on to say racist comments about other people on the plane. He’s seen a lot of intolerance for other people’s bodies and identities.
“You’re in public, and you paid to be in public. And it’s like, did you not think about this before you decided not to drive?” he says. “At what point did we give customers permission to act like this and inconvenience one another, and disrespect one another and disrespect the crew? Like, when did that happen?”
What flight attendants can’t do
People also misunderstand the limits of a flight attendant’s power.
“There’s so many limitations to our job and what we can and can’t do,” says Rich, who’s been working as a flight attendant for a decade. “So in terms of issues with rebooking flights or baggage issues, reroutes, diversions, delays, maintenance — there’s just so many things that occur when people travel that the flight attendants have zero control over. We always joke: the best I can do for you is a round of drinks.”
While their training is in medical, safety, and customer service concerns, they’re not plane mechanics or pilots. Since they’re on the front line, says Rich, people often expect them to be able to answer every question and fix every issue.
They are, like passengers, just people. One of the most dehumanizing parts of the job is that people boarding often respond to their “good mornings” and “hellos” with nothing: no eye contact, literally turning their heads away to avoid having to look at them.
“I really love when people remember that I’m human, and I’m away from home and my family, too,” says Rich, adding that his favorite moments are the connections that form with people traveling for real-life situations, such as funerals, where they can swap stories and get real. “Those really heartfelt moments are what really drive us to keep going.”
How to get those upgrades
Many people bring goodie bags or gift cards for no other reason than to thank the crew. Still, Rich of Two Guys on a Plane said he’s seen people bring in goodie bags or candy for the crew, who then turn around and say, “Now what do I get for this?”
For getting freebies or possible upgrades, “My literal best advice for this is being nice. We all respond to people being nice to us, way better than anything else.”
“That’s all very thoughtful and very much appreciated. But you know, when you have passengers who are just aware of everything going on around them, and nice to not only us but to other passengers, and you can see that happening, we’re a lot more likely to move you into an exit row or maybe give you a free drink or something like that, if it’s within our capability.”