Why you should care
Because they put up with a lot more sh*t than other service professionals in the travel industry.
Taken a U.S. flight recently? Think back to all the times you were able (or felt obliged) to tip along the way: the taxi driver, the shuttle driver, the server at the airport restaurant, the hotel bellhop. Tipping just comes with the territory in America, especially when you’re the flying the friendly skies.
Except, of course, when it comes to the flight attendants on your plane. Not counting the pilots themselves, this group of service professionals will almost certainly do the most for you — and take the most sh*t from you — during the entire journey. So why don’t we tip the high-altitude caretakers who help make our lives and journeys a bit more comfortable and safe? Perhaps it’s high time we did.
Flight attendants may earn a higher salary than most of the other professions named above, but it’s not a great living, and wages (and pensions) among many U.S. carriers have dropped since 9/11. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary in 2015 was $44,860, though entry-level positions are often closer to $23,000. Flight attendants must also get up at all hours of the day and night, travel countless miles, breathe stale air for hours on end, work on holidays and deal with a steady stream of often-irritable air travelers.
Etiquette experts advise that tipping flight attendants is neither necessary nor conventional, and indeed the policies of most airlines prohibit attendants from accepting gratuities. But it does still happen. According to a survey by Airfarewatchdog, 27 percent of those polled had tipped a flight attendant at some point in their travels. Tips range from cash to in-kind gifts of candy or baked goods, and, according to Heather Poole, a veteran flight attendant and author of Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet, they are not uncommon on Las Vegas routes. Slipping flight attendants a little something for an upgrade isn’t unheard of either.
The primary purpose of flight attendants is not to provide us with food, beverages and pillows …
So why rob a worker in a demanding profession of a supplemental income, and deprive a passenger of a means for expressing his or her appreciation? Several reasons are usually offered, starting with practical difficulties, such as lack of passenger cash or privacy aboard an aircraft or concerns that the practice would slow down already tight schedules. Most important, however, is the fact that, despite the impressions of many travelers, the primary purpose of flight attendants is not to provide us with food, beverages and pillows; it’s to ensure the safety of the passengers on the plane. One former flight attendant who worked for Delta Air Lines for 13 years tells me that most passengers are not aware of the weeks of training that flight attendants get on medical procedures and other emergency protocols. It’s a safety-related profession that is less like being a cabdriver or waiter and more like being a nurse or first responder — professions most of us would not think to tip.
Part of the reason for not tipping is also historical. Trains, ocean liners and hotels had relied heavily on African-American stewards and porters (who were tipped), but early commercial airlines hired white male stewards and, later, trained female nurses to help their upper-class passengers feel more comfortable about the novelty of flying. “Early airlines distinguished themselves from the railroads and other sellers of service,” argues Kathleen Barry in her book Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants, “by offering ‘fellowship’ of whiteness and banishing tipping.”
So, if you would like to tip your next flight attendant, then you will be fighting an uphill battle against history, company policy, professional ethos and more. The good news is that there are plenty of other things you can give flight attendants to show your appreciation. Thank-you notes are nice; even better is taking the time to provide positive feedback to the airline about your experience. Just being courteous and appreciative is also a good place to start. “Good manners are rare and really stand out these days,” observes Poole. “Next time you’re on a flight say to the flight attendant, ‘I don’t know how you do it,’ and watch how he or she responds. I bet they’ll smile.”