Flight Attendants Reveal the Things They’re Silently Judging You For
Flight attendants are the members of the flight crew who really make air travel tolerable. They bring you drinks. They help you troubleshoot the entertainment system. And they politely intervene when somebody’s in your seat.
Nonetheless, passengers don’t always treat flight attendants well in return. Sometimes, they ask inappropriate questions. They might smoke in the bathroom. Or they pick fights with other passengers, and call on the flight attendant to intervene.
So we talked to some real-life flight attendants — and other air travel experts — to find out which behaviors they really hate to see on a flight. Believe us, you don’t want to be one of these passengers!
Below, check out some of the things that flight attendants will absolutely judge you for doing. (Even if they’re usually polite enough to keep their judgment to themselves.)
1. Drinking too much
Sherry Saehlenou was a flight attendant for Pan Am and United Airlines for 29 years. She also trained flight attendants on cabin safety for Boeing and now has her own aviation training company. From her experience, Saehlenou tells The Cheat Sheet, “Airline travel has changed so much since I started flying in 1978, and bad behavior has morphed a bit. I think one of the biggest problems on flights in the early days was consuming too much alcohol.”
Drinking too much alcohol can definitely impair your judgment. Saehlenou reports that on a trans-Atlantic flight, “one passenger in business class mistook the coat closet on a 747 for a toilet and proceeded to open the door and relieve himself — on my garment bag hanging there.”
Our advice: You can enjoy a drink or two. But limit your liquid consumption mostly to water. (It will do a better job of keeping you hydrated, anyway.)
2. Sitting in first class when you have an economy ticket
Passing through an empty first class cabin, you might assume that nobody will notice if you treat yourself to an upgrade. But believe us, the flight attendants do notice. Saehlenou explains that in this case, flight attendants have to “confront the passengers and move them back.” Many passengers don’t realize that the crew has a passenger list. So they know where you’re supposed to be sitting.
Saehlenou adds, “I once had a high school student on a class tour break away from his group saying he was using his miles to sit in business class. He had torn out the sample mileage plus application from the magazine (with sample mileage plus card) saying that he had just signed up. When that didn’t work with me, he told me he was on his parent’s mileage plus upgrade. He wasn’t. I sent him back.”
Our advice: If you want to sit in first class, buy a first class ticket. Or learn the legitimate ways you can get an upgrade.
3. Boarding before it’s your turn
There are plenty of things wrong with the airline boarding process. However, that doesn’t entitle you to break the rules. Gate agents and flight attendants alike find it annoying when you board before it’s your turn. You might think that the flight attendants will be none the wiser, but they know their airline’s boarding process.
Thus, they can tell if you boarded when you shouldn’t. And, as Saehlenou attests, they definitely judge you for it. You’re also not off the hook if you’re traveling Southwest and saving seats for traveling companions who will board after you do. The flight attendants might not stop you. But they definitely will judge you.
Our advice: Stick it out through the boarding process. Or, if you really want to be the first on the plane, purchase priority boarding.
4. Putting your carry-on in the first overhead bin you see
Space in the overhead bins is at a premium (due in part to sky-high airline fees for checked baggage.) Nonetheless, you should try to remain considerate of other passengers. They’re also anxious about finding a place to stash their suitcase or backpack.
Saehlenou says that she always thinks it’s annoying when she sees a passenger “put their carry-on in the first compartment they see as they get on the plane, then continue on to the back of the plane to take their seat.” If you ask us, that’s especially true when the carry-on in question is one that could probably just slide under the seat.
Our advice: Pack as light as you can, and always stow your carry-ons somewhere close to your seat.
5. Hitting people in the face with your backpack
Do you have a lot of luggage to carry onto the plane with you? Then it might seem reasonable to keep your backpack on your back. However, many passengers end up colliding with their neighbors when they keep a backpack on their back — and the flight attendants take notice.
As Saehlenou explains, these travelers “hit sitting passengers in the face as they turn right and left putting stuff in overhead bins.” Even if you wear a backpack all the time, you’ll be in close quarters with your neighbors on the plane. You could easily misjudge the amount of space you have to maneuver, and end up hitting somebody.
Our advice: Be more conscious of where your backpack is going, or just carry in front of you down the aisle.
6. Putting your bags in the under-space reserved for other passengers
We all know it’s a faux pas to hog all the space in the overhead bin. However, it’s also frowned upon — by flight attendants and travelers alike — to put your things in the under-seat space reserved for other travelers.
Adeodata Czink, founder of the etiquette consultancy Business of Manners, tells The Cheat Sheet that it’s incredibly rude “when a passenger thinks that the seat next to them is theirs, too.” These passengers often carry on too many pieces of luggage. Inevitably, they can’t find room for all their bags in the overhead bin, so they put some of their things where their seat mates’ feet should go. Czink adds, “I don’t even have room for my own legs.”
