What to Expect from Your Flight Attendant: Insider Tips for Air Travel

Most passengers don’t give a good crew of flight attendants a second thought. Get a bad crew, and it can put a sour taste in your mouth for an entire flight—or anytime you think of that airline in the future.

But, how is your average passenger supposed to know what they can expect from their flight crew beyond offers of coke, coffee, or tea?

To help empower air travel passengers to better understand, say, the difference between required safety statements and a too-snippy tone, we’ll share some insider info on the following topics:

  • Misconceptions about boarding and baggage.
  • Three common in-flight situations that can cause confusion and signs that they’re being handled correctly.
  • The most effective way to ask for upgrades, seat changes, or other bonuses you didn’t pay for.

When Boarding, Don’t Expect a Flight Attendant to Lift Your Bag

It’s been a long day in the airport and you’re finally boarding your flight. You smile at the first flight attendant who’s in the front galley (that’s the mini kitchen). Maybe the cockpit door is open and you sneak a peek too.

All is well until you get to your row, where the overhead bins adjacent to your row are already full.

This is an inconvenience, as now you’ll have to put any bags further in the back—which means waiting for everyone to clear the aisles and get off the plane before you’ll be free to collect your things and go.

Can’t the flight attendant do anything about the bin over your seat being full?

Most likely not. Flight attendants are allowed to make minor adjustments to bag positioning, but can’t rearrange an entire bin.

That’s because 73% of flight attendants experience an on-the-job back injury. And, because they are required to be physically able to perform in an emergency, an injured crew member has to be replaced, often causing multi-hour delays for your departure.

This also means that a crew member can’t help lift your bag into the bin. Though the rules vary from airline to airline, the general guideline is that if you can’t lift it, your crew can’t attempt either.

That it mind, we don’t mean to imply that your crew should just be sitting around or be completely unhelpful during boarding. Here are some basic expectations:

What a good crew should be doing during boarding? There should be at least one flight attendant in the aisle, observing an eye on passengers filing into the plane.

What’s a potential red flag? A flight attendant who is sitting in the back galley, out of view and not engaging passengers or keeping tabs on overhead bin usage.

Keep in mind: It’s too early to tell if neglecting to be in the aisle is going to be reflected during the flight. But it’s worth making a note of which flight attendants take their jobs seriously.

The bottom line: It’s not your crew’s responsibility to lift, but they can help passengers who can’t reach.

Next, we’ll share insight into a few common scenarios and reasons for passenger confusion, as well as when you can start suspecting that your crew didn’t bring their A-game.

Three Common In-Flight Confusions (and What to Expect from a Good Flight Crew)

Great crews comprised of professional flight attendants are easy to spot, particularly when things get busy or tough situations arise.

Alternately, not-so-great crews can leave you brimming with questions, including what on earth just went wrong and whether or not they were at fault.

That’s not to say that the customer is always right in-flight (there are plenty of unpopular calls that are made with your safety in mind). Here’s a rough guide for what a good crew can offer, even during not-so-great in-flight situations.

1. You Get Up While the Seatbelt Sign Is Illuminated

There’s a good reason that seatbelt sign is on, even if the flight feels like smooth sailing.

Your pilots likely have reports of turbulence coming up ahead and, while they’ll do their best to avoid the weather system, want to minimize passengers who can be tossed around the cabin—injuring themselves and others.

In the event that you get up when you’re not supposed to, flight attendants are sure to be quick (and possibly loud) when asking you to sit back down.

But how much is too much when doling out safety instructions?

On one hand, it’s important that they convey a sense of urgency and discourage others from following your actions. At the same time, there’s no need to be rude about it.

If you’re left wondering if your flight attendant was really being safety-minded or if you were just an unwitting whipping boy for someone who’s having a bad day, there’s a pretty simple way to check: Just look to see what your crew is doing.

If your flight attendants are secured in their jump seats or they’re rushing to lock up all those heavy drink carts before sitting down, chances are there might be some major bumps ahead and they’re less concerned about your feelings than safety.

Similarly, if the plane has recently landed and you’re still taxing on the runway, your flight attendants should be seated—and so should you.

However, also be aware of inconsistencies. If you notice that the flight attendant up front is allowing people to use the bathroom, while those in the back demand that you stay seated, you have reason to be suspicious that your flight attendants aren’t being purely professional.

2. Your TV or Headphone Jack Isn’t Working

You’ve selected to fly a specific airline because of their perks, such as in-seat food and drink ordering, TVs on every seat’s back, Wi-Fi, and power plugs. Then, once you’re all settled in and en route, you realize that one or more of the above isn’t performing as advertised.

