When you board an aircraft, the routine is pretty much the same: hustling to your (hopefully assigned) seat, squeezing your carry-on bags into the overhead compartments, buckling your seat belt, and preparing yourself for take-off. How often, though have you paid attention to one of the most essential components of the flight? We’re talking, of course, about the flight attendants.
Other than breezing past them with a swift greeting, you might not take notice of all the things flight attendants do before they appear at your seat to take your drink order. The biggest thing you probably aren’t noticing is what the flight attendants might be noticing about you.
Flight attendants are more than just courteous hosts when you board an aircraft; they’re also well-trained observers who are always keeping their eyes peeled—not just for your comfort but also for your safety.
We spoke to several flight attendants about what they typically observe as passengers board a plane. (All of their names have been changed for privacy.) Here are the most interesting answers.
Your Facial Expression
We’ve all heard that a smile goes a long way and when it comes to flight attendants, this is especially true. After all, a lot of a flight attendant’s job involves service with a smile, and it’s nice when they get a smile in return. Anne, who has been a flight attendant for four years, said, “I’d say most of our domestic American passengers are polite greeters. They smile, they respond, they thank our ‘welcomes.’”
She adds that she and her coworkers understand when passengers seem grumpy. “It’s often because they’ve been harassed by TSA and again by the agents at the boarding door…it’s a stressful experience the moment they step into the airport,” she said.
Because flight attendants are so in-tune with the stress that travelers go through on a day-to-day basis, they sometimes treat a frown as a challenge to turn it upside down. Rachel, who is fresh out of training and new to the industry, said, “I look for passengers that do not have a smile on their face… a lot of times they do not even realize that they had a frown on their face. Sometimes they just want someone to say something to cheer them up.”
If you think a smile can go a long way, just try adding a simple “hello!” In the courtesy business, courteous customers are favored. Passengers who not only board their flights with a nice smile, but also tack on a friendly greeting are immediately added to any flight attendant’s favorite list.
Flight attendant Anne said that a simple greeting can really make flights all the more pleasant. “It would just make everyone’s day a tiny bit better if we could say a ‘hello’ to each other,” she said.
Another flight attendant, Brian, who has been working the skies for six years, mentioned that he says “hello” and “goodbye” over 100 times every flight, so it’s always nice to get passengers who can appreciate his hard work with a little kindness in return.
Don’t worry, no FA is looking for a date while they’re on the job. Safety is the most important part of any flight, so flight attendants are always keeping their eyes peeled for able-bodied assistants, sometimes referred to as ABAs.
Carmen, who has been a flight attendant for over a year and a half, mentioned that she looks for “passengers in military uniform and those of physical strength” who may be willing to assist her in cases of an evacuation or helping with an unruly passenger.
Another aspect of this is if the able-bodied passenger is traveling alone. One flight attendant, Kevin, with over four-and-a-half years of experience under his belt, said, “If they are with a spouse or child or family members, they are likely to be more focused on their safety than being much help to the aircraft in an emergency situation.”
One of the many things flight attendants are trained to notice are how many unaccompanied minors are on board an aircraft. Many times, attendants like to make sure to give these youngsters all the perks and special treatment, since flying alone can be hard. Snacks and tiny pilot wings galore!
“I like to go above and beyond and make as many passengers feel like their flight is customized personally for them. It can be a simple way to turn a bad experience into a pleasant one,” said Rachel.
Another flight attendant, Karen, who has over 26 years of experience, mentioned one particular flight where some unaccompanied minors felt homesick mid-flight. In order to calm them, she placed a call in the air to the children’s father using her own credit card. “They spent about 20 minutes on the phone and afterwards, I gave them hugs, tissues, and ice cream from first class,” Karen said. She earned plenty of props from her employer and both the parents were grateful for going the extra mile.
Carmen also made sure to mention that she always notes how many children under 2 are on board and where they sit in case of an emergency. “I…keep a note of how many life vests I’ll need to give to parents. I also make sure that they are not sitting in the emergency exit row.” They truly think of everything.
Let’s be honest, most flight attendants are hardly in the position to judge anyone’s fashion choices—have you seen the uniforms some of them have to wear? But Anne pointed out that there’s a right place and a right time for everything, and what a person chooses to wear on a flight may be indicative of how they may behave. Dressing down and blending in is more appropriate than wearing something uncomfortable or tight.
“When you come on the flight like you are going to the club with the five-inch heels on, we wonder if you are at the right place this morning,” she joked.
“I think most passengers got the right idea to dress down in comfortable clothes and to blend in … Our seats and lavatories are getting smaller by the minute. You will soon need to be able to do a split just to get into your window seat so you want to be comfortable,” Anne added. (At least they know our pain.)
Flight attendants also appreciate passengers’ style choices as a way to bond. Anne mentioned one passenger who wore a Dunder Mifflin shirt (the fictional paper company from The Office) on a flight. “I love that show! And it put a smile on my face.” When you’re stuck in a metal tube for much of your workday, it’s the little things.
A flight could be in jeopardy if passengers are not equipped to withstand conditions. Air pressure, cramped cabins, and altitude can affect healthy passengers, let alone ones who may be feeling under the weather or even intoxicated.
“We try to avoid situations where a medical emergency could happen, especially on international flights. So if a person does not look well to fly, I ask my crew mates to keep an eye on them during boarding,” said Carmen.
She even once spotted a passenger’s discomfort on a long flight and noticed it was due to early labor. “Luckily, there were five doctors onboard to assist and we managed to land safely,” she said.
If You Show Appreciation
As some of our flight attendant friends mentioned earlier, saying hello is a quick way to their good list. But if you’ve got the energy, going further than that can really make an FA’s day.
For instance, Brian mentioned that his favorite thing, aside from friendly passengers who make sure to smile and say hello are the ones who show a little extra appreciation for the hard work he and his crew do.
“If you bring us anything: newspaper, magazines, candy bars, a thank you note (not love notes), origami, really anything that acknowledges that we are human beings…you will have unlocked the keys to the kingdom,” he said.
Don’t be surprised if a flight attendant slips you an extra snack or extra drink serving as a special “you’re welcome.” Appreciation comes full circle on flights.
If You Might Cause Problems
Flight attendants seem to have a sixth sense. If they notice something “off” about a passenger’s demeanor that tells them they might cause a ruckus or jeopardize the flight in any way, they’ll be sure to keep an eye on them.
A “problem” passenger doesn’t necessarily mean immediate danger is afoot, but passengers can indicate they are unusually angry, anxious, or unwell.
Jill, who has been flight attendant for two years, explained, “Unusual behavior may also indicate a passenger who is highly agitated because they may not be used to flying. A panic attack at 12,000 feet can be a difficult situation.”
Brian also explained that in such situations, flight attendants don’t approach the passenger directly right away, but rather inform the rest of the crew to keep an eye out.
The age-old struggle between humans and baggage is one that flight attendants are quite used to dealing with. Due to their experience, most flight attendants make sure to take note of what you’re bringing aboard as soon as you approach the plane.
They’re not just thinking about how to get your stuff stowed away. How much luggage you bring can make the plane cramped, which is not only uncomfortable, it’s also unsafe.
Rachel, who works on a particularly small aircraft, always appreciates people who check their luggage. “That means they were already informed that our planes are smaller and their bag can not fit.”
Kevin agrees. “Passengers are only required so many pieces of luggage on board. This can affect boarding and can affect leaving on time,” he said.
Loads of larger baggage stuff under seats can also potentially clog up the aisles, and no one wants their flight attendant to trip. So it’s best to keep those things—and yourself—in check.