Our advice: Just like you shouldn’t hog the overhead bin space, you should never, ever put your bags at somebody else’s feet.
7. Immediately making requests you should have taken care of in the airport
Steffanie Rivers is a flight attendant who wrote an entire book on airline industry secrets. Rivers tells The Cheat Sheet that one thing she absolutely judges passengers for is boarding the plane and then immediately making requests that they could have or should have taken care of in the airport. A few examples?
“Trips to the bathroom, a drink of water and help with rearranging seat assignments (that’s a gate agent issue),” she explains. There are bigger bathrooms at your terminal. Plus, the stores in the airport offer plenty of opportunities to buy cleaner water. And a flight attendant probably can’t help you if you want to move seats when everybody else has already boarded.
Our advice: Know you’ll need something as soon as you get on the plane? Try to take care of it before you board.
8. Talking on the phone during the safety demonstration
The flight attendants’ safety demonstration is the butt of many jokes (on both sides of the proverbial aisle). However, they have to tell you how the safety equipment onboard the plane works. And you’ll be glad you paid attention in the unlikely event that a crisis occurs.
Understandably, Saehlenou reports that she’s always annoyed when passengers talk on their phones throughout the entire safety demonstration. Your last-minute call might seem important. But it’s also important — arguably more so in the event of an emergency — that you know where the emergency exits are and you remember how to operate an oxygen mask.
Our advice: Put your phone on airplane mode, and pay attention for the two minutes it takes for the flight attendants to give the safety demonstration.
9. Asking if the flight attendants can open the window
Dan Boland, founder of Holidayers and an airline pilot with 11 years of experience, tells The Cheat Sheet that he and his wife — a flight attendant for 10 years — have seen plenty of strange behavior from anxious flyers.
Especially when his wife works on flights originating in China, passengers “ask if she can open the windows or emergency exit to let some fresh air in to the cabin. Incredibly, this happens both on the ground and in cruise.” Sometimes, passengers even “open the emergency windows and deploy the emergency slides. This inevitably cancels the flight for everyone as the inflatable emergency slides need to be repacked by mechanics.”
Our advice: Remember that, unlike when you travel by car, you can’t open the window on a plane.
10. Being inconsiderate of other people’s children
Krista Canfield McNish, a frequent traveler who’s made it to 66 countries so far, has been on plenty of flights. So she has some perspective on the things you do that annoy flight attendants (and your fellow passengers). She tells The Cheat Sheet that on a recent flight with several crying toddlers in her vicinity, she saw “a lot of eye rolling from passengers.”
McNish advises you to pack earbuds if you think you’ll be annoyed by crying children. However, she also thinks that you should try to understand the parents’ predicament. “Trying to help the extremely exhausted parents around me seemed productive versus just rolling my eyes and not accomplishing much besides maintaining a high stress level,” McNish explains.
Our advice: Don’t complain about the kids on your flight. Additionally, don’t get passive-aggressive with their parents.
11. Speaking so quietly that the flight attendant can’t hear you
Whether you’re asking for a drink or requesting the flight attendant’s help with an emergency, you’ll need to speak loudly enough that he or she can hear you. Rivers tells The Cheat Sheet that she’s always annoyed by “people who talk so low that you can’t hear them on top of the airplane noise during the flight.” She adds, “Do you want my help or don’t you? If so, speak up for goodness sake!”
Our advice: There’s no need to yell, but speak up to make sure that the flight attendant can hear you.
12. Talking way too loudly throughout the flight
Conversely, some people don’t have a problem with speaking too quietly at all. In fact, we’ve all been seated painfully close to somebody who needs to turn the volume way down.
Czink, the etiquette expert, characterizes this as a major faux pas. She tells The Cheat Sheet, “Don’t speak three volumes louder than the others; we can hear you, thank you.” If you know you’re a loud person, try not to carry on long conversations with your traveling companions, especially when others are trying to sleep.
Our advice: Really, we promise, there’s no need to yell. Everybody’s eardrums go through enough abuse as it is.
13. Letting your child crawl around where he shouldn’t
Everybody craves more space on a plane, including toddlers. However, Saehlenou always finds it annoying when parents and grandparents “think it is OK to let their babies crawl around on the floor in the empty galley cart spaces — or in the aisle.”
Chances are good that somebody — probably the flight attendants — will need to come through that space. (After all, where do you think the beverage cart goes after it’s made its rounds?) Plus, you’re leaving little fingers and toes vulnerable to getting stepped on. That isn’t fun for anybody.
Our advice: Try to teach your kids that when you get on the plane, you stay in your seat — except for bathroom breaks.
14. Changing your baby’s diaper on the tray table
Though she’s not a flight attendant, etiquette expert April Masini has a unique perspective on the annoying things people do on flights. She tells The Cheat Sheet that one of the worst behaviors she’s seen — one that draws judgment from flight attendants and passengers alike — is when parents change their baby’s diaper on the tray table.
