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11 things I never knew about flying—until I became a flight attendant

(This article first published by Bloomberg.)


When you cram hundreds of passengers into a carbon fiber tube and shoot it across the sky, things are bound to go wrong. And no matter how dire the state of air travel seems—whether it’s the disturbing video caught on a United Airlines flight or Delta’s long delays last week—you, the passenger, are privy to only one side of the story.

So when Norwegian offered me the opportunity to become a flight attendant last month, I decided to find out what it’s really like to fly the not-so-friendly skies. Here’s everything I learned while serving as a crew member aboard their 787-8 Dreamliner long-haul service from London (LGW) to New York (JFK).

You Are Not the Most Important Passenger on the Plane

This may seem obvious given the recent airline news, but yes, flight attendants get free travel perks. And sometimes crew members are paid to fly on repositioning flights that get them to their next shift. They’re called “deadheads,” and they’re the most important passengers in terms of getting a seat on the plane, which is what led to the doctor in Chicago being forcibly removed from his United seat to accommodate one.

How To Speak the Language

“Deadheads” is just the beginning. Did you know flight attendants play ping-pong on every flight? That’s what they call beverage service, thanks to the paddle-shaped trays they extend to fill your cup with coffee and tea (to avoid spillage of hot fluids). They also sleep in “crashpads”—shared apartments—when they’re off duty, which are often in “Crew Gardens” (that’s Kew Gardens—a neighborhood near NYC’s JFK airport—to most people). And live out of “Berthas,” or company-issued suitcases.

What they surprisingly don’t have a code name for: belligerent customers. But they will refer to problem passengers in “aviation alphabet,” i.e. “21 Golf” for the person sitting in 21G.

The Off-Menu Option

Flight attendants and pilots never get stuck with the same food you’re eating. They get a completely different set of menu items from the passengers, reducing the risk of food poisoning across the entire airplane. But don’t be jealous. My fellow crew members ate cold platters of sandwiches and chocolate bars. And the customers got surprisingly well-prepared dishes, made in real ovens rather than in microwaves.

The Best and Worst Travelers, by Country

According to Ilse, another Norwegian crew member, “We all agree that Scandinavians are the best passengers you could ever ask for: So content with being on board, and they don’t ask for much. Passengers traveling from the U.K. and U.S., however, are much more demanding, constantly ringing the bell. They tend to cause a scene and love threatening to sue.”

The Easiest Way to Get Arrested on a Plane

It’s considered a federal offense to open and imbibe your own liquor on a plane, as the captains on Norwegian will tell you at the start of any flight. So put away the duty-free booze—or anything that’s not served by a crew member: Individual consumption can easily lead to handcuffs when you disembark. (And the crew will be onto you if you order nothing but a glass of ice.)

Don’t overdo it with the bar cart nips, either. Flight attendants keep careful tabs on how many drinks each passenger requests, and they reserve the right to refuse you service if you appear too intoxicated. One or two drinks at mealtime is considered standard—but if you’re slurring words, looking glassy-eyed, or making constant trips to the bathroom, the crew is likely watching.

Premium Cabins Aren’t the Premium Assignment

After years of flying both in the front and back of the plane, I assumed that working in the premium cabins was a more coveted role: You’re in charge of fewer, more comfortable passengers. I was wrong. Billie Jean and Derek, two of my crew mates, explained that on Dreamliners, most flight attendants prefer the economy service. “Premium passengers aren’t any more or less demanding than economy passengers,” said Billie Jean, “and it can be boring manning the galley away from the rest of the crew.”

How to Win the “Most Annoying Passenger” Award

Businessmen, babies, or blissed-out yogis: Which is most likely to annoy a flight attendant? Crew members agree: Yogis take the prize. “It happens at least once a flight, they come into our galley space and start doing stretches, or—even worse—push-ups,” said Ilse. Fellow crew member Grace and Derek agreed and said flights to and from the West Coast carried the greatest number of offenders by far.

The Secret Room Upstairs

Yes, it’s true: On transcontinental flights, flight attendants can take naps in a secret dorm room above the galley, through a door that looks like an inconspicuous closet near the lavatories. The berths are like plastic nests with full length-beds, sheets, pillows, and privacy curtains. And breaks are carefully timed: My team was divided into two groups, each getting one hour and 40 minutes of rest in the dorm. To avoid tardiness and miscommunication, the entire cabin crew syncs their analog watches—a wardrobe must—to the time of their destination.

The Dirtiest Part of the Job

Airplane bathrooms are not for the faint of heart. Their stench has even been known to ground long-haul flights.

Norwegian’s policy is to clean the lavatories every 20 minutes—and yes, that’s the responsibility of flight attendants. Fun fact: Attendants regularly cover up strong odors by brewing a large pot of coffee and pouring it down the toilet. It neutralizes both the bacteria and the smell.

Mile-High Club Myths

“It actually happens far more frequently than you think. I’d say at least once a month someone tries it, with about a 30 percent success rate,” Ilse explained. “We’ve even seen total strangers meet on a flight and make a run for the lavatory together.”

That’s about once every eight flights, if you do the math. As for the failed encounters? Suffice it to say that sprints to the lavatories are usually intercepted. “Sometimes I just want to give the passengers a ton of Purel and say, ‘what are you thinking?'” joked Grace.

You Can Sweet-Talk Your Way to First Class

Contrary to popular belief, the cabin crew does indeed possess the ability to move you into premium seats. But there probably isn’t space for you.

If the front cabin isn’t sold out, initial upgrades go to airline employees first, then family and friends of the staff.

Getting other types of freebies is easier: Just bring a fun snack on board to share with the crew. Think bags of candy. According to my colleagues, edible gifts are considered a kind of inter-airline currency and can be rewarded with free cocktails or other in-flight goodies. (Every flight team has the ability to override the computerized purchasing system.)

But if it’s that elusive free upgrade you’re after, you’re just going to have to become a flight attendant yourself. And now that you’ve peeked behind the galley curtain, you’re almost ready to fly.

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