Will dressing up get you first class? Flight attendants debunk old myths.

by Сашка

Yes, they have secret places to sleep. No, they can’t give you an upgrade.

The internet is rife with old wives’ tales about travel. We see video after video professing ways to fly better, cheaper. To demystify some of our burning questions, we turned to those on the front line of the industry: flight attendants.

While they’re portrayed in movies and television as chic jet-setters or hard-partying ingénues, being a flight attendant has gotten a lot less cinematic. They’ve had to deal with the tumultuous years of pandemic shutdowns and border closures, when they were considered essential workers and still had to fly while most of us stayed safe at home. They’ve faced insults and assaults from angry travelers when enforcing mask mandates. They enroll in self-defense classes to protect themselves on board, miss holidays and family milestones so we can fly to ours, and have been fighting for years for better pay and benefits.

“It’s not a job. It is a lifestyle,” said Beth Bourneuf, a former teacher who became a flight attendant in 2020. “When you go to work, you’re gone for three days. … You’re kind of away from it all.”

Because the airport is their second home, we went to them to debunk some common travel myths. We interviewed flight attendants — some with decades of experience and others newer to the field. Some we interviewed spoke on the condition that they be identified by their first name only to protect their employment.

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Myth: Dressing up will get you an upgrade

Reality: False

You can’t charm your way to first class, but you should still be nice.

“You won’t get an upgrade but maybe a free drink,” said Miami-based Trey Antwan, who became a flight attendant in 2007.

Airlines have strict systems for upgrades, and flight attendants don’t have the authority to dole out seating assignments. “I know that if I were to upgrade someone out of order and not go by that [upgrade] list, I would get in so much trouble,” said Vinia DiGeronimo, who’s five years into her career. In fact, “there are times where the people who actually pay for economy plus will call the airline and ask for a refund because they saw people moved up for free,” said Amber, who has been a flight attendant for eight years. “And we can get terminated for that.”

Myth: Greeting passengers has a hidden purpose

Reality: True

Welcoming passengers on board is more than just a hello. It gives flight attendants the opportunity to identify able-bodied passengers, a.k.a. ABPs, who may be able to help in case of an emergency. The flight crew is also looking for suspicious or intoxicated travelers, and sizing up carry-ons.

“We look to see how many bags people are carrying, and we also have to be conscious of what kind of bags they’re carrying,” Bourneuf said. “Anyone with a cooler, we need to ask what’s in there.”

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Myth: Flight attendants are there to serve you

Reality: False

Their primary job is your safety, not collecting your trash or lifting your bag. (They’re not supposed to do the latter anymore, because doing so puts them at risk for injury.) They’re trained for a number of onboard crises, such as the medical emergency Amber tended to a few months ago. At the time, “it didn’t look good,” she said, but “I learned not long ago that it’s because we immediately took action that we actually helped save his life.”

Myth: Flight attendants delay takeoff for overtime pay

Reality: False

Their pay doesn’t work like that. Delta Air Lines made headlines last year after announcing that it would start paying flight attendants during boarding. But for many, the clock doesn’t start until the plane’s door is closed and its brakes are released. Like the rest of us, they still have to show up well before takeoff and sit around through the same weather and mechanical complications — all without pay.

“Most of my workdays are anywhere between 12 to 16 hours, but we only get paid anywhere from five to eight of those hours,” DiGeronimo said.

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Myth: Flight attendants travel free

Reality: True

They do, but it’s not as glamorous as it sounds. Although they can fly free, they must do so on standby. That could mean waiting hours or days to get a seat on a plane. Still, the perk is why many get into the exhausting industry.

“When I’m in Switzerland eating chocolates — or when I’m hanging out with my best friend who lives two time zones away just because it’s a Tuesday and I was off — it’s worth it in those moments,” DiGeronimo said. “But there are a lot of times when I’m thinking, ‘Why am I doing this to myself?’”

Myth: They have secret places to sleep

Reality: True

“There’s a whole world underneath the airport that people don’t know about,” Bourneuf said.

Some airlines have airport staff lounges and sleeping rooms for crew to rest between flights. And on long-haul routes, the crew must take breaks in “secret” airplane compartments. “It’s not anything luxurious, but we can stretch out and lay down,” said Tricia, who has been a flight attendant for 36 years.

Myth: Don’t drink airplane coffee

Reality: It depends

Many flight attendants steer clear of hot water on board. That’s true for Amber. Years ago, she heard that the water tanks on planes may contain harmful bacteria and has avoided the coffee and tea ever since. However, she does know flight attendants and plenty of passengers who do drink airplane coffee.

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Myth: Flight attendants constantly party

Reality: False

Although some flight attendants — particularly ones new to the job — may go all out on a layover, many are too tired after a long shift do to more than eat, sleep and get ready for their next flight. “Sometimes we do go out to enjoy the city, but people like myself who’ve been doing it a long time, … it’s a regular job,” Antwan said. “I’m on my layover right now, … and I’ve been in my room.”

And no, they can’t drink on the job. Flight attendants are subject to regular drug and alcohol testing.

Myth: They know when air marshals are on board

Reality: It depends

Some say they always know when they have federal air marshals on their flights. Amber says gate agents usually alert them or they can see they’re on board via a special crew app. “We have an app to see all customers so we can see all ‘specials,’” she said.

“And normally they come on board to introduce themselves,” she added. “They have to check in with the pilot first, and then we have to know where they’re seated. If there’s more than one, then they have to know where each other are seated as well.”

Others say they are only informed sometimes, and may find out after landing that an air marshal was on board.

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Myth: Flight attendants make you check bags out of spite

Reality: False

Don’t take it personally; it comes down to physics and taking off on time. Maybe your bag is too large to fit in the overhead bin, or maybe there is simply no space left.

“Some bags should not have been allowed down the jet bridge,” Antwan said. “Sometimes customer service doesn’t catch it and we’re the ones that catch it.” Either way, don’t make the crew’s day worse — and delay takeoff — by arguing about it.

More travel tips

Vacation planning: Start with a strategy to maximize days off by taking PTO around holidays. Experts recommend taking multiple short trips for peak happiness. Want to take an ambitious trip? Here are 12 destinations to try this year — without crowds.

Cheap flights: Follow our best advice for scoring low airfare, including setting flight price alerts and subscribing to deal newsletters. If you’re set on an expensive getaway, here’s a plan to save up without straining your credit limit.

Airport chaos: We’ve got advice for every scenario, from canceled flights to lost luggage. Stuck at the rental car counter? These tips can speed up the process. And following these 52 rules of flying should make the experience better for everyone.

Expert advice: Our By The Way Concierge solves readers’ dilemmas, including whether it’s okay to ditch a partner at security, or what happens if you get caught flying with weed. Submit your question here. Or you could look to the gurus: Lonely Planet and Rick Steves.

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