How to Tell If You Treat Flight Attendants Like Your Own Personal Air Butler

Nov 4, 2018

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Welcome to Travel Etiquette, a new TPG column that explores the fragile social contracts and the delicate dos and don’ts of travel. Have an opinion or suggestion for a future subject? Sound off in the comments below. 

Flight attendants are tasked with many responsibilities: primarily ensuring the safety of passengers while also providing customer service. They’re first responders in the case of an emergency and, when a flight is running smoothly, they’re often focused on assisting passengers with less dire requests.

Travelers who fly frequently know that comfort and customer service are extremely important — it’s why we’ll pay more to fly with certain airlines. But at what point are we crossing the line from having basic expectations met to utilizing flight attendants as our own personal concierges?

According to Dr. Jon Burroughs, founder of The Burroughs Healthcare Consulting Network who travels 300,000 miles per year, it’s important to remember that flight attendants are responsible for managing everyone on-board — potentially more than 500 passengers — not just you. “You only have so much time allotted to you and you kind of have to keep that in mind when you get on a plane,” Burroughs told TPG.

Of course, as paying customers, we’re allowed to make requests. But we asked the experts — frequent flyers, etiquette experts and flight attendants — precisely when it’s reasonable to flag down a flight attendant (and how often you can do so while still being polite).

Prioritize Your Needs

When making a request, try to label it as “important,” “less important” or “unimportant” before asking the flight attendant to dedicate his or her time to you. You should also ask yourself who the request is important to. Will it improve the experience for other passengers on board, or just yourself?

Diane Gottsman, an etiquette expert who wrote the guide “Modern Etiquette for a Better Life” and founded The Protocol School of Texas, said it’s important not to monopolize a flight attendant’s time. “Travelers should assess whether they’re using the call button to request a service, or request assistance,” Gottsman told TPG. “Travelers should ask, ‘Is it something I can do myself, or do I need assistance?’ That’s the litmus test.”

“I think there are safety issues, comfort issues, convenience issues, and then there are health issues,” Burroughs said. “When you ask how often [it’s appropriate to call the flight attendant] — when there is a health or safety issue, it’s appropriate every single time. On the other hand, if it’s a convenience or comfort issue, I think it’s OK to prioritize them, and say, ‘Is this really important, can this person really help me or not and am I going to inconvenience anyone else if I ask at this time?’”

Think twice (or even three times) before pressing the call button. (Photo via Shutterstock)
Think twice (or even three times) before pressing the call button. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Avoid Unreasonable Requests

If you come to the conclusion that there is nothing that the flight attendant can do to help you, you’ll should consider keeping that specific request to yourself.

Kelly Kincaid, a flight attendant for a major US carrier and creator of Jetlagged Comic, said she often gets requests that she has no control over. Kincaid described one situation where a passenger who had rented an inflight entertainment system asked if the pilot could circle around a bit more so she could finish watching her movie.

Kincaid also gets frequent requests involving the weather. A flight that was delayed due to heavy fog stands out. “I must have looked pretty powerful that day, because many people asked me at what time I thought fog would lift,” Kincaid said. “No idea. Seriously.”

Calling for a blanket, extra drink or second snack would fall into the “reasonable but not urgent” category. These comforts are OK to ask for, as long as you are respectful and understand if the flight attendants are unable to fulfill your request.

Consider Your Timing

Passengers must exercise good judgment and common sense when determining the right time to ask a flight attendant for something.

Gottsman said that, while there are some situations that may require the use of the call button in order to attain immediate assistance, it is important to think about where it ranks on your priority scale. “If you’re just thirsty and the beverage cart hasn’t come yet, sit tight and be patient.”

On Kincaid’s airline, passengers are welcome to make requests at any time. However, some times — such as during boarding — are a bit more hectic and inconvenient for the flight attendants. “Many people with many different needs are getting on at the same time, and we are in a time crunch to get that plane out on time,” Kincaid explained. “We are usually busy playing Bag-Tetris, fetching people seat belt extenders and [doing] about a hundred other little tiny things.”

(Photo via Shutterstock)
If you use the call button too soon, you may even delay your flight’s takeoff. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Of course, if you’re asking for help with arranging your carry-on in the overhead bin or you need a seatbelt extender, boarding is precisely the right time to call for help.

Travelers should also avoid making requests during take-off, during landing or when the aircraft is below 10,000 feet. And while this may seem obvious, it’s also best not to ask for something if the staff is dealing with a medical emergency. Kincaid said that it’s important to simply be aware of your surroundings. “If there’s a body on the floor and we’re banging on their chest, it’s probably not the best time to order another Diet Coke.”

The Bottom Line

Before asking for that second cup of coffee, remember that flight attendants have a job to do that is larger than catering to an individual traveler’s needs. If you are anxious for a second drink, wait until the flight attendant clears your first, and then ask when they are scheduled to make a second round.

And if there is nothing that anyone can do about your request, frankly, it’s best not to ask.

“I think there are times when a little judgment comes in handy,” Burroughs said. “You can say, ‘Are they really going to be able to fix the problem?’ And if the answer is no, then why even bother them with it?”

Featured image by Omar Prestwich/Unsplash.

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