Myth-Busting: Unveiling The Truth About Flight Attendant Call Buttons – Not Just For Emergencies!

The Washington Post purported to offer “The 52 Definitive Rules of Flying” last month as an air travel etiquette guide. While mostly on the nose, they offer that “the flight attendant button is not a vodka tonic button.”

Consider it the 911 call of the sky — something to use in case of emergency, not in case of thirst to quench.

I once wrote about a Delta Air Lines flight attendant who warned a passenger “DON’T TOUCH THAT BUTTON AGAIN” after they’d used it to request a drink.

The head of the largest flight attendants union, Sara Nelson, says you should never press the flight attendant call button for a drink, and even tried to get the government to ban alcohol on planes which would reduce the amount of service her members would have to provide. (She also tried to get the federal government to make leisure travel illegal during the pandemic.)

Sara Nelson – and the Washington Post – are 100% wrong on this.

  • The alternative to pressing the call button, to let a flight attendant know you want a drink, is to go to the galley. But flight attendants don’t want a steady stream of passengers heading to the galley and blocking the aisles, and airlines often announce not to congregate in the galley.

  • In Ms. Nelson’s world, passengers simply wouldn’t hydrate. Cabin crew wouldn’t provide service. And you’d like it, or at least sit down and shut up about it.

  • The call button exists, what does she think it is for? She says it is so individual passengers can press it to identify themselves when called upon to do so by a crewmember. And if you do use it for something like a glass of water, you’d darned well better have a compelling moral justification (“It may be that you’re a mother, and you have an infant in your arms, and you need some help”).

  • However airlines themselves say otherwise. For instance Emirates flight attendants have been reminded not to ignore the passenger call button. According to that airline it’s expressly not the ‘911 of the sky’. In fact, they monitor response times to customer requests.

  • It is not called an ’emergency button’ it is a call button, and if you need a drink the best way to ask for one is to let a crewmember know you need one.

Flight attendants don’t ‘just’ provide drinks. Airlines for the most part have them on board because they are required to by the FAA, since they’re assigned safety duties. (Although especially for international flights, airlines often staff cabin crew beyond the required minimums, in order to provide better service.) However flight attendants aren’t performing safety duties for most of the flight on most flights, and can ignore the call button when there are more pressing matters.

So ultimately the flight attendant call button is for… calling the attention of a flight attendant. That means, if you need a drink, ask. But understand that they may make you wait, and if you’re on Spirit they may make you pay. Your crewmember may also make you wait out of spite, because you pressed the call button.

The Post by the way also says that “Soup is not a plane food” and this is wrong. Soups tend to reheat well, so work better than most foods under galley conditions. When ordering a meal in a premium cabin, soup will often be a good choice.

(HT: Live and Let’s Fly)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. On many foreign carriers, the call button is expressly to call a flight attendant, and they pride themselves on how quickly they answer. On Singapore, it was routinely 15-20 seconds! On Korean about 30 seconds and I had once apologize for taking 60 seconds. US airline FA’s are spoiled. This an important service button.

  2. Whether flight attendants like it or not, the call button is there for many reasons. These attendants hired on, accepting the terms and conditions of the job – and the pay offered. As a paying customer I expect for the attendants to respond whenever I use the call button – responding is called “doing their job”. If any of these attendants don’t like “doing their job” then they should seek employment elsewhere.

  3. I love it. One minute passengers are being lectured NOT to go to the galley and to use the call button. Then we’re being lectured NOT to use the call button — which means going to the gallery. I can’t help but think what they REALLY want is for people to simply not fly at all.

  4. Wondering what they do on “the” premium airline”? I honestly don’t know. It’s been 40 years I flew them.

  5. Pick a subject and unions and the Washington Post will be 100% wrong 98% of the time. Nothing new.

  6. Since I am in a window seat I always use the call button if I need water when the service has not been around for a while. Of course, I mostly fly Asian airlines so I get good service from great cabin crews.

  7. Sara Nelson: “Being a flight attendant is great except for having to deal with passengers.”

    On flights with Frontier, Breeze, Spirit all in the last couple of months after the main service down the aisle, the consistent announcement was, like on Breeze “Our main service is complete so the aisle is yours again. Please push your call button if we can bring you anything else.”

  8. I am poor. I have no education or work experience. I like to create fire hazards by blocking exits. I am here for safety yawn. I miss covid and being paid to sit at home. Yawn yawn yawn

  9. The Flight attendants are their “for your safety.” I liked it better when the Stewardesses (gender binary term) were there for both safety and comfort of all the passengers. But then that was a long time ago when there was this thing called “leg room.” (Western Airlines . . . the only way to fly)

  10. Is this really an issue? I took 52 flights on UA in 2023 and I recall hearing a call button chime less than a dozen times. Two were from me. Both were accidental.

  11. If it were up to the lazy flight attendants, everyone would be handcuffed to the seat with a hood over their head. I have ZERO respect for any of them.

  12. It is a shame that many FAs use the call button as a weapon against the very people that pay their pay checks. I’m sure there are many FAs that want to provide that service for passangers but get hassled by other FAs for making their jobs “harder”. Todays culture is getting less civilized and more self centered every day.

