5 Surprising Travel Tricks From A Flight Attendant

Photo: Courtesy of Mandy Smith.
Mandy Smith and Richard Branson.

Don't tell us you've never wondered what it's really like to be a flight attendant. Is it all about the mile-high club and international parties? Are passengers all pains in the asses who need to chill? Is the in-flight drama as turbulent as the ride?

If the wild anecdotes shared in former Virgin Airlines flight attendant Mandy Smith's new memoir, Cabin Fever: The Sizzling Secrets of a Virgin Flight Attendant, are any indication, the answers are yes, yes, and yes. Part travel guide, part soap drama, Cabin Fever serves up sex scenes and salacious on-the-job tales alongside useful lessons about passenger etiquette and flight safety.

Beyond the raucous parties around the globe and flirtations among flight crew members, Smith provides insight into the intense safety-training flight attendants undergo. Though she can't divulge specific details, she also notes that flight crew are trained to note security risks and suspicious behavior. Of course, she's also an expert on determining which passengers are bound to drive a flight attendant insane.

Ahead, the British-born author told Refinery29 her tips for being a friendly flyer. And, given that her book includes a story of a fellow flight attendant spitting in someone's meal (it was intended for a nasty pilot), you might want to be on your best behavior next time you fly.


Image: Courtesy of Mandy Smith / Thistle Publishing.
According to Smith, these are five things passengers should avoid doing on a flight:

1. Ringing The Call Bell
Says Smith, "This is a tough one as we don’t want to discourage people from using them when we are needed, and I have had a few heart attack passengers who didn’t want to disturb us having our dinner. But there are other passengers who want to be waited on hand and foot. That is not a problem within itself, until it gets to 10 drinks an hour, which would then disturb the service we could offer to our other 450 passengers."

2. Disrespecting The Cabin Crew
"You may feel we are here to serve you, and most of us do enjoy this aspect of our job, but this is not all we do," Smith says. "Being an air hostess really is having to be a jack-of-all-trades, a badge we wear with pride. We need to be a bouncer / nurse / security guard / safety adviser / negotiator. We are S.A.S. [Special Air Service] and Survival-trained, because we will be the first people everyone looks to when anything untoward happens on board. We know where all of the survival and medical equipment is too, so be nice and remember this when you are demanding your next gin and tonic. A little smile goes a long way."
Advertisement

We know where all of the survival and medical equipment is, too, so be nice and remember this when you are demanding your next gin and tonic. A little smile goes a long way.

Mandy Smith
3. Waiting Until The Last Minute
"Please don’t make a fuss if you do not get your first meal choice," says Smith. "Most airlines provide a free pre-order service for your meal if you should have any dietary requirements. When you are at 35,000 feet and the last chicken has just been taken, it's not the time to announce that you are allergic to everything else. The same applies to medical requirements. We would prefer to know in advance and have extra equipment on board ready for you."

4. Getting Sick The Wrong way
"If you are going to be sick, try to go to the toilets and be sick in the toilet, not the sink! Sick bags are meant for turbulent times or when the seatbelt signs are in use, not to hand to the crew as they pass with the meal service."

5. Expecting A Babysitter
"If you have a child or are pregnant, most of the cabin crew will try to give you extra help and certain allowances," explains Smith. "However, please do not demand these as they are a nicety and we won't have enough [allowances] if there are 100 families on board, which is not unusual on an Orlando flight. I personally would always give a pregnant lady a whole bottle of water for the flight and / or endless cup refills, as flying really does take its toll on your swollen, delicate frame. Babysitting is not really part of our job but it is a perk I used to love in between services."
Photo: Courtesy of Mandy Smith.
Smith, who has experienced everything from full-blown fights to a tragic passenger miscarriage on board, does have some tips on endearing yourself to the flight crew. Here, she weighs in on sleeping soundly, security measures, and sexual harassment on the job.

What can passengers do to keep their flight attendant happy?
"Be nice. As crew we always endeavor not to reward bad behavior. With a zero-tolerance policy that is in place nowadays, you may think this is a given, but people get scared and stressed, which is all taken out on the crew. We do understand this and try to give allowances. Just a smile or being nice to your crew will (on some days) make you stand out from the crowd. Although we have had passengers give us lots of gifts over the years — as we are not allowed to accept tips — I have had one passenger give the whole crew Jo Malone candles and a huge tub of Crème de la Mer. One lucky crew member once mentioned she liked the Kurt Geiger shoes a lady had just bought in the duty-free shop at the airport. The flight was then delayed and passengers disembarked. When she got back on board the lady had bought her a pair. Sometimes people’s kindness and generosity can be as shocking as their selfishness. When crew fly as passengers we always bring the crew serving us a box of chocolates or a nice bag of something to nibble on while working in the galley."

