When Is It Okay To Push Flight Attendant Call Button?

Road Warriorette wrote a post yesterday linking to a Yahoo Travel article entitled “10 things never to say to a flight attendant.” One of the 10 things is as follows:

Fetch Me …
We all wish we had a personal butler we could summon with the ring of a bell. But despite the presence of a call button above every airplane seat, the flight attendant is not that butler. “Fetch me a blanket” is a sure way to get on a flight attendant’s bad side. Use the call button only when it’s really necessary. If you want a glass of water, walk back to the galley and ask for it in person.

Now, in many cases I agree the above is accurate. Some US airlines are absolutely ridiculous, and I’ve even heard flight attendants go so far as referring to the call button as “the emergency call button.” But I think it’s far from being the case across the board. And in some cases I’d argue you’re actually doing the flight attendant a courtesy by pushing the call button.

I think there are two major things at play here — whether you’re flying a US airline or not, and whether you’re in a premium cabin or not. Hear me out:

Pushing the flight attendant call button in economy (on a US or non-US airline)

So in economy class I agree you should generally avoid pushing the call button. The flight attendant to passenger ratio in economy class is often worse than 50:1, and when you factor in that midflight half of the flight attendants are often on break, you may be looking at a ratio of 100:1. It’s not feasible for the flight attendant to provide “butler” service to everyone, as the article suggests.

On most airlines they’ll set up a tray with drinks in the galley and invite people to serve themselves. That being said, if you’re not in an aisle seat (and especially if the people you’d have to pass over to access the aisle are sleeping) and haven’t seen a flight attendant pass by for a good amount of time, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to push the call button. This is probably generally viewed as being more acceptable on a foreign carrier than on US airlines.

Pushing the flight attendant call button in first or business class (on a non-US airline)

On non-US airlines I think it’s always acceptable to push the call button for something service related. And I’ll take it a step further. Aside from airlines that have onboard bars, I find most crews actually prefer that you push the call button rather than coming to the galley, at least between meals.

Korean Air A380 business class bar

What you might notice on most international carriers is that they have thick curtains between the galley and the rest of the cabin, so most of the time between meals the crews will draw the “curtains” around the galley. I’ve walked in on some really awkward situations while thinking I was doing them a favor by going to the galley to request something rather than pushing the call button.

Now if I’m going to the lavatory and see a crew member in sight then I might ask them for something, but I’ve found in the galley they’re often eating, applying makeup, or doing other less kosher things. So by pushing the call button you’re letting them present themselves to you as they’d like to be seen rather than basically opening their “curtain” uninvited.

Beyond that over the years I’ve enjoyed observing and getting to know the cultural differences between airlines when it comes to service approaches. For example, on Singapore Airlines I generally don’t push the flight attendant call button, since even on a longhaul flight a crew member seems to pass through the cabin every 10-15 minutes throughout the flight. The service is just so proactive, and while they pass through several times an hour so you can easily “flag” them down, I find they’re also extremely proactive in asking whether you want anything.

Cathay Pacific is exactly the opposite — they’re spectacularly reactive. And that might sound sarcastic, but it’s not. On Cathay Pacific you (hopefully) won’t see a flight attendant once between meal services without calling them, and that’s so that your privacy is maximized. But if you push the call button a flight attendant will cheerily appear within seconds.

Really the ideal middle ground is Emirates, which has in-seat phones from which you can order room service. 😉

Emirates A380 room service phone

Pushing the flight attendant call button in first or business class (on a US airline)

For premium cabins on US airlines I kind of take a hybrid approach between economy on foreign carriers and premium cabins on foreign carriers. Generally the galleys on US airlines don’t have real curtains (they’re more like nets), so the crews can’t really hide from passengers. As a result I usually just get up to request a drink because I appreciate the opportunity to stretch my legs. Domestically I try to avoid pushing the call button, while internationally I don’t mind pushing it in first or business class, though rarely do since I don’t have much reason to do so.

Anyway, those are just my thoughts — I’m not claiming that my methods are right, but rather just that they were developed over millions of miles of premium cabin travel. 😉

Where do you stand on pushing the flight attendant call button? Would be great to hear from both passengers and flight attendants!