Masini explains, “When parents choose to change a baby’s or toddler’s diapers on the seat, it creates a stinky situation for any and all seat mates in the cabin.” She advises,”A more polite and thoughtful way to handle diaper changes on a flight is to start the flight with a clean diaper, and if necessary, use the rest room — or ask the flight attendants if there’s an empty row of seats near the restrooms, as a last resort.”
Our advice: Diaper changes make tray tables one of the germiest spots on the plane. Do everybody a favor and change those diapers in the restroom instead.
15. Putting your feet where they don’t belong
Stretching out in any space available to you sounds smart. But flight attendants (and your fellow passengers) don’t want to look at or smell your feet. Saehlenou reports that her “biggest annoyance” is “the passenger that puts their feet on the bulkhead through the entire flight. With shoes is bad enough, but many passengers will stick their bare feet up there for all to have to look at.”
Travel photographer (and frequent traveler) Gary Arndt also tells The Cheat Sheet, “One of the most annoying things I’ve seen passengers do is … take off their shoes and socks, and … put their feet on the seat in front of them, or put their feet almost straight up in the air. Usually, only smaller people do this, but I’ve seen it happen several times.”
Our advice: If you need to stretch, get up and walk for a minute. And at least keep your socks on!
16. Slamming your chair into the knees of the passenger behind you
We all wish we had more space on the plane. However, violently reclining your chair won’t make more space magically appear. McNish tells The Cheat Sheet, “In this day and age, legroom isn’t a given. Slamming your back into your seat chair in the hopes it sprouts wings and gives you an extra inch only gives the person behind you bruises on their knees.” Additionally, Czink — the etiquette expert — advises The Cheat Sheet that before you recline your seat, “Ask first, ‘Would you mind if I recline my seat a little?'”
You might be irritated about the lack of legroom. But as McNish notes, “Flying is only as stressful as you let it get. Being angry doesn’t usually get you anywhere faster, so just try your best to be nice to the other folks on your flight.”
Our advice: If you’re going to recline your chair — a big if — do it gently.
17. Trying to join the mile high club
Boland reports that many passengers want to join the mile high club. Some even want flight attendants to help them do it. He explains that in his wife’s 10 years as a flight attendant, “The weirdest question she got was from a horny passenger in business class that wanted to join the mile high club with another passenger seated in economy, but he was too scared to go talk to the girl and wanted us to mediate and ask her if she would be interested.”
He adds, “My wife had to ask a second time due to sheer disbelief at what she was hearing and then had to politely decline that her crew would be able to facilitate and allow such things to happen onboard.”
Our advice: If you’re really attracted to somebody, try to strike up a conversation instead of propositioning them.
18. Standing in the aisle to talk to your friends
You can’t always sit next to your friends or family members when you fly. However, that’s no excuse to get up and block the aisle. As Saehlenou tells The Cheat Sheet, flight attendants always judge passengers who “stand in the aisles to talk to their fellow traveling companions, blocking cart flow and other passengers going to the lavatories.”
You can always make a brief stop to exchange magazines or just to say hello. But the minute anybody else needs to get through the aisle, get out of the way!
Our advice: Get up and walk around, but always stay conscious of where everybody else is trying to go.
19. Interrupting a reading neighbor
Flight attendants have seen this awkward situation happen plenty of times. (They’ve also probably judged the guilty party every time.) Masini tells The Cheat Sheet, “When your seat mate thinks your book is a flight decoration and not something you’re reading, they’re going to interrupt you, try over and over to engage you in conversation, and make your otherwise peaceful flight time a nightmare.”
The same thing can happen whether you’re reading, listening to music, watching a movie, or just trying to get some shuteye. Some passengers don’t know when to stop — though the flight attendants who keep walking past them probably wish they did.
Our advice: Don’t assume that everybody wants to talk with you. Always take the hint if your seat mate seems occupied.
20. Refusing to get up to let someone out
Flight attendants don’t like having arguments to mediate. So we’d venture to guess that they really don’t want to get involved if you don’t want to let your seat mate out to get to the lavatory. McNish tells The Cheat Sheet that when she travels, “I frequently have passengers suggest I just Everest-style hike over them instead of using my absence as an opportunity to stretch their legs or stand up.”
Nobody likes crawling over their seat mates. But McNish notes that if they refuse, “I just shrug my shoulders and try to tell myself that person may have some unknown aversion to standing or a medical issue I’m not aware of and let my hike begin.”
Our advice: If someone asks you to move so they can get to the aisle, just be polite and stand up.
21. Making a big deal about the meal options
If you have specific dietary needs, you’ll need to let the airline know ahead of time. If you forget to request that vegetarian or kosher meal, you’re likely out of luck. Don’t take it out on the flight attendant, though.
