Nothing brings people together like complaining about air travel. The cramped spaces. The overpriced airport drinks. The shared, deep-seated fear of sudden death.
Whether you’re commiserating with the stranger sitting next to you about the hours-long flight ahead or commenting on your friend Jenny’s Facebook post that you, too, are terrible at abiding by the baggage guidelines, you can rest assured that empathy is available to you even if solutions aren’t.
But what if they are? What if you’ve been so blinded by your own suffering that you’ve failed to see how you might make things go a bit more smoothly for everyone involved if only you followed the instructions of those people whose job it is to oversee your plane ride, cater to your plane desires, and field your plane complaints?
We searched out a few flight attendants to talk about the annoying things passengers do on airplanes. Some of them are pretty obvious; others, not so much.
Flight attendants really wish you would stop…
Removing Your Pants
In December 2016, LA-based comedian and actor Kumail Nanjiani unleashed a “Tweet storm” to his 1.7 million followers after a flight where one passenger decided to remove his pants and sit in his boxers for the duration, with his feet propped high on the seat in front of him.
Tweet storm. I was on a plane a couple of days ago. A guy took off his jeans & lounged around in his boxers with his feet up on the wall. pic.twitter.com/CHcsWXnlNB
— Kumail Nanjiani (@kumailn) December 28, 2016
Nanjiani went on to tweet, “After 4 hours, a flight attendant finally said ‘Could you please put your feet down? People are walking through here.’ 40 second stare down.” Five minutes later, the man “thrusts one foot back up like a fist raised against an unjust sky.” Nanjiani also noted that the passenger would “slam his fist on the armrest” any time he didn’t immediately get a flight attendant’s attention.
Sadly, this pantless performance is far from isolated—and can go to even further extremes.
Lucy Welland, a British flight attendant with 21 years of experience on a number of major carriers says: “On a flight from Bangkok to Sydney once I was in the galley during the night when this skinny man swished back the curtain and was standing there stark naked! We chased him round the cabin and finally managed to persuade him to get dressed. On arrival he was met by police, but managed to give them the slip and was last seen sprinting through arrivals, completely naked again.”
Sure, passengers have to take their shoes off during security screenings, but there’s no reason to expose your feet once you’re in the air. This one might hit a little too close to home for those who’ve been on an overnight flight and too debilitatingly tired (or too tranquilized with complimentary spirits) to care about lacing shoes or slipping on flip-flops when they need to visit the bathroom.
But walking about a plane barefoot is seriously unhygienic, and a major flight attendant bugbear. “I just don’t know why people keeping doing this,” says Welland. “You know that’s probably not water on the floor of the toilet, right?”
If you’re rude enough to share your foot odor with other passengers, at least put your socks on before you head to the bathroom.
“The lavatory is not thoroughly disinfected throughout the day,” one flight attendant says. “That’s gross.”
Trying For an Upgrade
“We get asked for upgrades all the time and my attitude is that you wouldn’t dream of going into a store and saying: “I bought this bottle of water, any chance I could switch if for champagne without paying extra?” says London-based air stewardess Louise Morley.
“It’s just not going to happen.”
Switching Seats Without Permission
Yes, it’s frustrating to be squashed between two passengers on a half-empty flight, but you need to bide your time if you want to score your own row.
“Many customers don’t realise that seats are often blocked off to help balance the weight across the aircraft for take off,” says Tom Salmon, Cabin Service Director for British Airways. “Also the crew may have seats in mind for moving groups who’ve been split up.”
The best solution? “Always ask first, and always wait until after take off,” says Welland.
Cutting Your Nails
As repugnant as it sounds, there’s a surprisingly large subset of people who believe trimming their nails on a flight is both normal and acceptable.
“Lots of passengers see a long haul flight as a handy opportunity to catch up on their personal grooming,” says Greta Gaston, a Texas-based flight attendant. “It’s not.”
Breaking Overhead Locker Etiquette
“Some passengers are very territorial about having a locker right above their seat but there are no rules about this: just find a space and use it,” says Welland. You might also want to consider softening your approach to carry-on items.
“As a rule, softer cabin luggage like duffel bags are easier to accommodate than hard wheelie bags – which are also more likely to get checked on full flights too,” says Gaston.
Creating Your Own Turbulence
To be candid, some people’s inflight manners stink.
“Bear in mind that if you break wind at 30,000ft it still does smell—and in an enclosed space there’s nowhere for that smell to go,” warns Morley.
As another attendant quipped, the only acceptable place to pass wind on a plane is “when you’re walking through First Class on the way to Coach.”
