USA TODAY survey: Surly flight attendants irk fliers

By The Flying Pinto

In todays USA Today, Kitty Bean Yancey writes:

“In an online survey of USA TODAY readers, more than a third of the 5,100-plus who answered say that what bothers them most about flight attendants’ behavior is a surly demeanor.
As of late Sunday, 38% of respondents picked that as most bothersome, followed by gabbing together in the back (21%), refusal to deal with unruly passengers (20%), a schoolmarm attitude (12%) and slowness in serving drinks or food (9%).
I thought refusing to deal with bothersome passengers would come out higher; that’s what irks me most. I rarely have seen an FA challenge an obnoxious drunk, the person who hogs more than his or her share of space or the loud talker who clearly is making the flight miserable for anyone within earshot.”

Couldn’t intervening in a situation such as this be taken as “surly?” The truth is Flight attendants can’t please all the passengers all the time. There are over hundred passengers on each flight with different ideas on how situations should be dealt with.

Yancey also wants to know what we think:

“I will be writing a story on how flight attendants are perceived, and how they view passengers, and will be looking for stories from both sides.”

“What’s worst and best FA behavior you’ve experienced or observed on a flight? (e-mail me at [email protected] if you’d like to contribute to a story I will be writing. Flight attendants, feel free to fire back at misbehaving passengers or misperceptions about the job.”

And so do I! Leave your comments here or on The Crew Lounge Face Book page and we’ll get the comments over to Kitty. 

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  1. One of my favorites that I'll never forget is "Shirley" on a flight from Tokyo to Chicago. She was obviously a senior judging by her age and size, and damned to hell if she took crap from anyone! Shirley snapped at Japanese passengers for not speaking English, told passengers struggling with overhead luggage storage to "do it yourself," and when a nervous Chinese passenger tapped her on the shoulder to get her attention she delivered "You don't touch me, you talk to me if you want my attention!" I found it highly entertaining but I can see how others, especially Japanese who are used to formal bowing and impeccable humility from their flight attendants, would be shocked and offended.

    On that same flight, I really could have done without the strange vaguely sexist and patronizing behavior from some male flight attendants during boarding. I was carrying a small carryon suitcase well below the weight limit and they said "Wow, you can carry that yourself, sweetie!" like I was five. I'm fairly sure if they had known I was American they wouldn't have said a thing.

    The absolute best service I've had was right after a Korean Air flight from Fukuoka, Japan to Busan, S. Korea – part of the same trip involving the last two anecdotes, funnily enough. I was the only passenger on that flight making an international transfer, and I was surprised to see that when I disembarked Korean Air had sent someone to meet me. She greeted me by name (I guess she'd seen my passport photo, since everyone on that flight including myself was of Korean or Japanese descent) and was there simply to sort out my boarding passes for the rest of my flights and make sure I made the transfer okay, which was amazing because I honestly could have done all that myself. She was incredibly helpful and was very friendly. I wish I remembered her name, because that was by far the best service I've ever gotten from an airline.

  2. Steve Riley @ 2010-08-24 08:28

    Spent about eight years flying internationally twice a month in the pointy end of the plane — a nice gig if you can get it. Once I was returning home from Sao Paulo via Dulles to Seattle on United. I was in first and I could tell the purser was extremely agitated. Now I absolutely love chatting with FAs about their jobs so I thought I'd just observe for a while.

    Apparently, some dude in coach decided to self-upgrade to biz. When informed this was absolutely not possible, his open hostility spread a palpable chill throughout the entire aircraft. The purser got on the raprod and eventually the local constabulary showed up to, ah, educate the customer about his complete lack of self-upgrade capabilities. After a noisy kerfluffle, said passenger returned to his assigned seat. We departed only half an hour late.

    I learned the details only after takeoff, when the purser came around asking for drink orders. All I did was ask her what had happened back there — she sat on the floor by my chair and totally unloaded. From that point on, the service was impeccable.

    I learned a valuable lesson from that: be a good listener. FAs endure enormous stress and pure crap from ungrateful passengers. It pleased me greatly to provide her an opportunity to evacuate the stress from her mind. That's the best thing we regulars can do: be sensitive to our surroundings and when you witness a tense situation, observe for the time, then later just be a good listener. People want to tell stories; if you demonstrate a desire to truly listen to the stories of others, you'll win friends everywhere. I can't wait for my next trip back there, and I hope to see the same crew.

  3. The Friendly Skies @ 2010-08-24 15:10

    Steve Riley- You are the type of passenger that Flight Attendants pray get on their planes! Thank you. 🙂

    Sara- You are right, we can not please everyone. Someone might think that you gave them the best service while the guy behind them might have been mad that you had just given out the last blanket on the plane. We can only do our best, smile and not worry what everyone is thinking.

  4. Best FA was CLE to ORD on XJT on a Tuesday morning around 8am. He addressed all 50 passengers by name while asking what he wanted to drink. He was professional and the flight was fantastic.

    Worse FA was Charlotte to Akron Canton on United Express (not sure which airline exactly). As we were boarding the flight she was filing her nails and barely raised her head to acknowledge any passengers. She set the mood for the entire flight, and the mood was pissy. I know it was late, and I know she may have had a bad day, but it really rubbed off on everyone. The whole flight was just quiet and uncomfortable.

  5. Anonymous @ 2010-09-04 04:34

    Since it's impossible to determine which fa will turn the cabin into a flying police state, and which one will not, my approach has been to act as if all fas are members of a SWAT team and are hopped-up on cocaine. Accordingly I ask for nothing and try to avoid cabin service by closing my eyes when the fa approaches. I purchase any food/drink I may need (when available) in the airside of security. So far, I haven't had an fa try to confiscate my food. However, I wonder if this is a possibility?

    I'm sorry if I've offended anyone, but some of your colleagues, like American Air's "Helen, the orange juice lady" have created this situation. Not all of us are convicted felons and terrorists.

  6. Anonymous @ 2010-09-09 09:33

    FAs not dealing with "unruly" passengers might be lower on the list than FAs would guess because most passengers never encounter such situations.

    But everyone encounters the occasional FA who doesn't give a darn, treats the passengers like dirt (for whatever reason, maybe she's had one of those "unruly" passengers on the last leg, maybe she's just had a divorce, maybe it's just her character, whatever).

    Worst moment like that I can recall is something my father told me.
    He used to fly (before he retired) transatlantic on average about once a week or so.
    He always travelled business class, and usually dressed casually in jeans and polo shirt.
    More than once the flight attendants just refused to give him any attention, simply because he wasn't "dressed appropriately for business class". This only ended after several complaints to captains and eventually a formal complaint filed with the airline.

    This was KLM in the 1990s, the service he got in business class was worse than what we'd gotten in economy class on Aeroflot in the 1980s.
    We don't expect cowtowing flight attendants, but being ignored during drinks service or when they offer newspapers is unacceptable.

    That said, most flight attendants I've experienced were fine, many were great, bad experiences are rare in general and usually just caused by them being overworked due to an abnormal number of inexperienced travellers and/or small children.