In the early days of commercial air travel, being a flight attendant was glamorous and exciting. Ambitious and independent young women traveled the world, jetting off to far-flung places, hobnobbing with executives and royals — all while dressed in the latest fashions.
How times have changed.
These days, the profession has fallen from grace. Passengers regularly treat flight attendants — highly trained professionals whose jobs entail everything from hospitality to emergency medical response and heavy machinery usage — as menial service workers who exist for the sole purpose of satisfying individual whims.
Now, there are likely thousands of articles out there that purport to tell you the "secrets" to getting upgraded on flights. It's all clickbait. Every trip is different, each traveler more or less confident than others, any given gate agent susceptible to mood swings. Short of spending money or miles to bump yourself up a tier, there is, however, one way to increase the odds you'll have a happier flight: Treat every airline staff member like the highly trained, well-traveled professionals that they are.
So, instead of my top five tricks to rack up mileage or somesuch, here are a few illustrative examples of why it pays to be nice to flight attendants:
1. Holiday cheer
My best experience befriending a flight attendant was on a flight home for the holidays some years ago, when I was seated next to the service station, just behind business class — and, thus, next to one of the flight attendant's seats. A nervous flyer, I initially struck up a conversation with the flight attendant before takeoff as much to distract myself as to make a friend. She told me about her young son and her recent long-haul flights to Singapore and Beijing, and we bonded over our mutual love of Turkey.
Then, meal service in business class started, and she started to surreptitiously put extras on my tray — first a glass of champagne, then a bowl of chocolate ice cream. We chatted more on the descent, and she helped me get my coat down from the overhead bins. "Don't drop it," she said. "Have a great Christmas!" When I got off the plane, I realized she'd wrapped it around a bottle of champagne.
2. Parlez-vous francais?
But striking up a conversation isn't the only way to befriend a flight attendant. On a flight back from France, a child in the row in front of me was traveling alone and spoke no English, so the flight attendants asked if anyone in our area spoke French and would be willing to swap seats to sit next to her, as the woman next to her spoke no French. I volunteered, chatted with the flight attendant briefly about my duties sitting next to an unaccompanied minor, and took my seat. The grateful flight attendants checked in on me throughout the flight, brought my food first (along with the little girl's), and went above and beyond to take care of me.
3. Friends in high places
Sometimes, you don't even have to do much more than offer a friendly hello in order to earn special treatment. If you have even a friend of a friend who's a flight attendant on an airline you'll be flying, send them a note to see if they happen to be working your flight. Even if they're not, you could end up being taken care of. I've witnessed this (jealously, I might add): A close friend of mine had an acquaintance who was a flight attendant on her airline; while he wasn't on her flight, he tipped off his colleagues who were and she found herself plied with wine and desserts throughout her intercontinental trip.
Still not convinced? A friend — a former teacher who holds a PhD — recently decided to spend her retirement as a flight attendant, so she could travel more and meet interesting people. When I asked her about difficult passengers, she said that people sometimes don't seem to realize that flight attendants communicate, and rude regular passengers can be essentially blacklisted. On the flip side, she said that people who are friendly, pleasant, and courteous will be remembered.
As experience has shown, you never know what that might get you.