Air travel used to have a certain degree of romance, but now it has all the romance of bus travel.
We all know prices have been steadily rising for most everyday goods and services we purchase, but air travel is a major exception. Competition has forced prices down to absurd levels. But air travel often means long lines, cramped seating and fees for everything from checking luggage to getting a better seat. Passengers are unhappy.
How could it possibly get any worse? Easy. You could work on the plane.
What Does A Flight Attendant Do?
From some passengers’ point of view, the role of a flight attendant is similar to that of a kindergarten teacher. They make sure passengers are in their seats and buckled up before the plane leaves the gate. “No, you can’t change seats.” “Get your feet off the seat.” “Stop kicking the seat in front of you.”
Other passengers see flight attendants as flying waiters and waitresses. They take drink orders and sell you food that airlines once served passengers for free. “What would you like to drink?” “Do you want milk in your coffee?”
From the airline’s point of view, flight attendants are safety officers. One of their incredible skills is the ability to completely evacuate a plane on the ground in 90 seconds! FYI: In our conversations with flight attendants, we’ve learned about two unexpected problems during evacuations: women in high heels sliding down the inflatable ramps and passengers insisting on bringing their duty-free liquor, which shatters during the process. Both run the risk of puncturing the inflatable slide.
The role of the safety officer has dignity. But many passengers give flight attendants little respect. This factor will work in your favor.
Not all flight attendants are equal. Most flights include a chief flight attendant, known as the purser. The purser dresses the same as the other flight attendants, but runs the show and makes the announcements.
Here’s another little known fact: Once the outer door closes, the purser runs the show. You can make the case the senior person is the pilot, but when it comes to looking after passengers, the purser is in charge.
Boarding The Plane
Let’s assume you are flying overseas on a legacy carrier, i.e. an established airline, not a discount carrier. You are flying in coach. You have your seat assignment. You’ve cleared security and are ready to board the plane. Here are some tips for getting noticed before the plane takes off.
Dress well. I always wear a suit and tie when flying. Even on Sundays. Always on vacation. Over the years, I’ve learned if something goes wrong, they take good care of “the guy in the suit.”
Here’s another reason to dress well. Flight attendants usually prefer to work international flights. Many have flown when air travel was something you dressed up to do. Also, attendants are required to wear uniforms. Dressing well is a sign of respect.
Gain airline status. Try to consolidate your flying to one or two carriers. This moves you up the pecking order for upgrades and allows you to board in one of the earlier groups. This is important because overhead luggage space is at a premium. If you don’t fly a lot, look at getting credit cards that have flight perks included.
Let people cut you off. There will be people who have sharp elbows. Everyone wants to get some overhead space. Don’t get into a pushing or shouting match. Flight attendants informally size people up as they board. Who’s going to be trouble? Who might be ill? You can come across as a classy person amid a sea of other people.
Help someone with their bag. You’ve reached your seat. It’s an aisle seat. Someone is struggling as they try to get their bag into the overhead compartment. Step out and help. But this does not pertain to the person trying to get an 18-inch-wide bag into an 8-inch-wide space.
Intermission — Time to Meet the Purser
You are seated on your international flight. Your bag is stowed. Passengers are still boarding, but the crowd has thinned out. Walk over to the nearest flight attendant and ask: “Are you the purser?” They will say no and point you to the very front of the plane. Walk forward. My wife and I always bring a half-pound box of gift-wrapped chocolate truffles from our hometown. I attach my business card with a note: “Thanks for looking after us. Bryce and Jane Sanders. Seats 31 H, 31 J.”
The purser leads off with, “How can I help you?” They expect you to ask for an upgrade.
I usually introduce myself and say: “We are big fans of this airline. I don’t want anything. We are in the seats we paid for.” Who admits they are in the seats they paid for? Many passengers want to impress the staff with their airline status, etc. But the staff already has that information on file.
Next, I explain: “When we fly internationally, we bring a box of chocolate truffles from our town of New Hope for the flight crew. Please share them once the meal service is over and things quiet down.”
Sometimes I mention, “We realize you are safety officers who happen to serve drinks, not the other way around.” Once, I was hugged after saying that.