Saehlenou says, “When a passenger asked for a vegetarian meal, and his name wasn’t on the list, I explained that we didn’t have one for him. He made a big scene.” Saehlenou explains that, normally, she’d say that she had an apple in her bag and offer it to the passenger. Usually, the passenger “would realize how silly they sounded and they would apologize and say no. This man, however, asked, ‘What color?'” Saehlenou told him it was green, and he actually took it. Pretty ridiculous, if you ask us.
Our advice: Plan ahead if you’ll need a meal on a long flight. You can even pack your own TSA-friendly food.
22. Watching a movie without earbuds
It’s hard to remember everything you need to pack when you fly. However, if you want to watch a movie or listen to music, there’s no excuse for leaving your earbuds behind. Flight attendants, including Saehlenou, find it annoying when passengers “watch movies on their iPads with the sound full up (so all can hear).”
The flight attendant will likely judge you each time he or she walks past. Plus, your seat mates will probably want to chuck your tablet or computer out the window. If you forgot your earbuds, tough luck. Nobody wants to listen to the soundtrack of your movie.
Our advice: Always pack earbuds if you plan on watching a movie or listening to music on your personal device.
23. Leaving your overhead light on when everybody else has turned theirs off
If you’re engrossed in your book or getting a lot of work done on your laptop, you might not notice that everybody around you has turned their light off (or that they’re all trying to get some sleep). However, as soon as you do notice, you should follow suit and turn your light off.
Czink notes that it’s irritating if you leave your light on when your seat mates are trying to sleep. She tells The Cheat Sheet that you should “turn your lamp off when everybody has done so; try to get two hours of sleep before it gets light.”
Our advice: Be considerate of those around you and turn your light off when they’re trying to sleep.
24. Trying to put your baby somewhere strange
Boland tells The Cheat Sheet that his flight attendant wife used to work many flights originating in China. There, she observed a widespread “lack of knowledge about flying etiquette among the newly rich middle class Chinese.” One shocking example? “Believe it or not, it’s very common for passengers to try to put newborn babies and young infants in the overhead luggage bins.”
Just before takeoff on one flight, Boland’s wife “heard a baby crying above her and luckily was able to pull the bassinet down and give the baby to the mother who was sitting on an exit row.” She had to explain that passengers “must hold their babies during takeoff and the bassinet should be in the overhead locker, minus the baby.”
Our advice: Always purchase another ticket so that your child can sit safely in his or her car seat, secured in a seat next to you — not on your lap. (And definitely not in the overhead bin.)
25. Assaulting a flight attendant
This one is pretty extreme. But unfortunately, it’s not unheard of. Saehlenou, the flight attendant with 29 years of experience under her belt, explains that she “once had a passenger (on a flight from Seattle to London) grab my hair and start yanking my head back and forth because I couldn’t tell him what time it was outside the airplane window.” (They were over the Atlantic, where the plane passes through several time zones.)
Suffice it to say that if you assault a flight attendant, there’s nothing that will save you from the flight crew’s judgment and probably some pretty serious consequences.
Our advice: Refresh your memory on what you learned in kindergarten. Always refrain from hitting, shoving, or otherwise attacking anybody else on the plane.
26. Blaming the airline for an injury you already had
As the infamous United Airlines case demonstrated, things can get pretty tense on an overbooked flight. However, unless you literally get dragged off a plane, you probably shouldn’t try to sue the airline for a sore back. Boland tells The Cheat Sheet that on one flight, the flight attendants told a passenger to move his seat to the upright position before landing. He refused.
So the cabin crew “had to assist him to move the seat forward. In the process he claimed he injured his back, had tremendous pain and couldn’t move.” After landing, the airline had to call the police and an ambulance. But it turns out that “the passenger was just trying to get the airline to pay for possibly preexisting back issues, as the economy seat he was in has a very small range of motion, and its highly unlikely to have caused him to injure his back. Nice try!”
Our advice: Don’t blame the airline for your medical issues without a valid reason to do so.
27. Getting up as soon as the plane is on the ground
Paying attention to the seatbelt sign is important both when you’re in the air and when you’re on the ground. Nonetheless, Boland tells The Cheat Sheet that plenty of passengers ignore the sign and scramble to retrieve their belongings from the overhead bin as soon as the plane touches down.
“What always annoys my wife,” he explains, “is that passengers will rush to get all their stuff, and then end up standing up looking like cattle wanting to escape despite the usual 5 to 10 minutes it takes for the terminal bridge to be connected. It makes sense to only start standing up and grabbing your bags when you see the passengers a few rows in front of you moving because before then nothing is going to happen.”
Our advice: Be patient. You’ve almost made it!
[Editor’s note: This story was originally published August, 2017.]