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Insider Series: What Flight Attendants Know About Passengers

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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!

Flight attendants have a few tools at their fingertips to give them as much information about their passengers as possible—from their actual elite status to whether or not they really ordered a special meal, and even what they do for a living. As part of our new Insider Series, TPG Contributor (and working flight attendant) Carrie A. Trey shares a behind-the-scenes peek at what your flight attendant knows about you.

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Your flight attendant knows your secrets, but hasn’t told them—until now. Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.

Once boarding of a flight is complete, we flight attendants are handed a departure (or final) report that lets us know what to expect for/from our actual passengers. Awash in codes that all have a special meaning (e.g., SVAN, KSML, LTRQ, SEMN, WCHR and MAAS) this important document requires us to learn a whole language designed to teach us who our passengers are before we even meet.

The most common passenger requests are for special meals—from Kosher to Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian, Vegan to Low Sodium, etc.  Sometimes these requests are accompanied by the code LTRQ, or Late Request, which means that you ordered a special meal less than 48 hours prior to the flight and it possibly didn’t make it onboard. Even at huge airport hubs like Heathrow and JFK, getting a special meal isn’t as simple as just placing an order—it also requires that you order early. Special meals are often produced on an as-needed basis, and can take 24 hours or more to prepare. (This tour of the Emirates Flight Catering Facility in Dubai and this tour of the Swiss Catering Centre in Zürich give you an idea of how much advance preparation goes in to airline meals.)

Various wheelchair codes (WCHA, WHCR, WCHG, WCHO, etc.) help us to better serve our passengers with disabilities well before they’ve boarded a flight. These codes indicate whether a passenger is capable of walking off the aircraft or might need an aisle chair to get to and from their seat, if they’re bringing their own wheelchair, if that wheelchair is electrically or manually powered, etc. There are also codes (BLND, BLAS, DEAF, DFAS) that indicate levels of hearing or visual impairment and whether or not a passenger is traveling with a companion, and if that companion is a medical professional, family member, or simply a friend.

When it comes to Fluffy, Muffy and Cottontail, we know the deal there, too. There are specific codes that indicate whether an animal in the cabin is a) a pet traveling on a paid fare, in which case it must remain in its carrier for the whole flight; b) a trained service animal; or c) one of the emotional support animals that have lately become ubiquitous.

There’s also a code (EXST) that indicates whether or not you’ve actually paid for that empty seat beside you. (Though I commonly hear this claim from passengers, I only see this code next to a passenger’s name once or twice a year.) Other codes indicate whether or not a passenger is a part of a ship’s crew, a diplomat carrying official documents, or a law enforcement officer. Further codes tell flight attendants whether a bassinet was requested (BSRQ), if passengers are traveling in a group (PGRP), if someone is a deportee, or even if someone has a peanut allergy (PNUT).

And naturally, we have codes that tell us if you’re flying on a mileage ticket or were upgraded, how many miles you have in your frequent-flyer account, what your elite status is, and whether not you have status with another airline within our alliance. Some carriers even have internal designators that reveal when a passenger is important to their bottom line, either as a big annual spender or a member of a company with an important contract. You may have extra status and not even know about it—but rest assured that we do.

As technology advances, so does our access to information about our passengers. Pursers at Emirates and KLM have been carrying laptops with them for close to a decade now, allowing them to immediately find out how many miles—and lifetime miles—you’ve banked, and even how many segments you have left until you hit the next status tier. Increasingly, major airlines are issuing digital tablets to in-flight staff; for instance, American Airlines’ flight attendants upload seat plans for their upcoming flights on their tablets and can click on an individual seat to see who’s booked it and if they have any special requests or notes attached to their reservation.

These notes in a reservation are generally provided by gate agents and other ground staff colleagues to give us a heads-up about your experience at the airport—such as, “3B missed their last flight because TSA held them up and he’s really angry” or “14A was mistreated by the last crew and the flight was delayed too, so please make sure they get the VIP experience.” Conversely, we often know about your pre-flight behavior—if you became verbally abusive, drank too much on your connecting flight (in which case we may choose not to serve you more alcohol), or were otherwise a nuisance to crew or your fellow passengers.

It’s important to remember that most flight attendants have the utmost sympathy for their passengers travel experiences, as we’re well versed in navigating busy airports and enduring long delays. While I realize that some of my colleagues seem to check their empathy at the gate, the vast majority of us understand just how hectic and stressful air travel has become—and when we say “sit back, relax and enjoy your flight,” we really mean it. We understand what you went through to get here, and we’ll use the information we have about you to ensure that you have a safe, pleasant flight. Bon voyage!
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