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Flight Attendants at Their Best — and Worst

With so much of the flight experience taking place online and at computer or kiosk terminals, the human interaction of many fliers with their airline narrows down to a very small group of people: flight attendants. Unless you have a bag to check or questions at the gate, the FA’s are going to be the face of your airline for you, and once onboard they call all the shots; they decide whether you get another three ounces of water, if the bag at your feet meets the standard of the second, when you can stand up and go to the bathroom — pretty much everything.

The vast majority of the time, this isn’t a problem. But when it is, the traveler has essentially no recourse. It is financially, logistically and sometimes legally difficult or even impossible to change flights once you’ve boarded the plane (and obviously once you’ve taken off, you’re there for the duration).

The game is rigged well upstream from the airport gate area; corporate policies toward both travelers and flight attendants pit them as the cannon fodder in the tussle between the bank accounts of airlines and the traveling public. These policies include erratic pricing patterns, punitive change and cancellation fees, the elimination of simple creature comforts from aircraft cabins, baggage rules that strongly encourage carry-on excess, new fees simply to sit together, and more.

On the other hand, flight attendants are massively outnumbered. Less than a handful of attendants deal with dozens or hundreds of passengers, most of whom who feel shafted in some way, whether by fees, or tiny seats, or seat availability, or delayed flights, or messy TSA procedures, or even fellow passengers. Flight attendants are the traffic cops and the water dispensers and everything in between for large and potentially unruly groups of harried travelers — and that’s when everything is going well.

So to some extent, the battle lines are drawn between flight attendants and passengers — but as is often the case, the truth is we should be in this together; after all, once we are in the air, we have only each other to blame (or, we can hope, to thank).

As the senator once said, “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.” In hopes of setting things a bit right in the air, this week I’ll look at what flight attendants do really well, and what they could improve, to help us all get along. In an upcoming column, I’ll do the same for my fellow travelers.

What Flight Attendants Get Right

1. Dealing with all of us.

Given that flight attendants are so massively outnumbered, it is an act of courage and fortitude just to get up in front of that many people every day. Take a cross-country flight on an Airbus 320 — then imagine a restaurant of 150 people served by three or four people for five hours. Ouch. Many people won’t even stand up in a room of 150 people, let along go talk to and assist every single one of them.

2. Enforcing the rules consistently and sensibly.

When a flight attendant crew clearly knows their stuff, understands what is acceptable and what is not, and enforces the rules consistently and dispassionately, they deserve our (and get my) utmost respect and cooperation.

3. Figuring out who needs extra help, and giving it to them.

Frequent travelers know the drill — keep your stuff to yourself, don’t impose yourself on others beyond simple needs and courtesies, and keep the peace. And able-bodied people don’t need much help overall in getting themselves through a flight. But not everyone has traveled extensively, or can barrel up and down an aircraft aisle quickly. Japan-based ESL teacher Dan McLaughlin recalls a flight on which his Japanese father-in-law, who eats a very traditional diet, could not eat the egg sandwiches in coach, so the attendant went up to first class and found him some onigiri that was on the menu in the front of the plane. The best flight attendants know almost immediately who needs a little extra help, and they give it to them without prejudice — and in doing so benefit everyone else on the aircraft. To each according to his needs — the best FA’s have this wired.

4. Being pros.

We all try to do our best at our jobs, and intrinsically appreciate someone else who does the same. In the end, the travelers are the paying customers, and the flight attendants have a very specific and important job — and when a flight attendant is professional in every way, most travelers notice and appreciate it.

Remember, when things get hairy, tremendous responsibility falls immediately to the same person who was doling out diet ginger ale seconds before. Frequent traveler Mike Sullivan notes: “[In] every story I’ve read about airline disasters, hijackings, etc., the FA’s have been professional and courageous. Where I’ve witnessed dangerous or ridiculously bad passenger behavior, it’s impressive how they have handled it.”

5. Being human.

Finally, job or not, we’re all humans sharing this metal egg for a few hours, and flight attendants that keep it real are like gold. Sullivan again: “When treated badly by frustrated passengers (there’s often good reason to be frustrated or pissed off, and it’s not because of the FA’s), I have liked the [flight attendants] that give a sympathetic smile to the passengers who are enduring with patience.”

What Flight Attendants Could Improve

1. Changing the rules while the game is in progress.

This derives directly from the imbalance of power in the cabin. If you travel more than a couple of times each year, it becomes extremely obvious when a flight attendant is playing fast with the rules just to make it clear who is in charge. Believe us, we know we have no power whatsoever in the aircraft; you don’t have to rub our noses in it. Current events pet peeve — carry-on rules. Either enforce them or don’t — but doing so on one flight and not on another, or for the people who board last and not those who board first, just isn’t fair.

2. Playing the “safety card” to avoid work or get their way.

Frequent travelers see this one as well, and it is a form of crying wolf. Seriously, it is not a safety issue to bring an elderly person or toddler a little extra water before the cabin service begins, and we all know it. The best flight attendants I have seen put safety first in almost everything they do — but some of the worst I have seen seem to mention it in everything they say. Safety onboard is of critical importance, and as such should not be an excuse simply not to do something one doesn’t feel like doing.

3. Talking endlessly.

I get that the new hip airlines like a certain amount of banter over the aircraft speakers, but let’s keep it reasonably under control. On an overseas flight last summer on Continental, an attendant took to the microphone every half hour or so to release almost every pent-up notion that came to mind. It’s a flight, not an improv club or poetry slam, yeesh. Let us watch the bad movies, catch a nap and get out of here.

4. Treating cattle class like cattle class.

When I asked about flight attendant experiences, a number of travelers I know cited episodes in which on rare forays into first class, they had encountered such better treatment that they were almost offended. Frequent traveler Elliza McGrand tells this story: “I ended up in first class a couple of years back due to a canceled flight. The service there was sickeningly sweet and way over-the-top nice and ‘friendly.’ It ticked me off because I know that the two overworked folks back in coach [could] barely keep up, let alone pester the passenger every five minutes with a fake smile. I get that the seat is better in first class, but the service should be the same in the whole aircraft. Again, I’m sure this is corporate policy and the FA’s are just doing what they are ordered to do.”

A number of the people in first class are in the front of the plane mainly because one company or another paid a high price for their seat — while in the back of the plane, most folks probably paid their own way. It is a bit distressing to see that true paying customers aren’t worth treating as well as others.

5. Blaming the customer.

In the days of rock-bottom airfares, industry folks liked to say you get what you pay for — but let’s face it, the days of $200 all-in cross-country roundtrip airfares are gone, or at best very rare. On the whole, most of the people in the cabin have paid a fair price for their transport. Even if there is a problem passenger or three, if there are 150 on the plane, 147 of them are toeing the line without complaint, dealing with the cramped space, and basically “sitting down and shutting up.” So whatever is bugging you, it ain’t our fault.

All of this said, most flight crews absolutely kick out the jams doing a hard job. When a bad egg materializes, it can almost hobble a good crew; I have seen flight crews with a group of great folks overall, but one seething black hole of a colleague right in the middle of it, practically sucking the oxygen out of the cabin for everyone. To these folks enduring a rogue colleague, I offer my greatest sympathy, and do hope you can do something about it; negativity is a powerful force, but in the end it is a negative for everyone else, not the black-hearted person at the center of it all.

As I mentioned, we will turn the scope on travelers in an upcoming column. In the meantime, let us know below if you have any other suggestions or appreciative comments for flight attendants — and keep it civil. They have hard jobs, and as I said, we’re all in it together.

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