27 Things You Shouldn’t Say When Talking to a Flight Attendant
Not much can surprise flight attendants, but there's plenty that can annoy them—like these rude, invasive or otherwise off-putting statements that passengers utter far too frequently
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These lines won’t fly
The primary role of a flight attendant is to keep everyone onboard safe. If you knew what flight attendants notice about you during the boarding process, that would be even more obvious. But because they also serve drinks and handle all kinds of details to make the travel experience just a little more comfortable, some passengers feel entitled to say (or do) outrageous things.
Flight attendants are highly trained professionals who have seen and heard it all, so they might not snark back at you, but don’t be surprised if you get some side-eye if you do something inappropriate or ask a rude question. It’s not that they don’t want you to ask any questions—after all, there are plenty of things flight attendants want you to know about flying. But of course, there are some flight attendant secrets. It’s a fine line, as you’ll see. Your best bet is to steer clear of the following missteps when talking to a flight attendant.
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“I’ll have my eggs over easy.”
While your spouse may respond to your dad jokes with a courtesy laugh, don’t expect everyone else to—especially if you use this line to greet flight attendants as you board a plane. “This is said to us at least once a day and is so overused,” says Lara Ketterman, who’s served as a flight attendant for three major airlines over the past 38 years. “It’s a bit demeaning and suggests we are not there for emergencies.” Instead, how about just saying hello? Better yet, acknowledge the staff’s hard work with some small flight attendant gifts.
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“When are you retiring?”
Ouch! Commenting on someone’s age is a surefire way to not make new friends when talking to a flight attendant. “I’m not a cute young thing, but I’m a seasoned, experienced flight attendant who has patience and a desire to serve you and ensure you have a great experience on your journey,” says Ketterman. “I’ve saved lives, stopped altercations and helped countless passengers find their way to their destinations. I am young at heart, and often passengers are surprised when they hear how long I’ve been doing this job.” While we’re on the subject, here are the things you should keep in mind when dealing with TSA agents at an airport security check.
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“You don’t look old enough to be a flight attendant.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum are passengers presumably trying to flatter their flight attendant. “I’m sure they mean it as a compliment, but I’ve also been asked, ‘They actually hire people your age?’ and it’s just plain rude and ignorant,” says Briley Cook (not her real name, because she’s not authorized to speak on the record), a flight attendant of three years. Airlines have strict rules regarding age, so you can rest assured that everyone in their position is of appropriate age and has completed the required training.
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“Where do you guys stay?”
You might just be trying to be friendly, but this question is a red flag to many flight attendants. “This question is a problem because of obvious safety reasons,” says Cook. The last thing a flight attendant needs to worry about after a long day of flying is whether he or she is going to be stalked on their way home or to their hotel. Here’s a similar question that could jeopardize a flight attendant’s safety: “Is this your usual route?”
“Can you help me put my bag in the overhead bin?”
If you can’t lift your own bag, then you really shouldn’t consider it a carry-on, says Candace Johnson, a flight attendant for American Airlines during the late 1970s and early 1980s. It’s not your flight attendant’s job to do your heavy lifting. Can you imagine the shoulder and neck injuries they’d face if they complied with this request dozens of times a day? Instead, only carry aboard what you can safely and comfortably manage on your own. As Ketterman says, “You bring it, you sling it.” Either that, or try your luck asking another passenger to help.
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“How much longer will the flight be?”
There’s little chance you boarded the plane without a smartphone or a smartwatch—so now’s a great time to use it. “We tell you at the beginning how long the flight will be for a reason,” says Jen K., who’s flown for a major U.S. airline for six years. “Set a timer for yourself on your phone to count down. Become the responsible adult we know you can be.”
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“What city or state are we over right now?”
Honestly, your guess is as good as theirs. “Most of the time, we don’t know,” says Jen. “I fly from New York to Atlanta to San Francisco in one day.” There’s a chance your flight attendant will call the captain to ask, but it’s just an “extra” thing to do—so if conditions are turbulent, a medical situation is happening or they happen to have a grumpy pilot that day, this request won’t be a priority. Speaking of captains, here’s a list of things pilots wish airline passengers knew.
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“What should I do in [insert name of city]?”