Any tips for sleeping soundly on flights?
"Tylenol PM is always a good way of getting to sleep for a short period of time (around four hours) without the after effects of drowsiness from the usual sleeping tablets I see people take. Failing that, just make sure you are comfortable with your earplugs, eye mask, and pillow. If you do take sleeping tablets, please do not drink alcohol with them. You may find yourself getting escorted off at the other end of the flight, as so many people have before you."

How do you calm a baby who is upset?
"I was always looking after babies on flights, even before I had my own. They are extremely perceptive and if you are irritable or scared they will pick up on it. Stay calm and always ask the flight attendants for help. Sometimes the calm flight attendant's demeanor will help calm the baby. Don't be embarrassed as everyone is in the same situation. It is just harder to explain to a baby or child why his or her ears are hurting. The flight attendants usually have a first aid kit with Calpol in it to ease the ears slightly. Rubbing or massaging the back of the ear where the jaw meets the skull helps to release some pressure, as does steam from sniffing a hot soaked towel. I also sing to my daughter when she is upset. Whatever you do at home should also work mid-air. Familiarity and routine are good things when traveling, as the children are usually just upset because they are out of their routine and tired. If your child does not stop crying and you fear they are still in pain when you land, then please go to a hospital or to a doctor to get their ears checked out. The cabin crew still get burst ear drums even after years of flying, as this is pressure change within our bodies and something we never grow out of or get used to."
Photo: Courtesy of Mandy Smith.
What's a myth about flight attendants that needs to be dispelled?
"That we are glorified waitresses. I have been a waitress when I was at school and, no offense to my previous profession, but being cabin crew harder work and a more thankless job. This profession is hard work from having to pass exams every year with minimum 92% pass mark or you lose your job. You must also secure everyone's safety on board. When things get unpleasant, we are the first ones people turn to when they need help up there, yet the same people will still look down on us for serving them dinner and drinks."

Tell us a bit about the security training flight attendants undergo.
"I can't really say very much as I would hate to jeopardize the safety of any flights by anyone reading this, but we do undergo quite a lot of safety and security training. At Virgin we were working with and trained by former S.A.S. instructors. This is also a recurrent course that we need to pass every year, where we are informed of certain high-risk potentials and people to watch out for. I do remember being shown video footage and photos of Osama Bin Laden, long before 9/11. We are shown videos of situations and after about the 20th video you get hardened to the details of in-flight disasters and scenarios we could endure, role-playing a lot of them out. We learn how to negotiate with terrorists and this training also covers how to look out for sleeper terrorists. The rules have changed since 9/11, and some of these changes include on-board security agents who blend in with the passengers, bulletproof doors, and heightened security procedures."

You had an incident with a colleague who sexually harassed you. Do airlines take steps to protect women from that behavior, or is it something that needs to be addressed?
"My friends still working in the airline industry tell me that this has been addressed now and has all changed. Sexual harassment is now taken very seriously in the air. This was not always the case and being disconnected from a head office, the same sexual harassment guidelines seemed to slip back in my day. Most people didn’t even report it, as you tend to get a name for yourself as a troublemaker. However, after years of perseverance and strong women reporting these incidents and suffering the embarrassment and emotional turmoil of doing so, most airlines have realized there was an issue. This now gets dealt with in the corporate procedural guidelines in the same [way] as if we worked in the head office.

Sexual harassment is now taken very seriously in the air. This was not always the case... In my day, most people didn’t even report it, as you tend to get a name for yourself as a troublemaker.

Mandy Smith
Advertisement
What's your secret for packing lightly with minimal fuss?
"I tend to over-pack now that I have a child, to be honest. But my basic rules include using a lot of plastic bags to separate clean and dirty clothing. I throw everything at the suitcase about a week before and then re-pack twice before I go, reducing the amount each time. Remember, you probably won't use as much clothing in warmer temperatures. Try to calculate how many days you are there for, then pack for day and night, making sure you have at least one jumper and set of long-sleeved clothing should you need to protect from mosquitoes or the sun. I always tend to carry spare underwear and anything I cannot live without in my hand luggage. If you take any medication, please do not store this in your hold luggage as it is not accessible once on board the plane. Pack minimally and enjoy the journey. Traveling and getting into new adventures for me starts the second I leave the house."


Decor tips, career advice, inspired design — get it all on our Refinery29 Living Facebook Page!
Advertisement