20 Years at 30,000 Feet: A Flight Attendant Answers Readers’ Questions

As a flight attendant who has been on the job for 20 years, it’s easy to take my travel insights for granted — the little tips and tricks that make the journey smoother.

But after watching 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 offered nine tips for surviving travel now, and I was surprised by the positive response — and the thousands of comments.

After the story published, I invited readers to ask more questions, of which I received hundreds. I know, to some of you, I have a curious and mysterious job. It was fun to learn what you wonder about, from how we look so fresh after long flights (dim lighting) to whether or not you should drink the coffee onboard (I don’t, but most of the flight attendants do).

Here are my answers to a selection of your questions, some of which have been lightly edited for length and clarity. I hope you enjoy them.

I was recently assigned to an exit row once already onboard. I don’t want to be responsible in an emergency. What happens 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 ask everyone in the row if they are willing and able to help in an evacuation, and being unwilling is perfectly understandable. Nothing bad happens; you can move to any other open seat, or we ask around for someone to trade seats with you. There is always someone who would prefer the exit row for the extra leg room.

What’s one thing you wish all passengers would do on a plane to make your job easier?

Acknowledging us as people and not treating us as part of the aircraft furniture goes a long way. It is demoralizing to welcome people aboard flights who look right through us with no response. Smiling, and saying little things like “please” and “thank you” always helps to boost our spirits. That perfect flight attendant smile is hard to keep when everyone around is giving us the stink eye.

What are some things that passengers do that drive flight attendants crazy?

Don’t touch flight attendants. This should be common sense, but somehow it’s not. We do not like to be poked, tapped or grabbed.

The lack of headphone etiquette drives me nuts. There is nothing more annoying than trying to talk to someone who is looking right at me, and they don’t care enough to pause their movie or take their earbuds out. The funny part is, usually I am asking them what they want to drink or eat. I give the courtesy of asking three times. If I don’t get a response, then I move to the next passenger. Here is the worst part: About three rows later that same person will ring their call button and ask why they didn’t get a drink.

If you fly while off duty, do you let the flight attendants know you are a flight attendant? Is there a secret handshake or code? Will you get special treatment?

Yes! There is no secret handshake, we simply say hi and tell them where we are sitting. We don’t get special treatment, apart from maybe making a new friend or getting a whole can of soda. We let the crew know as a courtesy in case there is an emergency on board, so they know where to go for an extra hand to help out.

Do you have any insider tips for parents flying with young toddlers? I’m a single mom and dread each flight I take with my almost-2-year-old.

First, and most important: Your child will feel your nerves. If you are stressed, they will be stressed. Make flying as exciting as possible for them ahead of time. Dress them in a special new airplane outfit, or buy a new book, or a box of crayons. Let them have all the screen time they want. Download and watch a new movie or series. Practice with headphones before the flight so they know how they work. Allow them to carry their own little “on the go” bag, with new airplane activities in it. Let them eat or drink something on the plane they aren’t always allowed to have, like a cookie, chips or a little soda. We don’t always have them, but you can always ask the crew for those little plastic wings, and let us know if it’s their first flight.

Keep your carry-ons as light as possible, and check the rest. Pack a few diapers, a change of clothes, some snacks and any medication. We also like when you bring car seats. I know they are heavy and hard to deal with, but most times small kids feel more comfortable because it’s familiar, and it boosts them high enough to see out the window. We like them because they are safer. It also doesn’t hurt to let them run their energy out in the airport before the flight.

I’m terrified to fly since I lost friends on the planes of Sept. 11. Turbulence and the sketchy behavior of other passengers doesn’t help. What would you suggest to calm my nerves?

There is nothing I can say to calm your nerves after losing friends on that day. We all lost something, but for you it was personal. That’s so much deeper than an irrational fear of flight. We all have anxieties about flying, even if we are not actually scared. You are not alone.

Other passengers can add to all of that, but, for the most part, if you mind your own business, then other people shouldn’t bother you. Legitimate problems with passengers are actually few and far between. I don’t like to fly as a passenger anymore either; being around people on my day off causes mild anxieties. So I feel you. When I fly as a passenger, I’ve started bringing noise-canceling headphones and my tablet loaded with movies or shows. I start watching something as soon as I sit down and pretend I’m in my living room. I’m immediately engrossed in my show.

If you are seated next to someone who is causing you anxiety, there’s a chance an attendant can move you if the flight isn’t full. It is also perfectly reasonable to ask a gate agent if you can sit by a window or aisle before boarding. A glass of wine may help, too, to help you relax and enjoy the flight.

I marvel that, as a flight attendant, you have actually chosen to be on an airplane for a living. Do you ever get scared up in the air?

No, I don’t usually get scared. Every once in a while something startles me, though. I know every sound and feeling my airplane makes, and when I hear something that isn’t quite right I get nervous. If I need to, I call the pilots and let them know what I heard, and they check things out.

I would always rather be flying than driving. Driving to and from work is the scariest part of my week. I like being in the sky looking down. The world looks so peaceful from above. My office window is a nice respite from a crazy world of traffic and chaos. Try to think about that instead. Some of our flying fear is the lack of control: We have to put our trust in two people up front whom we don’t know and can’t see. They go through a lot of training to earn that responsibility. We take it for granted, but flying really is a marvel. Try to ignore the rest and enjoy being able to journey somewhere in a few hours’ time, compared to the weeks or months it would have taken our ancestors.

What is the biggest misconception about your job?

That we are on airplanes for customer service. We are actually there for safety. Before World War II, air hostesses were registered nurses. The requirement to be a nurse ended during the war because the nurses quit flying to join the war efforts. Now, we go through intense training to learn how to use all the safety equipment onboard, and where it is on each aircraft. We train on basic lifesaving skills, such as CPR. We learn how to evacuate an aircraft in 90 seconds or less in case of emergency landing on land or in water. We also learn firefighting, and how to deal with security threats and unruly passengers.

The second biggest misconception is that our job is glamorous. Our days are very long, and our overnights short. Sometimes we are so tired that, instead of enjoying our long layovers by sightseeing, we spend them in our hotel rooms in pajamas watching movies. Some nights are incredible, though. The craziest part is that one night I can be sitting by the ocean, sipping prosecco with fresh seafood, and the next I can be eating a four-day-old sandwich in my galley, next to a lavatory, while someone is doing yoga in my face. Being a flight attendant is so much more than just a job; it changes your whole lifestyle. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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