Complaining About Food Options
On most shorter flights, your options for complimentary food and drink are pretty clear, mainly because they’re listed clearly in the in-flight menu. Typically the flight attendant will come around asking what you want to drink and offering a snack (or two!). If it’s a longer trek, like an international flight, those options may expand to full meals, of which you’ll have a couple of options to choose from. (Vegetarians, you may only have one.)
If you’re willing to actually shell out some cash money for your fare, your options will expand, but even then, they’re still limited to what’s available on the plane.
Apparently it’s these restrictions that cause some passengers some real bafflement.
“Don’t get picky with airplane food,” advises one flight attendant, who said we could refer to him in this article as JumpseatPhilosopher (“in case I go back to my blogging,” he explained). “It’s not a buffet. We can’t run around the corner and get you something else.” Sounds fair.
The cabin crew don’t make the food—they’re just there to serve it. And no amount of complaining about it is going to change what’s on offer.
“Don’t act like you’re in a restaurant and the chef can rustle you up something special if you ask nicely,” says Gaston. “You know you’re going to get beef, chicken, or pasta: deal with it.”
Reclining Your Seat During Meal Service
“This causes plenty of arguments because some people are incredibly thoughtless,” says Welland.
“Everyone is within their rights to recline their seat once the aircraft has taken off, but we do ask that during the meal service all passengers put their seats upright while the person behind is eating. They should also check before they recline—in case the person behind them ends up with a tray of drinks catapulted into their lap.”
Misusing Sick Bags
“If you need to vomit, it’s your responsibility to dispose of that sick bag in the toilet, not just hand it to a member of crew – especially when they’re serving food” says Welland.
“Always double-bag too. Even though sick bags are designed for one purpose and one purpose only, they’ll often fail you at the crucial moment – and neither you nor your neighbors want you flying for hours with last night’s Thai splattered all over your lap.”
Dropping Your Mobile Phone
This might sound like a relatively minor offense, but it can cause all sorts of headaches for air crew. “Dropping phones down seats is a nightmare, as they’re ridiculously hard to get out,” says Welland.
“We have a new policy now that if this does happen, the passenger should inform us and not try to retrieve it themselves. Countless phones seats have been damaged now and it can also be a fire hazard in premium cabins, as lithium batteries in phones can catch fire if stuck near a seat power box.”
Forgetting Basic Personal Hygiene
Our insiders are unanimous on this one: If you know you’re getting on a flight and will be seated literally six inches from other people, consider washing, brushing your teeth, putting on a clean shirt, refreshing your deodorant and eschewing garlic-laden dishes 24-hours before a flight.
“As a bare minimum, all I ask is that you clean your teeth before breakfast,” sighs Welland. “There’s nothing worse than having to deal with passengers’ morning breath after a 10 hour flight when the will to live has deserted you.”
“Drinking is very different at 35,000ft,” says Salmon. “You get dehydrated very quickly, and your taste buds are reduced by around 30 feet so you don’t taste it as much either.”
In other words, alcohol and altitude don’t mix.
Air crew have a system for dealing with this behavior on planes—involving a yellow and red card format—and you don’t want to fall foul of it. “We document every incident and it’s fed back to the company. It can lead to a year’s suspension or even a lifetime ban from the airline, and that goes for our code share partners too”, says Welland.
If that’s not enough to sober you up, perhaps the threat of being tackled by your pilot (which really happened to one drunk passenger on an American Airlines flight) will do the trick.
Helping Yourself in the Galley
“We don’t always have a lot of spare food on full flights but if there is some, a simple polite request of ‘if you happen to have anything spare’ is not a problem,” says Welland.
“Just don’t help yourself to anything you see. Remember the galley is our workspace: you wouldn’t walk into somebody’s office and flick through their book, look in their handbag, steal their snacks or take their bottle of water, would you?”
Abusing Your Seat-Back Pocket
According to Gaston, frequent offenses include ripping out pages from the inflight magazine then stuffing it back into the seat so the next passenger can’t read it properly (“if you want to do that, take the whole magazine so the ground crew will replace it”).
Stuffing chewing gum, snotty hankies and even used diapers in there are also serious offenses. “Ask yourself this: would you put that item in the glove compartment of your own car? If the answer is no, then don’t put it in your seat pocket,” says Gaston.
Treating Crew Like Victorian Servants
It apparently bears repeating that flight attendants are human beings, and passengers should be mindful of treating them as such.
“Little things like returning a greeting or removing your headphones when we’re trying to communicate with you—rather than shouting ‘what?’—really matter,” says Gaston. “It’s amazing how many passengers will not even say ‘please’ or ‘thank you. Often they’ll barely look up at you—as if you’re further beneath them than a 19th Century servant.”
