As a flight attendant who’s been employed for 20 years, it’s easy to take my travel insights for granted – the little tips and tricks that make the journey smoother.
But after seeing so many passengers missing important events this summer due to airline cancellations and delays, I knew I had to start sharing that knowledge. Last month I offered nine tips for surviving on a trip nowand I was surprised by the positive response — and the thousands of comments.
After the story was published, I invited readers to ask more questions, of which I received hundreds. I know, for some of you I have a curious and mysterious job. It was nice to learn what you wonder about, from how we look so fresh after long flights (dim lighting) to whether you should drink the coffee on board (I don’t, but most flight attendants do).
Here are my answers to a selection of your questions, some of which have been lightly edited for length and clarity. I hope you enjoy it.
I was recently assigned to an exit row that was already on board. I don’t want to be responsible in an emergency. What happens if a passenger says he doesn’t want to sit there?
We want you to speak. You have a very important job in that line and we need to be able to trust everyone in there. We ask everyone in line if they are willing and able to help with an evacuation, and being unwilling is completely understandable. Nothing bad happens; you can move to another open seat, or we will ask someone to swap seats with you. There is always someone who prefers the exit row for the extra legroom.
What would you like all passengers on an airplane to do to make your job easier?
Recognizing us as people and not treating us as part of the aircraft furniture goes a long way. It is demoralizing to welcome people on board flights who look right through us with no response. Smiling and saying little things like “please” and “thank you” always help to cheer us up. That perfect flight attendant smile is hard to keep when everyone around us is giving us the stinking eye.
What are some things passengers do that drive flight attendants crazy?
Don’t touch flight attendants. This should be common sense, but somehow it isn’t. We don’t like to be poked, tapped or grabbed.
The lack of headphone etiquette is driving me crazy. There’s nothing more annoying than trying to talk to someone who’s looking straight at me, and they don’t care enough to pause their movie or take off their earplugs. The funny thing is that I usually ask them what they want to drink or eat. I give the courtesy of asking three times. If I don’t get a response, I move on to the next passenger. Here’s the worst: About three rows later, that same person will hit the call button and ask why they didn’t get a drink.
If you are flying off duty, do you let the flight attendants know that you are a flight attendant? Is there a secret handshake or code? Do you get special treatment?
Yes! There is no secret handshake, we just say hello and tell you where we are. We don’t get any special treatment other than maybe making a new friend or getting a whole can of soda. We let the crew know as a courtesy if there is an emergency on board so they know where to go for an extra hand to help.
Do you have any insider tips for parents flying with young toddlers? I am a single mother and am scared of every flight I take with my almost 2 year old.
First and most importantly, your child will feel your nerves. If you are stressed, they will be stressed. Make flying as exciting as possible for them in advance. Dress them up in a special new airplane outfit, or buy a new book, or a box of crayons. Give them all the screen time they want. Download and watch a new movie or series. Practice with headphones before the flight so they know how they work. Let them carry their own little “on the go” bag, with new airplane activities in it. On the plane, have them eat or drink something they are not always allowed to have, such as a cookie, chips or a little soda. We don’t always have them, but you can always ask the crew for those little plastic wings and let us know if it’s their first flight.
Keep your hand luggage as light as possible and check the rest. Grab a pair of diapers, a change of clothes, some snacks, and any medications. We also like it if you bring car seats. I know they are heavy and difficult to handle, but usually small children feel more comfortable because it is familiar and they are tall enough to see out the window. We like them because they are safer. It also doesn’t hurt to let them exhaust their energy at the airport before the flight.
I’ve been terrified to fly ever since I lost friends on the September 11 planes. Turbulence and the sketchy behavior of other passengers don’t help. What would you recommend to calm my nerves?
There’s nothing I can say to calm your nerves after losing friends that day. We all lost something, but for you it was personal. That’s so much deeper than an irrational fear of flying. We all have fears about flying, even if we are not really afraid. You are not alone.
Other passengers can add to that, but for the most part, if you mind your own business, other people shouldn’t be bothering you. Legitimate passenger issues are actually rare. I also don’t like to fly as a passenger anymore; being around people on my day off causes mild anxiety. So I feel you. When flying as a passenger, I’ve started carrying noise canceling headphones and my tablet full of movies or shows. I start watching something as soon as I sit down and pretend to be in my living room. I go straight into my show.
If you sit next to someone who makes you anxious, there is a chance that an attendant can move you if the flight is not full. It is also very reasonable to ask a gate agent if you can sit by a window or aisle before boarding. A glass of wine can also help to relax and enjoy the flight.
I’m amazed that as a flight attendant you actually chose to sit on the plane. Have you ever been afraid of the sky?
No, normally I’m not scared. Every now and then I get scared of something. I know every sound and feeling my plane makes, and when I hear something that’s not quite right, I get nervous. If I have to, I’ll call the pilots and let them know what I’ve heard, and they’ll check.
I would always rather fly than drive. Driving to and from work is the scariest part of my week. I love looking down into the sky. The world looks so peaceful from above. My office window is a nice break from a crazy world of traffic and chaos. Try to think about that instead. Part of our fear of flying is the lack of control: we have to put our trust in two people we don’t know and can’t see. They go through a lot of training to earn that responsibility. We take it for granted, but flying is truly a miracle. Try to ignore the rest and enjoy the fact that you can travel somewhere in a few hours, compared to the weeks or months it would have taken our ancestors.
What is the biggest misconception about your job?
That we are on planes for customer service. We’re actually there for safety. Before World War II, flight attendants were registered nurses. The requirement to be a nurse ended during the war as the nurses stopped flying to join the war effort. Now we are undergoing intensive training to learn how to use all safety equipment on board and where it is located on each aircraft. We train in basic life-saving skills, such as CPR. We learn how to evacuate an aircraft in 90 seconds or less in the event of an emergency landing on land or in the water. We also learn how to deal with security threats and unruly passengers.
The second biggest misconception is that our work is glamorous. Our days are very long and our nights are short. Sometimes we are so tired that instead of enjoying our long layovers from sightseeing, we spend them in our hotel rooms in pajamas watching movies. However, some nights are incredible. The craziest part is that one night I can sit by the ocean, sipping prosecco with fresh seafood, and the next evening I can eat a four-day-old sandwich in my galley, next to a toilet, while someone does yoga in my face. Being a flight attendant is so much more than just a job; it changes your whole lifestyle. But I wouldn’t want it any other way.