Just because flight attendants are well traveled, it doesn’t mean they know their way around every city. “Sometimes I know, sometimes I don’t,” says Jen. “Flight attendants are not tour guides, so unless you want advice from someone who stays near the airport for just 10 hours and chooses not to leave their hotel room, then have at it.” Instead, she suggests first asking if they know the area or if they’ve visited it outside of work before. That will help you determine if they might have some useful suggestions for your itinerary, and if they’d be open to helping you with it. The same goes if you’re thinking of leaving the airport during a layover.
“What is causing this delay?”
Frankly, flight attendants wish they had answers to this question, but often delays are related to factors going on behind the scenes between gate agents, ramp staff, ground supervisors and pilots. “Honestly, most of the time we don’t know,” says Jen. “We don’t want delays either. We usually have a hotel room bed on the other side of the day, and with three to four flights a day, we want to get there sooner rather than later as well. The key is to take your headphones out of your ears and listen to the announcements.”
“The ground staff said you would arrange for us to sit together.”
Andrew L., an in-flight manager for British Airways with 22 years of service, says this question is especially absurd when it’s clear the flight is full and the passengers asking the question have checked in late. “We do, of course, try to accommodate, but it often relies on the goodwill of other customers—and essentially they are asking us to do their dirty work for them,” he says. “I am always happy to ask, but I try not to make the other customer feel pressured. It’s a hard one!” When talking to a flight attendant, try positioning this kind of request as: “I know it’s a long shot, but I would be so grateful if you could try for me.”
“I have an injured [insert body part]. Can I get an upgrade?”
If this worked, every passenger would suddenly develop a mysterious ailment. “It’s quite common for people with a medical complaint—such as an injured back, knee or leg—to request an upgrade on that basis, when they knowingly bought a seat that won’t be suitable,” says Andrew. “I am quite tough with this. I will approach the customer before the boarding is closed and ensure they are fit to travel in the seat they have booked, making it clear there won’t be an upgrade.”
“Why can’t I just move to that empty seat with more legroom?”
Because of physics and the need for a balanced aircraft. “The logistics of getting a very heavy tube filled with gas, people and their belongings up in the air is far beyond my pay grade,” says Johanna Benton, who’s been a flight attendant for six years. “I do know that how they balance the plane is very important. So if your pass has a specific seat on it, there is a reason why. If you have a seat issue, the best resource is the gate agent who assigned it to you.” In case you were wondering, here’s why some airplanes have rear-facing seats.
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“Can you have them hold my flight? My connection is so tight!”
Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. “Late arrivals are so common, and while we wish we had the power to know if you’ll make your connection, we just don’t,” says Benton. “A delay causes such a huge domino effect. Many airports have curfews, so it’s just not realistic at times [to hold a flight]. We will do everything in our power to help you get where you need to—like tell you what gate we’re landing at, how to get to your next gate and, if possible, ask everyone to stay seated to let you get to the front first.”
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“I fly even more than you do!”
That’s not likely. “Inside, our eyes are rolling, hard,” says Ketterman. “We have to smile and act like it’s the funniest thing we’ve ever heard. If you fly as much as we do, trust me, we’d know.” In fact, Ketterman says, flight attendants’ tablets show them your passenger profile, so they know how often you really fly. And that’s just one of the surprising things your airline knows about you.
“You should smile!”
A flight attendant’s job isn’t to entertain you. And that’s why it can really make a flight attendant’s blood boil if you tell them to smile, Johnson says. “Would you go to anyone else’s job and tell them to smile?” Besides, you have no idea what stresses they’re facing while doing their jobs. While they don’t have to follow your arbitrary requests, flight attendants do have some strange rules to follow.
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“It’s my birthday/anniversary/honeymoon. Can I sit in first class?”
Flight attendants realize you want to sit in first class. Who doesn’t? But those coveted seats are more tightly regulated these days than you may realize. “In the old days, we could upgrade anyone we wanted, but those days are gone, unfortunately,” explains Ketterman. “All of that is handled by the gate agent now, before boarding.”
“Can you give me a massage?”
This might be the most inappropriate thing you could possibly say when talking to a flight attendant. “I met a number of famous people while working, and most were polite and appreciative,” Johnson recalls, “but the grossest one I met was the CEO of a famous catalog company who was flying in first class and asked me for a foot massage after his dinner.” No. Just no.