They might ask, “Where are you sitting?” I mention the business card has our seat numbers on it. Then I head back to my seat.
What Happens Next?
You are back in your seat. It’s important not to expect anything. Don’t crane your head looking for the flight attendant. Several things might happen.
Nothing. They got busy. They forgot about the box.
You are thanked. Later in the flight, almost every flight attendant thanks you for those great chocolates. “You are so thoughtful.”
Special drinks. A flight attendant asks, “What can I bring you?” You might say, “Champagne would be nice.” Once, they put a bottle in an ice bucket by our feet. If you order a mixed drink, they might use expressions between themselves that translate as “Keep them coming.”
Physical comforts. They might bring amenity kits, a better pillow or a blanket.
Upgrade. It’s the Holy Grail. Just after the door shuts, they might approach and whisper “Your upgrade came through. Follow me, please.”
Suppose there’s no upgrade. The plane is packed. What else should you do? Easy. Continue being the person you were when you boarded.
We’ll meet again. We always interact with people with the idea we will see them again someday. It’s not a “one and done” experience. The crew might be working your return flight. Also, everyone should be treated as an equal and as a professional. As the playwright Walter Mizner said, “Be nice to the people you meet on the way up because you will meet them on your way down.”
Start a conversation. If you are seated in the exit row on a wide-body plane, there’s a pretty good chance there’s a flight attendant seated in the jump seat facing you. That’s why we always try to get Row 31 on Boeing 777s.
Introduce yourself. Mention where you are from. Are they part of a New York-based flight crew? Airlines work out of hubs. Flight attendants might live anywhere in the country, but they start work in a certain city. They might mention they live in Tulsa but fly out of Dallas. Do they speak any other languages? How long have they been flying?
You’ve now moved from passenger to person.
Smile. Flight attendants will check to see that everyone is wearing their seat belt. They will close overhead bins. They are busy, but if you catch their eye, smile. Say “Good morning.” You are acknowledging them.
Watch the safety video. OK, you’ve seen it dozens of times. If the flight attendant is primarily a safety officer, they want passengers to get with the program in case they need to evacuate the plane. Paying attention to the video shows you recognize the importance of their job.
Engage. When they come along with the beverage cart, address them by name. When they offer food — “Do you want the chicken or the pasta?” — ask their opinion. Once again, you are saying “Your opinion matters.” On a New York to London trip, a flight attendant shared: “I can serve an entire row of passengers. Only one will say ‘Thank you.’”
Ask for suggestions. It’s your first time in London. But the flight crew travels there twice a month. Ask for restaurant recommendations. If you are traveling over for a reason, tell them the sights or activity that brings you to town. On a flight to Asia, after a passenger brought up shopping, a flight attendant came over with a stack of business cards from various stores! Benefit from their expertise.
Respect their privacy. Before 9/11, it was common knowledge which hotels air crews used. We found this to be valuable information because those hotels were modern, fairly priced and convenient to the airport, even if they were in the center of town. After 9/11, this became a security issue. Don’t ask, because they are probably not allowed to tell. You might mention where you are staying, but say you realize they can’t talk about their hotel.
Don’t offer cash. The flight crew treated you well. Maybe they took your jacket and hung it in business class. They brought you stuff. In a restaurant, you would tip. Why not in the air? Because they are safety officers, flight attendants are considered professionals. Some airlines may have policies. It’s confusing. They should be allowed to accept small gifts. That’s where the chocolates come into the picture.
After The Flight
Here are a couple of other things you can do, even if you never cross paths with your flight attendant again.
Trip Advisor reviews are important. If you had a good experience, review your flight. Mention great service. The airline will appreciate it.
Write a letter to the company president. Who writes letters anymore? That will make yours stand out. Tell about your great experience. Mention the date, destination, flight number and at least the flight attendant’s first name. Describe what made the flight special. Avoid saying “I got bumped up to first class” and “They gave me stuff.” Instead, say that they were attentive. They always smiled. You saw them address another passenger’s problem. Water flows downhill. This should get into someone’s personnel file.
What have you done? You’ve radiated a good image, been a giver instead of a taker and treated people as equals and professionals. These are all good reasons for them to take good care of you.