Filed Under: Advice
  1. How do you feel about German airlines such as LH and Swiss on this matter?

    Also, gotta ask, what “less kosher” activities have you walked in on? lol.

  2. I push the call button if I need something sooner than I foresee being able to flag down a flight attendant in the aisle… simple as that. If they’re coming through every 10-15 minutes, then I just wait for them (unless I need whatever it is sooner…rare), and if they’re hiding in the galley not to be seen til pre-landing seatbelt check, I push the button.

    They say let us know if we can do anything to make your journey more pleasant, blah blah blah… so I do.

  3. Completely agree with this post! The Yahoo!Travel article isn’t really nuanced enough since it’s one of those “top __ things” lists. But I’m glad to see them explain why FAs shouldn’t be lifting carry-ons.

  4. I almost always sit in a window seat and thus prefer to press the button especially when I haven’t seen a flight attendant pass by for some time or if my neighbors are sleeping.

  5. With rising airfares and fees and completely bitchy sky hags… I use every opportunity to buzz the FA for anything I want! I will continue to do so. 8 oz of water every hour they say… and I am determined to get mine.

  6. This is an airplane not a charity office and I paid for mr seat and service.
    If I don’t get the service I’m paying for I ring the bell and can care less if they like me or not.

  7. Nicely summed up! At some point a guide to tipping around the world would be useful too. Thanks Lucky!

  8. Ben, this post has to be your worst post. Call button is for calling. Water, blankets, etc. if they cant handle the job, dont do it.

  9. I tend to agree with Joseph Wilkes’ comment. As someone who travels 2 or 3 times a year between Australia & various Asian cities with several different airlines, mainly in Economy but occasionally in PE & Business, I have never seen a tray with drinks set up in the galley when travelling in Economy. Further, my experience is that cabin staff prefer you stay out of the galley at all times. Accordingly, I use the call button if I want a diet coke between meals. I agree that SIA staff are very visible but they never seem concerned about responding to the call button either.

  10. Well, nobody forces someone to be a flight attendant and they take the job for the perks that comes along with it. Looks like they want the free travel but don’t want to do their job which is to cater to the passengers that “pay” their “salary”. I have flown all over the world in economy and i don’t remember the call buttons going ‘bing bing bing’ across the aircraft!! So, in a nutshell to the flight attendants, “do your job or get a different one!!”

  11. I think that’s a fair summary of things, although when flying BA I tend to go and chat to the crew when stretching my legs and getting something from the snack bar – they always seem happy to chat.

  12. @John

    My feelings exactly. So the essential point of this piece is that we are supposed to expect less from American flight attendants? No surprise there. God forbid we offend someone while asking them to do their job!


  14. If the airlines don’t intend the “Call Attendant” buttons to be used to you know, all attendants, the airlines (or flight attendant unions) should have them disabled, removed or labeled as emergency only call buttons.

    There are some really great FA’s out there, but I really can’t understand the not so great ones who continue to work in a customer facing/customer service job who act like the customer is interrupting them when they are asked for something.

  15. I’m pushing that thing whenever I want something regardless of class of service. US FA service lacks enough as it is compared to international carriers no reason they can’t do their job.

  16. @John, @Alex

    then it really depends on what you define as their ‘job’. The same title carries a different job nature depending on which part of the world you are in, and hence which airline you work for. Expectations are different, and people signed up to do different jobs when they signed up with the different airlines.

    But for myself, I just tend to treat every crew the same way. Don’t think that they are there to answer your every beck and call. They’re not personal butlers flying in the sky. FA’s are there to ‘attend’ and manage the flight, probably because we just can’t all serve ourselves in an orderly way without creating a mess.

  17. A good friend of mine who works for Emirates and has flown 200+ flights, notice a lot of Indian parents encouraging their kids to press the call button if they need anything from the cabin crew, at any time. And yes, this is in coach. They have sort of built this not-so-good reputation with Emirates crew in the last decade or so, especially with the said crew-to-passenger ratio at the back.

  18. Ben,
    That’s the German in you…
    Customer Service is not their (LH) strength.
    The call button is there for a reason and it’s not for emergencies!
    So: PUSH IT!!