This might come as a surprise, but when you walk onto a plane and a flight attendant says, “Hello,” you should probably return the greeting.
“At least make eye contact,” says one flight attendant with several years of experience who asked to remain anonymous (we’ll call her Tammy). “A smile and acknowledgement would be better. Anything else is just plain rude.”
Oh, and when your flight team gives you a safety briefing, pay attention.
“Most people who sit in the exit row do it intentionally, because they are frequent flyers and know that is where they can get extra legroom,” Tammy says. “They know flight attendants are required to brief them on every flight. Don’t act like the rules don’t apply to you, [just] because you’ve done it before. It takes a few seconds out of your day to do what you’re supposed to.”
Ordering Hot Drinks on a Short Flight
“I hate it when passengers order hot tea or hot chocolate on a flight less than an hour,” Tammy says. “Flight attendants must wait about 15 minutes to start service, and must take away all drinks and service items about 15 minutes prior to landing.”
“That leaves 30 minutes to set up and serve over 100 people, assuming we don’t have to sit even longer for turbulence. Waiting for that hot water spigot to slowly pour your hot water for your mixed hot beverage seems like an eternity. And that drink that takes three [times] as long to make than anyone else’s will not even be cool enough to drink before it has to be collected for landing. It is often returned full.”
And furthermore, it’s not always a great idea to order hot drinks on an airplane in the first place.
Using the Plane Like Their Personal Space
One post on the Instagram account passengershaming made this abundantly clear. The picture features a tired young baby lying in the aisle.
Ooopsie! I swear I didn’t mean to run over your baby with the 250lb beverage cart – my bad. Let me comp you a free drink! #passengershaming #babyinaisle #crewlife #cabincrew #avgeek #aviation #flightattendantproblems #cabincrewlife #passengers #flight #airplane #sassystew #flightattendantlife #rantsofasassystew
A flight attendant captioned the photo: “Oopsie! I swear I didn’t mean to run over your baby with the 250lb beverage cart – my bad. Let me comp you a free drink!”
And while you should never let your kids play in the aisle of the plane, you really shouldn’t encroach on the galley (the area where flight attendants take their breaks, organize drinks, and perform other essential tasks).
“The galley is our office,” our flight attendant says. “It’s our tiny cubicle. It is not only where we have to do most of our work, but it is also where we eat our lunch, and try to take our 15 minute union break. We spend most of our time serving the public. Please be considerate of our personal space, because we don’t have very much of it to begin with.”
Wasting Time While Ordering
If you’ve been on a flight even once, specifically a morning flight, you already know one of the most important questions that will be asked of you: Would you like cream or sugar in your coffee?
You probably know that because the question has been seared into your brain through constant repetition, like the chorus of a song you’re not really into but can’t quit singing: “Would you like cream or sugar?” Pause. “Would you like cream or sugar?” Pause. “Would you like cream or sugar?” And so on.
We get it. We are but fragile humans, creatures of habit and conformity. It’s how we were socialized—follow the rules! If the person ahead of you (and the person in front of that person) waited patiently to be asked both, “What would you like to drink?” and then, after saying coffee, “Would you like cream or sugar?” isn’t it proper that you should also wait?
No, gentle reader. “Know how you take your coffee,” JumpSeatPhilosopher says, “and tell us that when you order.”
Ignoring the Rules
Of all of the possible flight faux pas, this is the big one.
“Rules are in place for safety, not to inconvenience you,” Tammy says. “Everyone must abide by them, and being noncompliant is selfish and makes everything more difficult for everyone.”
“Don’t illegally obtain documentation saying little Fido is an ’emotional assist’ animal because you don’t want to pay the pet fee, and then act surprised when he bites the unaccompanied minor. Don’t continue talking on your phone when we are all waiting for you to take off. Don’t insist on using the lavatory during turbulence, and expect to be compensated when you are injured.”
“Just follow the rules! It’s simple. They are there to protect you, and it is easier and more pleasant when everyone just does what they are supposed to. And don’t be a jerk. Everyone has bad days, but flight attendants are expected to never take theirs out on you. Return the courtesy. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
And while we’re letting flight attendants vent their frustrations, don’t get it twisted—in general, they love their jobs, and they’re happy to provide their passengers with anything they need.
“Despite all the bad behavior we may encounter on a daily basis, flight attendants also have a chance to connect with really wonderful people as well,” Tammy insists. “The really good ones make our day. Most people are just trying to get from point A to point B, and do so without incident. The bad apples are actually the minority.”