Why you should (sometimes) give flight attendants the benefit of the doubt…

I’m never afraid to share my flight experiences, either positive or negative. Fortunately a vast majority of my experiences are ranging from good to excellent, though when I have a bad experience, I usually attribute it to a “bad apple.” Once in a while people will leave comments like “cut them some slack, they were probably just having a bad day.” Yes, that’s sometimes the case, but for the most part, the “bad apples” are bad all the time, while the good flight attendants do a great job regardless of their condition.

Well, today was one of those days where I would have eaten my words. I was flying from Tampa to Denver this morning on an Airbus 320, and had some very senior flight attendants. Actually, the flight attendant in coach that appeared to be the most junior mentioned she had 26 years seniority with United. The two flight attendants in coach were phenomenal, while the first class flight attendant simply couldn’t be bothered.

She didn’t greet passengers, didn’t offer pre-departure beverages, seemed like she was exerting every ounce of effort possible to not crack a smile, and couldn’t have been any less enthusiastic about her announcements. She was a “bad apple,” or so I thought.

I fell asleep almost immediately after takeoff (I’ve gotten 10 hours of sleep in the past 72 hours, but we’ll save that for a different post), and woke up as the meal service was just wrapping up. The flight attendant walked past me time after time (and I made eye contact with her almost every time), and didn’t once ask if I wanted anything to eat. Eventually both flight attendants from coach were up front serving first class, while the purser was in the lavatory.

She spent probably the better part of 30 minutes in and out of the lavatory, before the flight attendants blocked the aisle and opened the flight deck door. The pilots went to the bathroom while the cart stayed in the aisle, though in the end the purser didn’t emerge. Moments later the captain came on the PA and explained that we were “down” one flight attendant, as she was terribly sick and would be hanging out in the cockpit for the remainder of the flight because she needed more oxygen, and they have masks up there. He went on to ask the passengers to have compassion for the two remaining flight attendants, that would be working alone in the cabin. He could have (or probably should have) stopped there, but instead went on to remind us that flight attendants were there for our safety and that serving passengers is just something they do on the side, though I understand his intentions were good.

Anyway, I was really, really impressed by the two remaining flight attendants at that point. They didn’t sit down for the entire flight, and served constantly. Everyone was very understanding of the situation and didn’t want to ask for anything, though they still came around every five minutes asking if anyone wanted anything.

About 30 minutes before landing the purser emerged. There was an Air Force doctor that happened to be a 1K million miler in seat 2A, and he proceeded to do some “tests” on her as we began our descent. Eventually the purser took the jumpseat in the back in preparation for landing, while one of the other flight attendants took over the purser role.

So what’s the lesson to learn? Sometimes flight attendants do have bad days. If she hadn’t basically “broken down,” I would have assumed she was a bad apple. While I can’t say one way or another whether she would otherwise be a professional, I would most definitely give her the benefit of the doubt. More importantly, I was really impressed (and proud!) by how the rest of the crew stepped up their game given the conditions.

Just keep that in mind the next time you have a bad flight attendant…

Filed Under: Travel, United
  1. i don’t know, judging by your description, I’d be more skeptical with the pilot’s explanation.

    First of all, there are oxygen in the cabin, and the tanks are a lot easier to use the those masks in the cockpit which are really designed to only reach as far as the seats. Besides, there’s not that much space in the cockpit in the first place, wouldn’t it be better to have the purser lay down in one of the seats in first.

    If the situation is serious enough to administer oxygen, but still have the flight continue without diverting, and why didn’t they ask for a doctor right away.

    I don’t know, i think there was something else going on.

  2. @ Sam — How exactly do you easily access oxygen in the cabin? In the cockpit the masks come down easily. Actually, the pilots are supposed to use them each time their fellow pilot gets up. There’s plenty of space in the cockpit, including a pretty decent sized jumpseat. It’s not that the flight attendant was ill, she just seemed to have a bad cold. I doubt she was sitting there with the oxygen mask to her face for hours, but instead probably had it to her mouth periodically.

  3. they’ve got oxygen tanks in the overhead bins, and as “nice” as the jump seats are, they’re still pretty uncomfortable compare to a seat in first. I mean 320 cockpits aren’t exactly roomy, now if its a 747 I’d understand. besides a cold so bad you’d need oxygen. Obviously I don’t know what the situation was, i’m just saying there’s something about the pilot’s story that doesn’t add up.

  4. btw when i say oxygen tanks in the overhead bins, i don’t mean the masks that drop down when there’s a pressure change. There are plenty of portable oxygen tanks for the crew to use in emergencies.

  5. About 8 years ago, something like this happened to me. I’m the model passenger. But this day, it wasn’t meant to be. I was flying on the 2 aisle 767 JFK/SFO in business class. The F/A went down the right side passing out newspapers. She then came around through the rear bathrooms and came up the other aisle (my aisle) without stopping to pass out the newspaper. Anyone remember when papers use to be given out? Anyway, I said EXCUSE ME, I’d like a paper as the FA was already 2 seats past mine.
    I got one of those icy cold stares. Heck. I didn’t do anything! No matter how I said ‘excuse me’, it wouldn’t have sounded right.

    Later on I mentioned this story to another F/A. Well, it seems that her Father died earlier in the week, and the Supervisor (from JFK no less) wouldn’t let her take off. At that point, I understood where she was coming from. I felt bad that I created a situation (not really) and wanted to apologize (to make peace).

    The F/A was so appreciative. I’m sure she felt that she was wronged somehow, but my apology went miles towards cheering her up. Made me feel better too.

  6. Sam,

    There is a ton of room up in the cockpit of the 320…plus, a little more privacy than sitting in your jumpseat when you don’t feel well. The O2 masks are easily accessible in the cockpit…it’s a bigger deal to drag the bottles of O2 out and lug around the tank, which can become a missile, if not handle properly.

    Also, more than likely the First Class cabin (and probably the entire plane) was full…curling up on the floor of the cockpit seems like the winner to me if I didn’t feel well…

    Also, if one is feeling faint, or short of breath….those would be obvious symptoms to use some O2…not necessarily a life-threatening situation is needed to use O2.

  7. Anything to do with light headedness, shortness of breath or nausea in regards to the crew should be an immediate sign that oxygen should be administered, as these are the early signs of hypoxia (among others). If you already have a cold, are hung over (I’m sure the FA wasn’t!) or fatigued you are more susceptible.

    Another pro for behind the cockpit door is that they are out of sight of the customers, at the end of the day it’s not as professional curling up in the cabin if it can be helped.

  8. Although all airline crew members must attend to safety if something goes wrong, the old canard about FAs having safety as their “primary purpose” seems quite disingenuous and revises the history of that position. Airport police or TSA are there for safety; but I’ve never seen them offer to serve crackers, drinks, and your choice of chicken or beef. FAs are the face of the company for people paying hundreds or thousands of dollars to be crammed into small uncomfortable spaces for hours at a time. They are the human tissue that keeps customers calm and cared for– they are in the service industry. That is itself an important job and we shouldn’t diminish it be denying it is their primary purpose.

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