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Be kind to your flight attendant: an experiment

Despite all the uproar over United Airlines’ treatment of a man who resisted being bumped from a flight, I think it’s safe to say almost every flight attendant acts in a professional way, and they show remarkable patience.

friendly flight attendants on Emirates A380

friendly flight attendants on an Emirates A380 last year

In praise of the flight attendant

Passengers misbehave: the internet abounds with examples. (See this article, or this one.) Passengers take off their shoes and clip their toenails. Or they take off their shirts, fall asleep and snore. They bring too much carry-on baggage and argue with the flight attendants about it. Or they smell bad. They drink too much and offend fellow passengers, getting in loud arguments when other passengers lean back their seats. Flight attendants or fellow passengers have to fight off their attempts at seduction, or just plain groping. They smoke in the bathroom or have sex there (Yuck!).

Flight attendants take the heat for anything that upsets passengers. They get the complaints about too little legroom, poor food, and so on. They’re not responsible for any of that, but they are the ones who passengers complain to. Unless a passenger is endangering safety, there is little they can do but try to placate and calm irritations during boarding or during the flight. And then passengers complain that flight attendants are “humorless.”

At the same time, flight attendants are key to our safety. They make sure orders from the captain (“Fasten your seatbelts.”) are obeyed, and they are ready to deal with real emergencies, such as when a passenger falls ill or the plane hits bad weather. (Factoid: The most common cause of injury on an airplane is turbulence. When people don’t have their seatbelts on, they can get thrown around the cabin and break bones.)

view of the interior of the Aeroflot Boeing aircraft

on an Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Hong Kong

Outside of those necessary safety-related moments, they spend their time trying to keep everyone happy. They serve food and drinks, watch babies so their parents can go to the toilet, and generally keep things calm. All while smiling whenever it is expected.

My experiment with flight attendants

After reading several posts on the internet (like this one and this one) about the crap flight attendants have to put up with, I decided to take the advice I read in one of them. When I have time before I fly, I stop at the duty-free and buy a bag of candy – usually chocolates, of course – for the flight attendants.

As I board the plane, I hand it to the first flight attendant I see. (Or, in a large plane, like Emirates’ A380, I hand it to the flight attendant in my section.)

a bag of candy ready to hand to a flight attendant

a bag of candy ready to hand to a flight attendant

It’s great fun. The flight attendants are usually doing their standard “Welcome aboard!” and “May I see your boarding pass, please” routine.

Handing them a bag of chocolate always elicits a surprised and confused expression. Sometimes I have to explain “It’s to share with all the flight attendants.”

“Why?”

“Because I know passengers don’t always treat you well.”

The flight attendant smiles and says “Thank you,” and usually that’s the end of it. I go to my seat and the flight goes on as normal.

Why I do it, really

To be honest, when I started this experiment, part of me was hoping to get something out of it. What I wanted – and still would love – is an upgrade to economy plus, or even to business class.

I knew it was a long shot, and I was right. Bringing candy for the flight attendants will not get you an upgrade.

Except … I think the general mood of the crew became a bit happier. They smiled more. Maybe it was the effect of chocolate on their system. Or maybe it was just that they got a positive message, for a change. Isn’t that an upgrade of a sort?

This isn’t a scientific study, of course. It may involve observer bias, so that I’m seeing more cheerful flight attendants because I expect to see flight attendants who are more cheerful.

To be sure of my results, I’d have to design an experiment where I’d bring chocolates half the time, figure out a measure of cheerfulness, and compare the cheerfulness level of attendants who got chocolate to those who didn’t.

The truth is, though, that I do it for myself. Even without a hope of an upgrade, I love that look of surprise when I first hand over the bag of candy. And I feel good doing it.

It’s like when you’ve chosen a special gift for someone you love. You know for sure that this person will love his gift. So you’re doing it for him. But really, deep down inside, you’re doing it for yourself: for the kick you’ll get seeing his joy.

Incident #1

Most of the times I’ve done this – probably about ten times in the last two years — the conversation went pretty much as I’ve described. A big smile and thank you, and then the flight went on as usual for me.

However, I got a very different reaction on two recent flights.

On my way to Israel, I flew on Transavia and, as usual, handed a bag of candy to a flight attendant.

This time, she asked, “What seat are you in?”

I told her my seat number, but didn’t think anything of it, since they often ask for a seat number as you board.

Evidently, she didn’t just pass the chocolate around, she passed my name and seat number around.

Before we even pulled out of the gate, a flight attendant came and offered me a bottle of water.

During the flight, flight attendants stopped by to thank me for the chocolates.

One flight attendant, an older gentleman, was visibly moved by my gesture. Hand on his chest, he proclaimed, “I’ve never in 30 years in this job …” He repeated this several times over the course of the flight, each time speaking to a different flight attendant. He seemed to be bringing them with him to point me out.