  19. On a recent flight to France, the woman in the seat next to me was in distress during approach/landing. I asked her if she needed assistance and when she said yes, I pressed the call button. I did not know we were only about 100′ off the ground.

    She had a paper bag and basically did the Technicolor yawn and got some (i.e. a lot) on her coat. Once we landed, the FAs came over to assist the woman.

  20. Tim:

    What am I to conclude from your position? I should be given an explicit list of duties from the flight attendant at the beginning of the trip and never dare to ask for a deviation?

    This is a customer service job. Professionals should be expected to act according to the spirit of this, not the letter of what they think they should be doing. But I am not a union worker employed by an airline that has regularly been on government assistance.

    If the button is being abused, take it up with the abusers. If it is always abused, then remove it.

  21. @ digital01, Denis and Chris,

    I once walked in on a BA crew washing her hands with those miniature bottles of Absolut while her colleague was flipping through a magazine…

  22. This is good info. Growing up, flying coach economy trips with my Mom, she always told me that was a button for emergencies (which it essentially is on Domestic Economy flights). So I’ve never felt comfortable pushing it even though I often fly First and Business Internationally now. We have a First Class flight on Cathay later this year, glad I read this beforehand so I can now feel comfortable calling over the FA

  23. On a recent Southwest flight, a flight attendant who clearly was in a “Southwest Mood” joked “don’t press the buttons on the ends…they will eject your carry-on bags” as part of his briefing. (Sorry, you had to be there…it really was funny)-:

  24. I figured the call buttons were there mostly to confuse people who want to turn on the lights.

  25. More airlines should offer ordering of drinks via the TV screens. I feel bed that I might in some cases summon them and then request something, so they have to walk back again and then one more with it vs straight to me with what I want. That extra walking might be tiring on a busy long-haul.

  26. I am a blind young woman who has traveled on many domestic flights, and I think the Call button is absolutely necessary, especially for those like me who can’t see. The only time I would usually press it is when I would need something like a glass of water, or perhaps if I need to go to the bathroom. Being blind, even though I always have an aisle seat, it would be impossible for me to walk by myself to the bathroom, especially without tripping and falling over the seats. I remember having an experience on a United Airlines flight home from Baltimore to Eugene, where one flight attendant was so worried after she escorted me into the bathroom. She wanted to make sure I was OK, because there was turbulance on this flight. Luckily, she was able to help whenever I needed anything.

  27. When the call button is not illustrated as a person holding a drink, I will stop using it as such. I think people are too sensitive 🙂 I always use it and I sit at the back in economy.

  28. I recently flew internationally on a U.S. Airline using a buddy pass given to me by an airline employee friend. I was bumped up to first class and was thrilled! After dinner was finished, and before they dimmed the lights, the FA came around to refill wine glasses. I settled down to watch a movie. After a while, I was ready for another refill but I decided to wait until a FA walked by. I waited 10 mins or so but no one appeared. I made the (wrong. I know now) decision to press the call button. When the FA came, I asked for another refill. She disappeared into the galley and took way longer than necessary. She never did reappear. Instead, the head FA came to my seat, dramatically shining a flashlight on me and proceeded to lecture me on the fact that I had not paid the 5-figure fare that some other first-classs passengers had and that they are busy trying to tend to those passengers. She said that I should only press the call button for important requests and, once again, reminded me that I was only there on a buddy pass. I was horrified….and completely humiliated. She placed a half glass of wine in front of me and, when I didn’t drink it, someone came by and removed it after about 30 minutes. I could not wait for the plane to land and to get away from the shame that I felt and the people that overheard my scolding.

  29. I’m a flight crew scheduler for a US airline (Delta) but I work in Britain. I always tell new flight crew members that passengers are not allowed in the galley at any time so please respond whenever the button is pressed. All requests are important in my mind.
    Over the past two years I have realised that passengers are for the most part reasonable. That being said, I also inform the air steward or stewardesses that if the passenger is unruly or drunk they must intervene at once.
    If a passenger is asking for baby milk or something offered on the menu, the request must be taken care of in ten minutes or less by a flight attendant.

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to participate in the discussion, please adhere to our commenting guidelines. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Reminder: OMAAT comments are changing soon. Register here to save your space.