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When is it appropriate to use the call button?

Sept. 30, 2019
8 min read
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Depending on who you ask, the flight attendant call button goes by a number of different names. Some travelers refer to it as "the entitlement button" while others — many, many others — see it as the on-demand button for wine, "more wine" and, more broadly, booze.

When asked to weigh in on the controversial call button, TPG Lounge members on Facebook expressed very different views.

"I think I might be dying of a heart attack or stroke before using it," Carol K. said. "I have such a guilt complex over using the button."

Carol isn't alone in thinking the call button is reserved for cardiac arrest. "Never, ever, ever," said Kevin F. "If I was having a heart attack I would still think it over for a while."

We asked around to figure out when exactly it's appropriate to press the call button — and when instead you should consider a different course of action, so you don't land on Passenger Shaming's naughty list.

What the experts say

"Don't use the call button to ask for a drink," Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants told TPG. "As a general rule, don't think of the call button as your vodka-tonic button." Nelson explained that it's "not intended to be for ordering drinks."

"It's really for emergency use, first and foremost," Nelson said. (Got that, Carol and Kevin?)

"But it's a signal system, too. We use it to communicate with passengers," Nelson said. Like when the crew announces they're trying to locate a passenger — rather than stand up and shout or flail your arms, you can rest assured this is the perfect time to press the call button.

Nelson also said that she's used it as a flight attendant to help identify travelers who are trying to make quick connections on a delayed flight. "I've asked ... for people who are [connecting] to ring the call button." This way, all the passengers can easily see who's in a hurry to deplane — and facilitate in helping them exit first.

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Of course, there are times when it's not altogether inappropriate to use the call button.

"It may be that you're a mother, and you have an infant in your arms, and you need some help — it's difficult for you to get up, and you need assistance," Nelson said. Using the call button to get a glass of water from a flight attendant shouldn't ruffle any feathers in this scenario.

According to national etiquette expert Diane Gottsman — author of "Modern Etiquette for a Better Life" and founder of The Protocol School of Texas — travelers should assess whether they're using the call button to request a service, or request assistance.

Gottsman told TPG that travelers should ask, "Is it something I can do myself, or do I need assistance? That's the litmus test."

"While flight attendants are there to make your flight comfortable, [it's] not a service industry. They're not waiters," Gottsman explained. "If you genuinely need assistance, that's what the call button is for. If you're just thirsty and the beverage cart hasn't come yet, sit tight and be patient."

Flight attendant Amanda Pleva told TPG that she's personally not "one of those flight attendants that believes it's for emergencies only."

"Sometimes, you're in a window seat and the people next to you are asleep," she explained. "By all means, use it if you need us! I'd rather that than be screamed [at] or to have someone stewing for an hour because I was unable to receive his or her telepathic telegram."

But, as Nelson said, if your motive for using the call bell is trying not to disturb your fellow travelers, remember that "it's going to make a loud ding."

Questions of class

"It depends on where you are flying. In the U.S., the crew call that button the 'emergency call button,' meaning they only want you to use it in an emergency," flight attendant Jay Robert (also known as A Fly Guy) told TPG.

"International airlines just refer to it as a call button, or call bell, meaning during non-service times you can press it if you need something."

Other important considerations — at least for TPG readers — are the class of service and length of the flight. "In coach, I never use it," said David D. "In business or first class, I use it." David D. also said that it's "more acceptable" to use the call button on international flights.

"If I am in first [or] business, then yes for food and drinks. If I am in economy, never unless for an emergency," said John C.

When it comes to fare class, however, many experts don't agree with that perspective.

"Frankly, in my experience as a flight attendant," Nelson said, "the call buttons are typically used in coach — never in first or business." Generally, she explained, there are fewer passengers in the upper class cabins, and there are simply more frequent interactions with the crew.

And if you need something, you're probably close enough to a flight attendant to make eye contact.

"If you've paid for a ticket, everybody is deserving of good service," Gottsman said. "In regards to first and business class — [the flight attendants] are right there! There are less people, and so [the passengers] just naturally have more attention. All they need to do is make eye contact, it's such a small space."

A two-way ding

Just as passengers who use (or at least abuse) the call button may be perceived as rude, call-button response times may also be used as an indication of flight attendant responsiveness and an airline's attentiveness to passengers.

When flight attendants in United's Premium Plus cabin on a flight from Newark (EWR) to Hong Kong (HKG) failed to respond to either of two call button requests during a nearly 15-hour flight, for example, concerns about the level of service were raised — especially considering the product. After all, could they have known for sure the request was for soda and not for medical attention? And, even so, is it ever OK to ignore a passenger outright, even if the answer is "no" or the request is ultimaetly trivial?

Some airlines are even cracking down on this kind of behavior. In May, a leaked memo to Emirates cabin crew said flight attendants need to stop ignoring call bell requests.

According to Paddle Your Own Kanoo, it read: “Feedback from our customers in the last [four] months has highlighted that cabin monitoring is not being done as it should be. Cabins are being left unattended and call bells are not being answered immediately or at all.”

To ensure the new policy was obeyed, the airline dictated that call bells could only be reset at the passenger’s seat once a request had been completed, rather than resetting the bells from the aircraft’s central control unit.

If you really want to push buttons

"Beyond once or twice, the call button is really annoying," Pleva said. "There's really no reason to use it that much."

And though it may actually be a polite way to request something when a zonked-out neighbor is blocking your aisle access, there are requests that are, well, at least a little irritating.

For example, "when someone just hands you a mountain of trash, especially without so much as a word ... and we have to carry that [trash] in our bare hands through the cabin and it's likely someone just came through with a bag or cart and is likely to come by again shortly," Pleva said.

Another way to tick off the flight crew? Letting your child play with the button. "Sure, it's cute that your child rang to order a milkshake. Then [rang] to ask what my third-favorite Pokémon is. Then to ask for four sodas he or she isn't even allowed to have ...."

"Worst of all," Pleva said," is when someone else in your row just asked for something and we brought it. Making 30 trips to the same spot gets old."

Bottom line 

Don't worry, Carol. You don't have to be literally dying to use the call button. Experts of all stripes agree the button can be a useful way to communicate your needs with the flight crew.

But be conscientious about your dings — they should be polite and legitimate requests — and definitely don't think of it as your personal butler button. Use the button sparingly, and at appropriate times (not, as Pleva pointed out, during take-off), and you'll be in good hands.

"The idea is that we're all in this together, and if you're being considerate of the people around you — any time that's your motivation — you're going to be on solid ground," Nelson said.

"As passengers," Gottsman concluded, "we need to be cognizant and respectful."

So, don't use the call button to ask your "sky waitress" to heat up your tuna casserole, or request the plane flies lower so you can take pictures without clouds in your way. But if you're not feeling well or you have another serious concern, go ahead. Ring the call bell. Otherwise, keep it to yourself.

Featured image by Getty Images/fStop

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