It was all just a bit embarrassing, especially because my poor seatmates, sitting between me and the aisle, were essentially ignored during these conversations. Several times attendants offered me drinks, including ice, but not them.

It was the first time I thought this might be a bad idea.

Incident #2

A couple of weeks after my trip to Israel, I was on my way to Dubai on Emirates. I love flying on Emirates, because they use the massive A380 that offers, even in economy class, ample legroom, a large choice of films, and a very smooth flight.

a view down from the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest building in the world (but not for long)

a view down from the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest building in the world (but not for long)

Again, I handed over the chocolates – this time quite a large bag, since it’s such a big plane – but this time the flight attendant asked me whether I was a flight attendant too.

Now I was surprised and confused, and I guess she saw it in my face, because she explained “Sometimes when flight attendants fly as a passenger for free, they bring chocolate for the crew.”

I explained why I had brought it, and again the flight attendant asked where I was sitting.

The same thing happened as on the Transavia flight: flight attendants from other sections came by to thank me, and offered me extra drinks and so on.

And again it was a bit embarrassing, especially with two passengers between the aisle and me.

On the flight back I didn’t get any special attention, which felt a lot more comfortable.

Back to Dubai

It’s a few weeks later, and I’m back in Dubai – I lead workshops, and these were only about two weeks apart – but this time I decided to reserve an aisle seat. It was Emirates again, and again the attendants fussed over me. This time, though, it didn’t bother other passengers.

And the truth is, I loved it. It made me feel special, and noticed, especially among such a crowd of people. Is that wrong?

On the one hand, it really does seem to make the crew happy, which is good for everyone on board. On the other hand, the fuss they make is sometimes (if I’m not in an aisle seat) uncomfortable.

And the uncomfortable truth is: I do it more for me than for them.

What do you think? Should I be doing this? Have you ever brought a gift for the flight attendants? If you are a flight attendant, how do you feel about it? Add a comment below.


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31 Comments

  • Athan Vellianitis

    May 6, 2017 at 8:25 pm

    Please continue passing out the chocolates. I have a close relative who is a flight attendant on a major airline, and I have heard many horror stories from him. The chocolates are an acknowledgement of their courtesy despite the hard work putting up with disgruntled and demanding passengers who use flight attendants as their whipping boys.

    Reply
  • Anita and Richard @ No Particular Place To Go

    May 7, 2017 at 7:55 pm

    What a great idea Rachel! Flying is just no fun anymore and I’ve often felt so sorry for the flight attendants when I’ve watched passengers vent their frustrations in addition to random acts of obnoxious behavior. I’m sure your kindness has made someone’s day a little brighter (and it sounds like you got a little rock star treatment too!) Anita

    Reply
  • Doreen Pendgracs

    May 8, 2017 at 6:39 pm

    Rachel, what a terrific post! I’d never thought of bringing a bag of chocolate onboard for the flight attendants, although considering my line of work … I should! I am going to forward your link to my cousin (who is a flight attendant) to get her reaction. Perhaps she will post a comment here for all to read.

    Reply
  • thebritishberliner

    May 9, 2017 at 9:05 pm

    What a wonderful idea. It’s such a nice gesture that I’m sure every flight attendant would appreciate. I hadn’t thought to do so myself, but I’ll certainly keep it in mind!

    Nice one Rachel!

    Reply
  • Linda Fairbairn

    May 10, 2017 at 6:44 am

    I love the thought of the gesture – and I know chocolates are universally connected with the act of giving – but… I think I’d be more likely to offer something without such a big sugar kick (which makes people flop a short while after)…
    I wonder if this will catch on – appreciation of a job well done is too often neglected, its true 🙂

    Reply
    • Rachel

      May 10, 2017 at 8:20 pm

      I see your point about the chocolate. The problem is that I feel I have to limit myself to what’s available after security, and individually wrapped. Otherwise they might not feel that it’s safe to eat. There’s not much that’s healthy and packaged so small.

      Reply
  • Karen Warren

    May 10, 2017 at 1:47 pm

    I agree that flight attendants are much underrated (although they do seem to be better on some airlines than others). I was once on a plane where a man walked towards an attendant who was pushing a trolley and refused to get out of her way. She waited a moment, then backed the trolley all the way down the aisle – without losing her smile.

    Reply
  • travelgalcindy

    May 11, 2017 at 3:47 pm

    What a great idea! I always try to be super nice to the flight attendants because they get blamed for everything and it’s really hard work, but I can only vaguely recall one time when I shared some sort of treat with them after I’d seen them deal with someone who was a pain. What a great practice! I think I’ll try to start doing that too!

