Confessions from flight attendants

Which passengers are flight attendants most likely to upgrade? The well-dressed, extremely nice ones.
(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

Ever wonder what flight attendants really think of you? What they’d tell you if they had the nerve? Or weren’t afraid of being fired? What secrets would they reveal about their jobs?

Several of my friends work as flight attendants. One of them recently retired after 20 years flying for a storied name in commercial aviation. Others work for less glamorous domestic U.S. airlines. I asked them what they would say to their passengers if they could or what bits of wisdom they would reveal if granted anonymity. These folks do not represent every flight attendant in the skies, so if you’re a flight attendant, feel free to disagree and send comments to But I didn’t make this stuff up. What you read here may surprise you or make you laugh or both.

Here are some of their confessions.

You know that coffee you ordered? It may be decaf even though you asked for regular. Flight attendants told me they would rather you sit back, relax and fall asleep so you don’t bother them.


When they “arm” the doors on your aircraft, flight attendants check the work of their colleagues at the opposite door. You hear it often: “Arm doors and cross check.” Despite all the cross checking, they err occasionally and forget to arm the doors, which means the emergency slides won’t automatically deploy if needed in an emergency. It’s a fireable offense.

Airlines used to pay their flight attendants when they showed up for duty at the airport. Not now. That changed to getting paid when the cabin doors closed, then to when the plane’s brakes were released and now, often, when the wheels leave the ground (“wheels up” in airline parlance). There can sometimes be hours of delay between the time they show up for work and when they’re airborne. Different airlines have different policies, but it’s a way for them to save money. So when flight attendants greet you at the door, it’s very often for free. No wonder the smiles sometimes seem fake.

If a flight is late, the airline might have to pay overtime. If the flight is going to be late anyway, flight attendants have been known to delay it even further in order to make sure overtime kicks in, which can mean up to double the hourly pay.

A flight attendant can upgrade you to business or first class after the airplane’s doors close, but they don’t do it often. That’s partly because on some airlines that requires filing a report explaining why it was done, partly because there has to be a meal for you and partly because the forward cabins are often full. Whom do they upgrade? Not, they said, the slob who’s dressed in a dirty tank top. It helps if you’re extremely nice, well dressed, pregnant, very tall, good-looking or one of their friends.

Taking your computer or a newspaper into the lav is a problem because it means you’ll be occupying longer than you should. Don’t do it.

You can ask a flight attendant what part of the country or world you’re flying over at any given moment, but chances are he or she won’t know. Flight attendants are not, after all, flying the plane.


Passengers who do deep knee bends in the galley while flight attendants are trying to work should go do them somewhere else. You won’t get deep vein thrombosis on a short flight.

Jiggling your glass of ice at a flight attendant doesn’t prompt better service. It might, in fact, have the opposite effect.

When a flight attendant asks you what you’d like to drink and you ask, “Well, what do you have?” they want to answer, “Not a lot of time.” Look at the inflight magazine or just guess.

When a flight attendant asks you what you want to drink and you keep saying, “Huh?” because your earphones are in, that ought to be a clue to take them out. After about the fourth time, they’ll either move on or bring you a Coke.

Sometimes they ask the captain to leave the seat belt on long after the turbulence has ended so they can serve in clear aisles.

On night flights, they sometimes hold off on meal service as long as they can on the chance you’ll be asleep. Fewer passengers to serve and all.