Should You Tip a Hero? Five Reasons to Skip Gratuities on Planes

Any list of big tippers has to include Taylor Swift. The singer (and sizeable entourage) recently ran up an $800 bill at a restaurant in Philly and left a $500 tip. Which pales in comparison to the gratuity left by an anonymous customer at Brewski’s Bar in Ogden, Utah. The tab: $215. The tip: $5,000!

Some Flyers Tip Flight Attendants

Which just goes to show some of us have generous impulses. Maybe too generous; did you know a sizeable number of passengers claim they tip their flight attendants? My initial reaction was, that’s crazy. I’ve never tipped anyone on a plane nor has anyone I know. Then I spoke to some flight attendants, and boy, have I learned a thing or two.

Critics who say flight attendants are too old

Money and Gifts

“The most I ever got in cash was $20,” explained a recently retired flight attendant with a major U.S. airline. “But most of the time it was a buck here, a buck there, as passengers told me to ‘keep the change.'” I get it; airlines used to operate on a cash-only basis and some flyers preferred default tipping to the bother of scraping together $4 in singles for their gin and tonic or waiting while the flight attendant ran around in a vain search for change.

Most unusual tip I’ve heard of? A toss-up between a 100-year-old bottle of Scotch (which must have been a pre-9/11 gift since you can’t get that past the TSA today) and a personally autographed book from a passenger-author.

Tales of a stewardess (and her mandatory girdle)

Flight Attendants: “Thanks, but no thanks”

Now, let me be clear: These stories may not be typical; as of last year there were more than 80,000 flight attendants employed in the U.S. and my colleagues and I only spoke to a few. Those we did all said they neither expected nor wanted tips and always said, “no thanks.” But passengers would insist. When that happened, said our anonymous retired flight attendant, “We’d just give the money to the van driver who’d take us to our hotel; it was our tip to him.”

Now here’s a tip for gratuity-loving passengers: five good reasons to stop this practice.

5 Reasons to Never Tip a Flight Attendant

Take a look – then please let us know if you tip.

1. Where will it end? Tipping pilots? TSA officers?

If you’re going to tip a flight attendant, why not a pilot? Here’s what Capt. Dennis Tajer has to say – he flies for a well-known legacy carrier – and this applies to all who work on planes: “Would you tip a first responder?” First and foremost, these people are there for our safety. A little tour guide commentary over the Grand Canyon or dishing out drinks is strictly a sideline. And considering that these professionals may be called upon to make life-or-death decisions on our behalf, tipping seems superfluous if not downright dumb.

But if you do tip, why not throw some bucks at TSA officers? “That’s not tipping, that’s bribery,” laughed Lizzie Post, etiquette and common sense expert (and more from her in a moment). Government employees are not allowed to accept tips so do not imagine a discreetly-passed ten-spot will get you out of a pat-down.

2. Emily Post is watching you

Someone showed me a World War II-era edition of the famous Etiquette book by manners-maven Emily Post (great-great-grandmother of the aforementioned Lizzie). It includes a section on tipping and air travel which states, “The member of the crew whom you will see most is the stewardess – she is not given a tip – ever.”

Some things never change (except we don’t call them stewardesses and they’re not required to wear girdles anymore). More to the point, Lizzie of the Emily Post Institute notes that, “If you want to show your appreciation to your flight attendant, say thank you and tell their boss what a fantastic job they did.” That’s what many flight attendants say, too. Even a smile, they said, is all the thanks they need.

Some airlines give elite-status flyers special cards to fill out to congratulate flight attendants on an especially good job; these can be redeemed for a variety of perks and I’m told these are very popular programs.

3. Don’t wage class warfare

When tipping is not required or desired, it may come across as an ostentatious display. Frugal passengers in coach are probably less likely to tip (or are they?) so we could end up with a deeper divide between a plane’s haves and have-not. Which reminds me of a quote from an anonymous flight attendant in a Reader’s Digest article called 13 Things Your Flight Attendant Won’t Tell You:

“I hate working flights to destinations like Vail and West Palm Beach – the passengers all think they’re in first class even if they’re not. They don’t do what we ask. And the overhead bins are full of their mink coats.” — Anonymous flight attendant

4. Airlines might get mad

Probably many if not most airlines have policies against accepting tips. Southwest’s Brad Hawkins volunteered that in their initial training, Southwest flight attendants are directed to “graciously express their gratitude for the gesture while not accepting the tip.” United flight attendant Christopher Clarke said his airline does not allow tipping and that’s fine with him. “Our first job is safety, and we are professionals,” he explained.

5. Do you tip a hero?

Think back to those brave flight attendants that stayed on the phone passing on information to their airlines during the final minutes aboard the doomed planes of 9/11. Or think of the herculean efforts of the flight attendants during 2009’s Miracle on the Hudson landing when they managed to get all passengers out of the plane with no loss of life. Might it be insulting to offer such heroes a tip? Or offer gratuities to any professional? As pilot Tajer says, “When leaving the doctor’s office, you don’t say, ‘Nice job, doc, here’s twenty bucks,’ do you?”


Published: October 1, 2013