    Reply
  • Carole Terwilliger Meyers

    May 13, 2017 at 1:57 am

    Interesting. But I prefer it when the flight attendant gives me the chocolate, especially like one did on a Swiss Air flight a while back–I got LOTs of extras when I raved about how delicious the Swiss milk chocolate is! Here, have more they said.

    Reply
  • Marilyn Jones

    May 13, 2017 at 7:15 am

    I think it is a wonderful idea!! I think I will try it myself. I have had more than one flight attendant apologize to me for rude passengers around me…they put up with a lot and get little credit when everything runs smoothly!

    Reply
  • Suzanne Fluhr

    May 13, 2017 at 7:28 am

    Being considerate, thoughtful and kind is never the wrong thing to do. That’s what the Golden Rule is all about.

    Reply
  • Penny

    May 27, 2017 at 9:49 pm

    Most of the flight attendants I’ve met have been first rate. Yes, there’ve been a handful of less-than-professional ones, but with the amount of flying I do, they’re pretty insignificant. You’re really on to something, and I plan to follow in your footsteps. Thanks for the great idea.

    Reply
  • Rebecca Hall (@BeyondBex)

    June 11, 2017 at 9:14 am

    Nice gesture, but as former groundstaff at an airport, we had rules about not accepting gifts from passengers due to the fact it could be construed as ‘bribery’ for the. Dry thing you mention: upgrade.
    Also, it would be so much nicer to see people’s being nice to others purely for altruistic reasons, not because they want something out of it…but I guess at least you were honest.
    Finally: I am a little confused because initially you mention you’d like some kind of acknowledgement and yet when you do get it, you’re embarrassed by it. Is it because it didn’t come in the form you deemed appropriate?

    Good article and good for thought.

    Reply
    • Rachel

      June 11, 2017 at 10:57 am

      Yes, I’m not saying this was at all altruistic. The steps were: 1) I read online stories of flight attendants and realized their jobs aren’t nearly as glamorous and privileged as I thought. I also read posts about getting upgrades, and bringing a gift for the flight attendants was one of the suggestions. 2) I decided to try it out, hoping for an upgrade. 3) After a bunch of flights, I realized the upgrade I wanted wasn’t going to happen. But I also realized that it made the flight attendants happy. And I really enjoyed the initial reaction from whichever flight attendant I handed it to. 3) I kept doing it, because it was fun for me, and, presumably, for them. 4) Then, twice in a row, I got extra attention because of it, and it made me uncomfortable. 5) I posted this post, wondering what other people thought about it.

      I know I’m being inconsistent: I wanted something in exchange (an upgrade), got a lesser version of the same thing (extra attention), and I didn’t feel comfortable with it. I guess what I’d like is all or nothing, and I can’t control that. So should I stop doing it? Maybe. But that initial reaction as I hand them the bag is so much fun!

      As for the rules about not accepting gifts, does that apply to air crew as well? Because I’ve never seen anyone even hesitate about accepting it. Of course, it’s always packaged sweets that I buy at the duty-free. It would be unwise for them to eat homemade sweets. On my most recent flight, a European budget airline, a flight attendant came to me and told me that if I’d like, I could go talk to the captain, so the captain had gotten some chocolate too, I think. (I didn’t go see him.)

      Anyway, thanks for your thoughtful response, Rebecca!

      Reply
  • Eliza

    February 18, 2018 at 3:35 am

    I spoke with a flight attendant today and I asked her what her treat of preference would be and she said “A box of nice tea!” (or a starbucks card). Seems like such a great idea!

    Reply
  • Anne Sanger

    March 29, 2018 at 11:28 pm

    I am a flight attendant……and yes it is nice to receive sweets from passengers. Better than sweets is when you are just genuinely nice. Some people get on board looking for problems. You guys really get us down.#justsaying

    Reply
  • Kathee

    April 17, 2018 at 11:06 pm

    Something I have done since I can remember, is bringing little gifts. Over the years the gift has changed and now I keep it to Starbucks gift cards. I always have them on hand when I am heading for a flight. I always have 1 for the greeter at the door and 1 for the Crew who is in my section and always 1 each for the pilots. It’s my way of saying THANK YOU for what they do and all the stuff they have to deal with. I gift one upon my entering the plane and offer the pilots cards at this time but my husband likes to tease the Pilots by saying they don’t get theirs until we land safely. He jokes of course because he is also a pilot (small planes just for fun) and he knows I will be giving it out first anyway. This makes the crew feel special, even if it is just a “cup of coffee or tea” it is the thought that counts. I have never expected anything in return. It started out as part of our “random act of kindness” thing we do at different times of the year and I just adapted it to the many flights we have up and down the California line on business. We’ve never received upgrades or extras, but again, we do it because it makes us feel good about putting a smile on their faces. So I suppose we did receive what we wanted… a smile of appreciation.

    Reply

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