  13. Flight attendants on American don’t appreciate it when you speak the honest truth that they are “here for your safety and credit rating”

  14. The U.S. airlines that had a culture of service where using the call button was fine no longer exist.

  15. Can’t remember ever even needing to using the call button on SA or Emirates. Their staff constantly monitors the cabin for needs.

    I’ve given up and learned to bring my own food and beverage on domestic airlines, though the PREMIUM airline seemed to get a bit more proactive after the Skymiles debacle

  16. The last time I used a call button was to get a light for my cigarette after my lighter died mid-flight. Now I just wait for them to come around. A couple of hour domestic flight I really don’t see people needing much. On my long-haul I only fly ANA or the “Premium” airline. And I’ve got to admit the service has been pretty good lately.

  17. Wow this was a c**** post.

    How quickly we forget the million people who died that first year before vaccines and effective treatments were widely available – you know, that year when lots of passengers also didn’t want somebody sitting right next to them.

    How quickly we also forget the epidemic of bad behavior that has happened on airplanes in recent years, many of which were fueled by… alcohol?! I think banning it completely on board flights is both unrealistic and money-losing, but from all the crazy in-flight behavior this blog loves to make fun each week, I can see why some FAs might want to reduce access to booze.

    Finally, nobody stops you from bringing your own drinks on board. All they have to be is non-alcoholic. And honestly, if you’re gonna dehydrate during a 1-2 hour flight, perhaps you shouldn’t be flying anyway. Many 1-2 hour flights these days are through turbulence, and there is no safe time to serve the entire plane with any drinks, button pushed or not.

    If you want a FA on your beck and call, you should pony up the dough for premium class seats or fly enough to get that perk for free. In the era where airlines charge for amenities like seat choice, bags and advance boarding, I think expecting FAs to respond genie-like at the press of a button is ridic.

  18. I wish airlines would state their call button etiquette and preferences in their seat back info card and/or as part of their safety briefing.

    I’ve been so conditioned by US based airlines and the culture that you don’t use the call button for small requests but rather grab an FAs attention as they walk down the aisle that on my recent 50hrs of flying Singapore Airlines, most of it I business class, I often didn’t get things I wanted because I am not accustomed to using the call button and instead tried to grab their attention or catch their eye. I went without water, drink top-ups, new drinks, slippers, etc.

    Definitely not that big of a deal but it would be nice if Airlines were upfront about their preferred way to communicate or ask for something.

  19. Dave -your response is moronic. Paying extra for someone to respond to a call button – how dumb is that? I expect for F/A’s to do the job they were hired to do – if they don’t want to do the job, then they should find another job elsewhere.

  20. Hate to tell @ Dave but I fly only FC domestic and paying for the PREMIUM seat hasn’t really garnered any better FA service in many cases.

    In sure we are treated better than steerage but in too many cases, they park their ample butts in the galley.

  21. I feel sorry for Dave, he’s having a bad day.

    Personally, I hate using it because even I can survive for 10 minutes without a drink, lol. But sometimes I get anxious and need it, I think others could be in the same boat, and there has also been times when my aisle passenger is fast asleep, even snoring, and using the call button is the best way to go.

  22. @Dave……. I Just flew Air Asia SYD – AKL. No one was allowed to board with a visible beverage….many passengers had to drink what they had or toss it before being allowed to board.

    Without a doubt there are significant differences in on-board service from airline to airline and especially between US carriers and non-US carriers. Most US carriers should emulate carriers like CX, EY, JA, BR, SQ, etc. to attract customers who care and willing to pay for quality service, and allow the low-cost carriers cater to the large herds of people who only want to get from one place to another at the lowest price….and they look and act like such ubiquitous bargain hunters.

  23. Ever noticed how most FAs, when they don’t want to be bothered with requests, walk quickly down the aisle looking straight ahead studiously ignoring passengers hoping to attract their attention?
    Yeah, they heard you, but blanked you.
    Of course you can’t touch them as they zoom by, or put your foot out to trip them up; (the latter has been a vengeful fantasy of mine on more than one horror flight) so pressing the call button it the only way to go!

  24. Regarding NedsKid’s comment about Sara Nelson (“Being a flight attendant is great except for having to deal with passengers.”)

    Sara Nelson seems to have this “us against them” mentality — both for management and passengers. It seems like she is to blame for the fact that many (not all) FAs have become very rude. It’s one thing to be a Union Rep who goes to bat for labor. It’s another thing to create a culture of toxic employees.

    Many FAs have gotten horrible over the years. And… they play the “our main job is safety” game. It’s true — much of their training is about safety — not about handing out refreshments. However, if there are no safety issues, then their first priority should be customer service.

    I sometimes get a survey after a flight. I would like to see more specific questions regarding service. Specifically:
    * Did the FA say the call button is for “emergencies only” during the pre-flight announcements?
    * Did you use the call button during the flight? If so, was the FA polite? Or did they appear angry that you summoned them?
    * Follow up — did they give you the requested item (drink, etc.)? Or did they ignore you out of spite?
    * Flight attendants are supposed to go through the cabin every x minutes to collect trash and/or see if anybody needs something. Did they do that? Or did they stay in the back chatting with each other?

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