As a flight attendant who has been on the job for 20 years, it’s easy to take my travel insights for granted – the little tips and tricks that make traveling smoother.
But after seeing so many passengers miss out on important events this summer due to airline cancellations and delays, I knew I had to start sharing that knowledge. Last month I gave nine tips for surviving travel now, and 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 that for some of you I have a curious and mysterious job. It was fun learning what you wonder, from how we look so fresh after long flights (dim lighting) to whether or not 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 like them.
I was recently assigned an exit row once already on board. I will not be responsible in an emergency. What happens if a passenger says they don’t want to sit there?
We want you to speak up. You have a very important job in that row, and we must be able to trust everyone who sits there. We ask everyone in line if they are willing and able to help in an evacuation, and being unwilling is completely understandable. Nothing bad happens; you can move to any other open seat or we will ask around for someone to switch seats with you. There are always some who prefer the exit row for the extra legroom.
What is one thing you wish all passengers would do on a plane to make your job easier?
Recognizing us as people and not treating us as part of the airplane furniture goes a long way. It is demoralizing to welcome people on board planes who look right through us without response. Smiling and saying little things like “please” and “thank you” always help lift our spirits. That perfect flight attendant smile is hard to maintain when everyone around is giving us the stink eye.
What are some things passengers do that drive flight attendants crazy?
Do not touch the 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 drives me crazy. There is nothing more annoying than trying to talk to someone who is looking right at me and they don’t care enough to pause the movie or take out the earplugs. The funny part is that I usually ask them what they want to drink or eat. I give it the courtesy of asking three times. If I don’t get an answer, I move on to the next passenger. Here’s the worst part: About three rows later, the same person will ring the call button and ask why they didn’t get anything to drink.
If you fly while you are off, do you let the flight attendants know you are a flight attendant? Is it a secret handshake or code? Do you get special treatment?
Yes! There is no secret handshake, we just say hello and tell them where we are sitting. We don’t get any special treatment, apart from maybe making a new friend or getting a whole can of soda. We notify the crew as a courtesy in the event of an emergency on board so they know where to turn for an extra helping hand.
Do you have any insider tips for parents flying with young children? I am a single mother and dread every flight I take with my soon-to-be 2-year-old.
First, and most important: Your child will feel your nerves. If you are stressed, they will be stressed. Make the flight as exciting as possible for them beforehand. Dress them up in a special new flight outfit, or buy them a new book or box of crayons. Let them get 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 flying activities in it. Let them eat or drink something on the plane that they are not always allowed to have, such as a biscuit, chips or some soft drink. We don’t always have them, but you can always ask the crew for the 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. Pack some nappies, a change of clothes, some snacks and any medicines. We also like it when you bring car seats. I know they are heavy and difficult to deal with, but most times small children feel more comfortable because it is familiar and it raises them high enough to look out the window. We like them because they are safer. It also doesn’t hurt to let them run off their energy at the airport before the flight.
I am terrified of flying since I lost friends on the planes on 9/11. Turbulence and the sketchy behavior of other passengers don’t help. What would you suggest to calm my nerves?
There is nothing I can say to calm your nerves after losing friends that day. We’ve all lost something, but for you it was personal. It is so much deeper than an irrational fear of flying. We all have anxiety about flying, even if we’re not really afraid. You are not alone.
Other passengers can add to all of this, but for the most part, if you mind your own business, others shouldn’t bother you. Legitimate issues with passengers are actually few and far between. I don’t like flying as a passenger anymore either; Being around people on my day off causes mild anxiety. So I feel you. When I fly as a passenger, I’ve started bringing noise-canceling headphones and my tablet loaded with movies or shows. I start watching something as soon as I sit down and pretend I’m in the living room. I am immediately engrossed in my show.
If you are sitting next to someone who causes you anxiety, there is a chance that an attendant may move you if the plane is not full. It is also perfectly reasonable to ask a gate agent if you can sit by a window or aisle before boarding. A glass of wine can also help you relax and enjoy the flight.
I am amazed that you, as a flight attendant, have actually chosen to be on a plane for a living. Do you ever get scared in the air?
No, I don’t usually get scared. But every now and then something scares me. I know every sound and feel of my plane, and when I hear something that isn’t right, I get nervous. If I need to, I’ll call the pilots and tell them what I’ve heard and they’ll check things out.
I would always rather fly than drive a car. Driving to and from work is the scariest part of my week. I like to be in the sky and look down. The world looks so peaceful from above. My office window is a nice respite from a crazy world of traffic and chaos. Try thinking about it instead. Part of our fear of flying is the lack of control: we have to put our trust in two people in front of us that we don’t know and can’t see. They go through a lot of training to get that responsibility. We take it for granted, but flying is truly a wonder. Try to ignore the rest and enjoy being able to travel somewhere in a matter of 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 the plane for customer service. We are actually there for safety. Before World War II, flight attendants were registered nurses. The requirement to be a nurse ceased during the war because the nurses stopped flying to join the war effort. Now we go through intense training to learn how to use all the safety equipment on board and where it is on each plane. 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 water. We also learn firefighting and how to deal with security threats and unruly passengers.
The second biggest misconception is that our job is glamorous. Our days are very long, and our overnight stays short. Sometimes we’re so tired that instead of enjoying our long sightseeing breaks, we spend them in our hotel rooms in our pajamas watching movies. Some nights are incredible though. The craziest part is that one night I can be sitting by the sea sipping prosecco with fresh seafood, and the next I can be eating a four-day-old sandwich in my galley, next to a toilet, while someone does yoga on my face. Being a flight attendant is so much more than just a job; it changes your entire lifestyle. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.