When you notify a flight attendant of the problem, you’re expecting some sort of compensation. You might even be tempted to point out that there are a few empty seats in an upgraded class—can’t they just bump you up free of charge?

The answer depends on the airline’s policies, but it’s not likely for a few reasons.

First, the chance is that yours won’t be the only in-seat equipment to malfunction and there aren’t enough open upgrades to go around.

Additionally, there’s always the chance that doing so will encourage less than honest customers to purposefully mangle the headphone jack or otherwise complain just in hopes of getting bumped up.

Finally, upgraded seating is only as valuable as it’s perceived to be. If flight crew move a standard class ticket holder into business or first, those who’ve paid full price for the upgrade might then turn around and complain, causing your crew even more headaches and paperwork.

Instead, if you find yourself stuck in a seat with defunct equipment, expect to receive an offer for complimentary food or beverages during the flight.

If you still feel that you’re owed more, politely ask the crew for some information that could verify your complaints, such as their name and the flight number, then contact the airline’s customer service number after landing with a request for additional compensation.

3. Another Passenger’s Behavior Is Bothering You

You may have heard of the recent news story covering a YouTube celebrity Adam Saleh’s removal from his flight.

Selah, a well-known prankster who’d just been publicly admonished by another airline the previous week for claiming that he’d successfully smuggled himself on an international flight in luggage, claims that he was removed for speaking Arabic.

In an interview with CNN, Saleh states that the flight crew removed him because they would rather two people (himself and his friend) be upset, instead of risk 20 passengers be uncomfortable (the supposed number of passengers who complained).

Since his incendiary interview, other passengers have come forward to say that Saleh obviously staged the scene that caused him to be removed.

But, the incident brings attention to an important question: Can and should flight attendants step in if another passenger makes you uncomfortable?

The answer is probably not.

Unless an individual is behaving in a way that is directed at you, such as inappropriate comments or touching, flight attendants aren’t able to curb one person’s behavior for another passenger’s comfort.

While the story of Saleh’s removal centers his speaking Arabic as the catalyst—which would be an obvious example of racial profiling—other issues aren’t so clearly defined as right or wrong.

Breastfeeding mothers, for example, can’t be asked to cover up, at least by a flight attendant, lest they risk losing their jobs.

Airplanes are public spaces. So, a general rule of thumb is to assume that people can act like they would in a public park.

That means freedom of language and parenting choices. However, if someone is watching adult content in view of other passengers or being otherwise inappropriate, you should definitely let a crew member know.

What’s the Best Way to Ask a Flight Attendant for Upgrades?

Earlier we mentioned that just having a broken in-seat entertainment center isn’t enough to justify the leap from standard to first class.

However, that doesn’t mean that upgrade requests are never granted—it’s just that you’ll probably never catch those who are good at being upgraded in the act of asking.

The more discreet your request, the better your chances of it being granted simply because there isn’t enough of anything on a flight to give everyone equal treatment.

Additionally, decisions like moving a passenger up in class need to be run by other crew members just in case they’re holding that seat for another reason.

So, what’s the right way to ask for an upgrade?

Try to catch one of the crew members in the front or back galley when there’s less of a chance that someone can overhear. Then, simply ask if there’s anyway if can happen, clearly stating where you’d like to move.

If you’re willing to slip them a tip for it, say so by explaining that you’re happy to pay but only have cash on hand, however, you insist that they take it. (Flight attendants can actually accept tips. But only if you insist.)

Finally, state what seat they can find you in once they know more.

Not comfortable handing over cash? Grab three or four Starbucks gift cards worth $5 in the airport and hand them to the crew member while stating your request.

Bottom Line: Get What You Want by Knowing How to Ask

From free baggage to upgraded seats and complimentary drinks, almost anything can happen on a flight if you know how and who to ask.

Making requests known in front of other passengers can lessen your chances. So, consider asking the gate agent for a discounted upgrade at check-in instead of leaving it to chance after boarding?

Similarly, your flight crew might not be able to lift your bag but other passengers are generally more than happy to help if you ask with a smile.

Doling out requests for assistance with a spoonful of sugar might seem obvious.

But as airplane seats get smaller and each passenger feels increasingly put upon by extra fees, long security lines, and an ever-increasing list of limitations, our best tip is just to be kind—as opposed to entitled—and chances are that your crew will notice.

» Read Next: How to Get Through the Airport Faster & With Minimal Hassle

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.