Nowadays people fly all the time, but 25 years ago you didn’t as much. In my teenage years I was afraid of flying, so I was very nervous the first time I went on a flight from London to Italy in the ’90s. It was being with other people that helped, because I went with a group and everyone else was relaxed. But at that point it hadn’t even crossed my mind to become a flight attendant.
At the end of university I realized I had been studying for a good amount of years, because I studied languages, which was a four year degree. I couldn’t bear the thought of any more studying, so I went to the careers library. They had big books then, it wasn’t online, and I saw an airline advertising for cabin crew. So I applied.
I was an ideal candidate because I spoke German, French and Italian, but I just thought it would be fun. At that point I didn’t know if I was going to be put on short haul or long haul flights, and I was actually recruited in 1998 to work on short haul flights from London to Europe.
The training took three weeks, which was ground school and customer service training, and the first flight I worked on was a domestic one; something short and sweet. People think short haul flights are easier because they’re quicker but they’re really hard work. London to Paris was about 30 minutes in the air with full service, so you were literally powering up that aisle with a trolley on an incline and I’m only 5’2″ and a half. It was hard work.
But working shorthaul was fine for me. I always said to my friend who worked on long haul that I couldn’t be on a plane for that amount of time with passengers. I think when people go through an airport and onto an aircraft they turn into completely different people. Any kind of sense of grounding seems to be lost. The smallest little issue that wouldn’t bother people in everyday life seems to bother people on an aircraft. I think that’s why passengers can ask stupid questions and behave bizarrely.
Over five years, I worked six days on and three days off, aside from vacations, so I worked hundreds of flights. These are the biggest passenger bugbears I had.
Not paying attention to safety demonstrations
People would sit with their headphones in during the safety demonstration and often wouldn’t even know where the safety instruction card was. I would always think to myself: If the sh** hit the fan they wouldn’t have a clue. I was there performing in front of passengers, and they needed to know that information. But people, in my experience, aren’t interested because they kind of think they know it already. They also think “it” (an accident) won’t ever happen to them.
I don’t think it hurts to have a refresher. Every time I’m on a flight I listen to the safety demonstration because every aircraft is different in terms of where the emergency exits are. It’s just a reminder that your life jackets are under your seat, and that your own mask goes on first and then you can help others. I used to tell passengers to pay attention but in a cheeky, quirky way. I would do it with a smile; it’s not what you say it’s how you say it.
Not following instructions for luggage and seat belts
On every flight I worked, passengers would bring on more than they could carry. My attitude was: If you can’t carry it, don’t bring it, and don’t ask me to put it in the overhead locker for you, because I’m probably much smaller than you. If you can’t put it in there, I can’t put it in there!
Bags not being put under the seats for take off and landing was another issue. I don’t think people understand why you have to do certain things. People would ask me why they couldn’t have their bag with them? Well, if the plane is going down during an accident and your bag flies down the cabin at 100 miles an hour, it might take someone’s head off.
Similarly, if the seatbelt sign is on and you haven’t got your seatbelt on, when we hit turbulence, you’re going to hit the ceiling. Incorrectly stowed bags can also be a serious trip hazard on a flight in the event of an emergency. The understanding around those risks is generally not there, so I was constantly having to ask people to put their bags under the seats and put their seatbelts on.
Asking stupid questions
I had a friend who worked long haul flights who said people always used to ask stupid questions like: “Are you flying straight back?” She had been flying, and working, for eight hours. People also always asked about delays, and if we would arrive on time. We were definitely seen as the fount of all knowledge.
Passengers always ask you where they are, and they have the map on the screen in front of them. “Is that Slog?” an American asked me once, meaning “Slough.”
Generally, passengers expect you to know everything and it happens in the terminal as well. When you’re walking through the terminal you’re expected to know where everything is, including toilets and duty free.
The reaction to kids annoying other passengers
When you’re in a customer service role you want your customers to be happy, but you can’t please everyone, so you have to have a level of acceptance of that and you have to pacify.
In situations where you have children that are annoying other passengers, you see if there is somewhere else you can move the children and family to, or the passenger. If there is nowhere, you can’t do it. There are some aircrafts that have child free zones, but it’s not generally like that; you are where you are and you have to accept that.
I had to look at it objectively from both sides of the aisle. You need to understand the person that wants peace and quiet and the person that wants their children to be happy.
But in that situation, parents were more difficult to manage, because they were very protective of their children, and you could be at risk of causing a lot of offense. They would say that there’s nothing wrong with their child or that they had tried this or that to quieten them down.
I do understand that if you’re a parent and you’re traveling, it’s hard work. I know that because I have friends who have done it, and I’ve done it as “auntie” and it is not easy.
What passengers can do to make the crew’s life easier
I would say the most important action passengers could take to help flight attendants would be to listen. People hear but they don’t listen. They hear flight attendants say, “Put your bags under the seat,” or “Please take your headphones out” but they don’t always listen. I try to see things from both sides of the aisle, but it would be nice if people could do that.
I would say to people, whatever customer service role you’re dealing with, just put yourself in that person’s shoes. As well as working, they might have been awake all night, they might have problems at home.
Looking back, I miss meeting new people, going to lovely places and having that time in those countries. But life pans out the way it does.
Ironically, what I loved most about being a flight attendant was the people. Of course, I came across difficult passengers, but you come across difficult people in all walks of life.
I worked on a fairly small fleet so I did get to know people and I might fly with one person more than others. But generally, I didn’t know who I was flying with from one week to the next. And we did have some cracking nights out in the countries we flew to. Things have changed over the years, and definitely since COVID, but it used to be a really good time. We’d have arrival drinks, we would all go out together and have pool parties in different countries. We lived the life; it was fun.
After the September 11 attacks happened in New York in 2001, the flight deck became a vault, so the onboard experience wasn’t quite the same. And of course, a lot more security procedures came in and it changed things a bit. But I loved the people and I loved variety. I went to most countries in Europe, and on the concession flights I received for working for an airline, I went to practically every continent; South America, South Africa, Australia.
After I left the airline I was working for in 2002, I worked as a freelance writer, but became tired of mediocrity in customer service and I wanted to help people. Initially I started a blog just talking about customer service, but now, because I know how to write a killer complaint letter, I help others do it.
I want to make consumer rights interesting and relatable and hammer home the fact that we can be better customers and make our customer service experience better in so many ways. Often we make a rod for our own back.
It’s the same with flying. Sometimes on flights I worked on, situations were worsened just by the way things were interpreted by passengers. But you’re on an aircraft with a lot of people you don’t know, and a lot of people don’t like that “tube” and I understand that. I really did try and see things from both sides.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
As told to Jenny Haward.