Should you tip your flight attendant?

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Should you tip your flight attendant? For such a commonly asked question, the answer is anything but simple.

Tippers argue that at a time when service and amenities are on the decline, a standout crew member deserves a dollar bill or two. But there are more effective ways of acknowledging great service, and down the line, you risk creating a another class of tip-dependent employees.

In the airline industry, this question is far from settled. Some airlines allow tipping, others don’t.

“Flight attendants should not be tipped,” says Jo Jo Harder, a former flight attendant. “I understand that guests feel compelled to tip,” for good service, she says, but in her career it was “not allowed.”

Except when it is. At Southwest Airlines, flight attendants initially refuse a tip, but if a passenger insists, they’re allowed to gratefully accept it, say current and former crew members.

“The largest tip I ever received was left for me in an empty peanut bag,” recalls Lauren Cashman, who used to work at Southwest. “The passenger came to the back galley and said he had won big in Vegas and wanted to share. The peanut bag contained $600. I split it with my crew, and we had a great dinner that night in Reno.”

Is there a better way of acknowledging and encouraging great service? Absolutely. For starters, a simple but heartfelt “thank you” will go a long way to conveying your feelings. In an era of the “me first” passenger, you’d be shocked at how infrequently crew members hear those two words.

Maryanne Parker, a San Diego-based etiquette expert, recalls a recent flight from Paris to Los Angeles. “The flight attendant was so personable, attentive and warm that he literally changed my state of mind and made everything so much better,” she remembers.

But how to say thank you? She could articulate it — and she did — but she decided to click on the Air France Facebook page, write a thoughtful note of appreciation and mention him by name.

“I strongly believe this went further than a tip,” she adds. “He will probably get recognized and recommended for a better position or better pay.”

Flight attendants don’t need your gratuities, at least not yet. The average cabin attendant makes $44,860 a year, according to the government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. By comparison, restaurant servers, who depend on your tips for their survival, make about half of that.

I’ve written about tips and complained that everyone in the American travel industry seems to have a hand out. I’ve taken a lot of heat from folks in the service industry. But isn’t this different?

“Absolutely,” says Janice Booth, author of Only Pack What You Can Carry (National Geographic Books). “Unless she saves your life by performing the Heimlich, or he brings you back from death’s door via CPR, or one of them donates a kidney, don’t tip.”

Waving a buck at your crew member — however well intentioned — could set the entire profession on an unfortunate trajectory.

No doubt, some flight attendants deserve special recognition. But if flight attendant tipping sticks, then airlines could someday do what restaurant owners have: pay the minimum wage or less and force their employees to subsist on your goodwill.

This is a profession that goes way beyond pushing a beverage cart. With such a vital role in flight safety, flight attendants, and the traveling public, deserve better.

Tipping alternatives

  • Gift cards. Whenever Washington lobbyist Anthony DeMaio flies home for the holidays, he packs a few Starbucks gift cards. “I know that the holiday pay bonus is fairly minimal and only the most senior flight attendants are able to take vacation time around Thanksgiving or Christmas,” he says. Gift cards, unlike cash tips, are never turned down.
  • A letter of commendation. Praising a flight attendant’s performance in writing can be more meaningful than any cash reward. Airlines can use the letters to determine promotions, bonuses and other perks. So the next time an airline employee does something nice for you, consider writing a letter to the company as thanks.
  • A present. A thoughtful gift can make all the difference, even a small one. In fact, passengers tell stories of offering candies, chocolate or snacks to hungry-looking attendants and getting great treatment in return.

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