“Do you have any food? I’m diabetic.”
It’s not that flight attendants aren’t sympathetic to your medical need, but they often don’t have the proper resources to help. “Most of the time we only have cookies and/or pretzels, and that’s it,” says Ketterman. “I’m happy to give out what we have, so I’m gonna recommend salty pretzels and a big glass of orange juice.” While there are a few things you can still get for free on an airplane (while supplies last!), let this serve as your reminder that if you’re a diabetic or have specific food requirements, plan ahead and bring your own food on board.
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“That’s a funny name … “
“My nickname is Candie—that’s what my nametag read,” Johnson says. Unfortunately, that seemed like an invitation to some passengers to make jokes (which were never funny to Johnson). “I lost track of how many male passengers told me, ‘Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.'” Johnson tended to plaster a smile on her face just to make the moment a little less awkward.
“Isn’t there going to be a meal service?”
If you’re an infrequent flyer, you may have expected to receive full meals on board. Times have changed. “When I was flying in the ’70s and ’80s, passengers expected full meal services,” says Johnson. “Over the years, the food-service model has changed drastically, with limited snacks available for purchase in coach on longer flights, and only beverage services on shorter flights.” Also, flight attendants have no say in what foods or beverages are served, or when the service begins and ends. Johnson advises keeping your thoughts on both those things to yourself. All in all, your best bet is to either eat before you get on the plane or bring your own supply of food and beverages.
Flight attendants can be male or female, and that’s one reason the gender-neutral term replaced the word “stewardess” a couple decades ago. Calling a flight attendant a stewardess is about as acceptable as lighting up a cigarette on a plane, and about as desirable as getting decked out in your fanciest clothes for your flight (spoiler: tight clothes and heels are just some of the things you shouldn’t wear on a plane). All these are vestiges of the early days of aviation, and none belongs in the present day.
“Will I make my connection?”
You wouldn’t ask your flight attendant when you’ll get married or how old you’ll be when you die. That’s because flight attendants aren’t psychics—though that doesn’t keep them from getting some pretty crazy requests. You know what else they can’t predict? Whether your flight will arrive, land and deplane in time for you to make your connection. So many variables can affect this, and flight attendants don’t have any secret knowledge about what will happen when. This is particularly true when your plane hasn’t even taken off yet. Your best sources for that kind of information come from your airline’s app, a gate agent when you deplane or the many screens in your connecting airport.
“Hang on just one minute … “
Sorry, but your flight attendant doesn’t have a minute. Not for your drink order. Not for you to turn off your devices. Not for you to step out of the aisle or return to your seat when asked. They have a job to do, so don’t waste their time—especially if they are trying to secure the cabin for takeoff or landing. Minutes matter, and it’s possible there’s an emergency on board that you’re not even aware of that requires immediate attention. Give flight attendants the courtesy of responding to their requests right away.
“Did you hear the one about the hijacker?”
Terrorism and other assorted threats are serious subjects, so you should expect your flight attendant to treat them as such. In fact, your flight crew has been specifically trained to follow certain protocols when these issues come up, even in a joking manner. Generally speaking, it’s wise to not make those wisecracks to anyone on the plane, including your seatmate, even if they “seem” like they can take a joke.
“Are you free after the flight?”
There is very little chance your flight attendant will be free after the flight—and if they were, there’s even less of a chance they’d like to spend that free time with you. Most are almost immediately off to somewhere else or are in desperate need of sleep. And while they may be polite and even friendly toward you, it’s best not to mistake them doing their job as flirting with you.
“Can I borrow a pen?”
How many pens do you think your flight attendant has? And, honestly, what are the odds you’ll give back that pen when you’re done? They don’t carry extra pens, and they can’t help every international passenger fill out their customs forms at the exact same time. Come prepared by including a pen with the other items you should always pack in your carry-on.
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“But I have to … “
You’ve heard the stories—don’t become one of them. If you’re disorderly, threatening or combative with gate agents, flight attendants or other passengers, you can be denied boarding. If you’re already in the air, the airline can ban you from future flights, have the police remove you from the plane upon landing and possibly arrest you. It’s best to not take chances and head down a slippery slope, so don’t argue with your flight attendant. Make sure you know these other strange things that could get you banned from a plane.
Additional reporting by Lauren Cahn.