20 years at 30,000 feet: Flight attendants answer readers’ questions
As a flight attendant with 20 years of experience, it’s easy to take my travel insights for granted – tips and tricks to make the journey smoother.
But after seeing so many passengers miss important events this summer because of airline cancellations and delays, I knew I had to start sharing that knowledge. Last month I suggested nine tips to survive traveling right nowand I’m amazed at the positive feedback – and thousands of comments.
After the story was published, I invite readers to ask more questions, of which I received hundreds. I know, for some of you, I have a curious and mysterious job. It’ll be interesting to know what you’re wondering, from the way we look so fresh after a long flight (the light is dim) to whether or not you should drink coffee on the plane (I don’t, but most flight attendants do).
Here are my answers to some of your questions, some of which have been lightly edited for length and clarity. I hope you like them.
I was recently assigned to an exit row when one was available. I don’t want to take responsibility in case of an emergency. What if a passenger speaks up about not wanting to sit there?
We want you to speak up. You have a very important job in that row, and we need to be able to trust everyone sitting there. We asked everyone in the line if they were willing and able to help with an evacuation, and it was completely understandable to be unwilling. Nothing bad happened; you can move to any other vacancy or we ask someone else to swap with you. There’s always someone who prefers rows of seats out for more legroom.
What do you wish all the passengers on the plane would do to make your job easier?
It goes a long way to recognizing us as human and not seeing us as part of an airplane interior. It was dismaying to greet those on the flight who looked straight at us with no response. Smiling and saying little things like “please” and “thank you” always lift our spirits. That flight attendant’s perfect smile is hard to keep when everyone around us looks at us with displeasure.
What are some of the things passengers do that drive flight attendants crazy?
Don’t touch the flight attendant. This is common sense, but somehow it’s not. We don’t like being poked, knocked, or grabbed.
The lack of headset etiquette drives me crazy. There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to talk to someone looking directly at you, and they’re not interested in pausing the movie or taking out their headphones. The funny thing is, I often ask them what they want to drink or eat. Let me ask three times. If I don’t get a response, then I move on to the next passenger. Here’s the worst part: About three rows later, the same person will press their call button and ask why they didn’t get their drink.
If you flew on duty, would you let the flight attendant know you were a flight attendant? Is there a handshake or secret passcode? Will you receive special treatment?
Right! There was no secret handshake, we simply said hello and told them where we were sitting. We didn’t get any special treatment, other than maybe making new friends or getting a whole can of soft drink. We let sailors know as a courtesy in the event of an emergency on board, so they know where to go for help.
Do you have any insider tips for parents flying with toddlers? I’m a single mom and dread every flight I take with my almost 2-year-old.
First, and foremost: Your child will feel your nerves. If you stress, they will stress. Make flying as enjoyable as possible for them ahead of time. Dress them up in a special new airplane suit, or buy a new book, or a box of crayons. Let them have all the device time they want. Download and watch a new movie or series. Practice with the headphones before the flight so they know how they work. Allow them to carry a small “on the go” bag with new inflight activities in it. Give them something to eat or drink on the plane that they’re not always allowed to bring, such as cookies, chips, or a little soda. We don’t always have them, but you can always ask the crew about those little plastic wings and let us know if it’s their first flight.
Keep your luggage as light as possible and check the rest. Bring some diapers, a change of clothes, some snacks, and any medication. We also like when you bring your car seat. I know they are heavy and difficult to handle, but most small children find it more comfortable because it is familiar and it lifts them high enough to look out the window. We like them because they are more secure. There’s also no harm in letting them run out of energy at the airport before the flight.
I’ve been scared to fly since I lost my friends on the plane September 11th. The chaos and sketchy behavior of the other passengers didn’t help. What would you suggest to ease my nerves?
There’s nothing I can say to ease your nerves after losing friends that day. We all lose something, but for you it’s personal. That’s much deeper than an irrational fear of flight. We all have anxieties about flying, even when we’re not really scared. You’re not alone.
Other passengers can add to all that, but for the most part, if you mind your own business, other people shouldn’t bother you. Legal problems with passengers are indeed few and far between. I also don’t like flying as a passenger anymore; Being around people on my day off causes mild anxiety. So I feel you. When flying as a passenger, I’ve started carrying noise-cancelling headphones and my tablet filled with movies or shows. I started watching something as soon as I sat down and pretended I was in the living room. I was immediately hooked on my program.
If you’re sitting next to the person who’s making you nervous, there’s a chance the flight attendants might move you if the flight isn’t full. It also makes sense to ask the border officer if you can sit by the window or aisle before boarding. A glass of wine can also help you relax and enjoy the flight.
I’m surprised that, as a flight attendant, you actually chose to fly for a living. Have you ever been scared in the air?
No, I’m not usually scared. Every now and then, however, something catches me off guard. I know every sound and feeling my plane makes, and when I hear something amiss, I get nervous. If needed, I call the pilots and let them know what I’ve heard, and they check everything.
I’ve always wanted to fly rather than drive. Driving to and from work was the scariest part of my week. I love being in the sky looking down. The world seen from above is so peaceful. My office window is a delightful respite from a frenetic world of traffic and chaos. Try thinking about it instead. Some of our flying fears are a lack of control: We have to put our trust in the two people ahead of us that we don’t know and can’t see. They go through a lot of training to get to that responsibility. We take it for granted, but flying is truly a miracle. Try to ignore the rest and enjoy being able to travel somewhere in a matter of hours, compared to the weeks or months it took our ancestors.
What is the biggest misconception about your job?
That is we are on the plane to serve customers. We are really there for safety. Before World War II, flight attendants were registered nurses. The request to be a nurse ended in the war because the nurses took a break from flying to join the war effort. Now, we go through intense training to learn how to use all the safety devices on the plane and where they are located on each plane. We train in basic lifesaving skills, such as CPR. We learn how to evacuate a plane in 90 seconds or less in the event of an emergency landing on land or in water. We also learn how to fight fires and how to deal with security threats and unruly passengers.
The second big misconception is that our jobs are flashy. Our days are very long, and our nights are very short. Sometimes we feel so tired that, instead of enjoying our long vacations by sight-seeing, we spend them in our hotel rooms in our pajamas watching movies. However, some nights are just incredible. The craziest part is that one night I can sit by the sea, sipping fresh seafood, and the next time I can eat a four-day-old sandwich in my kitchen, next to a toilet, while someone is doing yoga in my face. Being a flight attendant isn’t just a job; it changes your whole lifestyle. But I won’t have any other way.