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Insider Series: Should You Tip Your Flight Attendant?

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Editor’s note about our Insider Series: TPG Contributor Carrie A. Trey shares some of her most interesting stories and perspectives in this Insider Series article. Please remember that Ms. Trey’s opinions and statements here are her’s and her’s only, and they do not reflect the opinions of the TPG Team. Disclaimer out of the way….please enjoy this latest installment from the one and only Carrie A. Trey!

Tips for flight attendants aren’t unheard of on a plane—many attendants have received a few bucks on an alcohol sale, a box of chocolates or candy around the holidays, or more rarely, something nice off the duty free cart. But is tipping expected, or even something you should do? As part of our Insider Series, TPG Contributor (and working flight attendant) Carrie A. Trey explores this double-sided question, and offers a few…tips. 

My mother flew for Pan Am from 1968 until its unfortunate demise in 1991. Onboard that carrier, tipping wasn’t common practice, but when it did happen, it went down in pretty spectacular fashion. For instance, during the inaugural flight of Pan Am’s 747SP from New York to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, several of her passengers were members of the Saudi royal family, one of whom purchased a pearl necklace for every female member of the crew.

Back in the 1960's, flight attendants sometimes received lavish gifts, like pearl necklaces from the duty-free cart. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Back in the 1960’s, flight attendants sometimes received lavish gifts, like pearl necklaces from the duty-free cart. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Part of the allure of working for Pan Am was the opportunity to serve rich and powerful people on planes and then hobnob with them on the ground. Young, glamorous and full of flair, the entire crew would frequently be invited by local politicians and socialites to parties, country clubs and outings. Mum fondly remembers being treated to a lavish lifestyle during layovers around the world—splashy nights out in Copacabana, long days on the beach in Monrovia, or elbow-rubbing with socialites in Tehran, often at the InterContinental hotels that used to be owned by Pan Am. It wasn’t tipping per se, but it was certainly a far cry from the way business is done now.

Nowadays, politicians and socialites have better things to do than invite an A380 crew of 24 over to their estates for lunch and a swim, so crew generally stay in their hotel rooms during layovers. However, during my years working in the Middle East, I did see my premium-cabin colleagues receive gifts off the duty free cart, more often than not some jewelry like a watch, earrings or a tennis bracelet. To those doing the purchasing—usually Nigerians or Gulf Arabs—the cost was as insignificant as lunch money and simply a small token of their appreciation for good service. and I rarely (if ever) saw anyone turn down one of these trinkets.

There’s no need to tip your flight attendant—but a nice “thank you” is appreciated. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Tipping is rare in Europe, where living-wage salaries are common, while in the US, tipping has become endemic in service industries where employees generally earn low base salaries. Those employed by the airline industry don’t generally fall into this category; I mean, we aren’t paid as much as we were in the past, but we’re certainly not starving.

I see tipping every so often on US domestic flights where a lot of alcohol is being sold, to destinations like Las Vegas, South Florida or San Juan, Puerto Rico. On Vegas flights from the East Coast, for instance, I’ve seen flight attendants pocket upwards of $100 in tips, often split amongst the crew on a nice dinner or casino gaming tables.

I won’t say that tipping isn’t appreciated—after all, who doesn’t like having a few extra bucks in their pocket?—but it’s certainly not expected. Flight attendants do provide service, but we’re ultimately well-paid safety professionals who are paid salaries that allow us to live well both on and off layovers, and we receive excellent medical, dental and travel benefits.

So no, there’s no need to tip your flight attendant—but we all appreciate a cheerful “thank you” now and again!

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