Two United Flight Attendants Quarrel Over How Passengers Should Use The Call Button

Quick quiz. The purpose of the flight attendant call button is:

  1. To request a drink
  2. To identify yourself in an emergency – but only when asked by a crewmember
  3. To act as a stand-in for candles, and then everyone pushes the buttons for sound, in order to celebrate someone’s birthday

Most passengers view it as #1. Flight attendants union head Sara Nelson says it’s #2. While on Southwest Airlines it’s usually #3.

Here’s a fourth use case I had not considered. Reader J.B. shares details of United flight 2313 from Chicago O’Hare to Houston:

We were about 30 minutes delayed. When we landed, the purser announced that if you have a tight connection, please ring your call button. Immediately a cacophany of dings went off. Maybe half the people on the sold-out flight.

I’m not sure exactly what the flight attendant hoped to accomplish. If they really wanted to know who or how many passengers had connections, there are more straightforward ways to get it (their tablet).

If someone thought there were one or two perhaps they figured they’d help those passengers off first somehow. After all, anything works better than “if you don’t have a tight connection please stay seated” since usually almost nobody does.

  1. The passengers around you don’t know if you really have a connection or not.
  2. And you figure one more passenger in the aisle isn’t really going to delay anyone
  3. You can’t control whether other people honor the request or not, and of course each one follows the same logic (see #2)

Come to think of it, it’s also just like asking passengers to stay seated until it’s their row’s turn to deplane, passengers have been crammed into their seats the entire flight the moment they can get up they will. And being ready to grab carry on bags shaves seconds off the deplaning process in any case, even if the process is a bit less civilized.

Other crew on that United Boeing 777 didn’t quite follow the reasoning behind having everyone ring their call button if they had a connection, either, because a second flight attendant admonished passengers for listening to the first flight attendant – announcing:

Unless there is an emergency, please turn off your call button. We need to be able to identify people with real emergencies.

Most lights, apparently, were turned off. Some passengers just ignored this, and were engaged in other things. No one assumed those passengers had emergencies.

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. They may also make you wait out of spite, because you pressed the call button.

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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »



  1. First off, I am well into my Senior years at age 75, so my “airline passenger training” has been conditioned by many older, more “traditional” practices…e.g., a male (from later adolesence up, and often younger) always wore a shirt and a tie, and LONG pants to fly…etc.). I might laugh and scoff at many of those anachronisms of a “bygone age” now…but ONE persists, and that is the “sacredness” of the FA call button. So, personally, I would never, ever hit that button unless I was having a real “moment,” in which I genuinely needed assistance, medical, personal, etc. If I want another drink or coffee (as I sometimes do), I simply wait until the FA comes down the aisle, and get their attention. Caveat: Yes, I KNOW that FA’s sometimes “disappear” on flights, and are in the galley. My solution: I get up (BTW, I always reserve an aisle seat so I can get up without hindrance to myself or others), walk to the galley and politely ask for what I need…and I have never been refused or treated badly. I’ll be interested to read what others write here…

  2. @Richard you’ve not flown a lot of foreign carriers then. Qatar for example welcomes and encourages you to press the call button if you need service (at least in business). On Cathay, you often won’t see a flight attendant midflight, unless you ring the call button – in which case they’ll be there in seconds.

  3. I believe it’s labeled a “Flight attendant call button”, it’s not labeled “emergency button”. Therefore whenever I need something and no FAs are in sight I push it. It’s that simple. Anything other interpretation of that button is a delusion.

  4. I was a f/a for 30 yrs with a big airline . At that time people didnt know if the call button. Iam so glad I retired when I did. Passengers today are a different kind of people, many are very rude and crazy

  5. Like a lot of domestic staff, union leader needs to fly Asiana, Cathay, ANA, Korean, Singapore, etc. and they will see how their job should be done.. and of course those airlines do not employ the services of persons suffering from obesity.

  6. The announcement is company issued. It is published in the Link/tablet.
    The flight attendant was following procedures for a late arrival.

  7. I mean, any competitive / highly ranked international carrier would absolutely treat the call button simply as a means to flag attention from the crew (even just to request a service item). U.S.-based flight attendants treating it as an inconvenience, or even a misuse, do so to the further degradation of their brand.

  8. @Aaron (in response, above): Thanks Aaron, and you’re (parttially) correct. I have never had the pleasure of flying with one of the Asian or Middle Eastern lines (“bucket list” trip material, perhaps???). But I DO remember, when younger, I had the extreme pleasure of taking my mother on her first trip back home to Italy after 40 years. She came over as a “war bride” following WWII. I had managed, through business flying, to accumulate enough MileagePlus points (when they were worth SO much more!) to fly us RT in 1st on the old Swissair (ORD-ZRH) in a DC-10. OH MY! I have never, ever forgotten the service so kindly and professionally (and “effortlessly”) extrended to both of us on that trip; from beginning to end (including lounge access in both Chicago and Zurich) it was “over the top.” My dear Mom passed away a few years later, and she never stopped talking about that trip! Thanks for your encouragement to “try again”! LOL

  9. Are we really at a point where it’s too much to expect people to wait for the row in front of them.before deplaning?

  10. The toxic culture at United Airlines just won’t get out from under them, and persists as United’s legacy. I believe this culture can be traced to United’s hub in Newark, New Jersey, and to United’s acquisition of Continental Airlines and PeoplExpress. With those acquisitions cama toxic, urban culture amomgst now-United’s workforce.

  11. The concept that a call button is not to be used to call an FA ranks right up there with tipping at fast-food restaurant. Apparently some flight attendants cannot be bothered to give their pax decent service, so they start this kind of baloney. The method seems to be working with fast-food; there are tip jars obviously placed out with money in them. Either the staff ‘seeds’ the tip jar, or people are actually stupid enough to tip at a fast-food place. On an airplane, I like the middle-ground. I wait for an FA to come by … but far too many FAs just march up and down the aisle and pay no attention to their pax. That’s the time for the call button. And if nobody answers it, I get up and go get what I need. I like to wait until a big bunch of them gather in the coach galley, and amble back there to ask.

  12. Funny, on two Avelo flights this week the crew said to please push your call button if you wanted a free bottle of water. Also recently have been on Allegiant where the crew said that after the main service if we wanted “another round” or anything else, please just hit the button and they’d be happy to come to us.

  13. I personally feel as an able-bodied adult that using the call button is lazy and entitled, but I will absolutely use it before crawling over another passenger if I didn’t get the aisle seat.

    Of course I fully support its use for anyone in different circumstances. Flying with small children? Not as mobile as you used to be? Go for it!

    In the event of an ACTUAL emergency I’m not relying on a call button, I’m yelling for help.

  14. @WarrenBennett I find this comment interesting, considering United Airlines scored poorly amongst consumers well before the merger with Continental. In fact, prior to the merger, Continental scored well among customer satisfaction, winning seven J.D. Power Awards, as well as scoring among the best companies to work for in the U.S. I am curious as to why you believe CO was the reason for United’s downfall, when it seems their own management’s neglect but them in this position decades prior.

  15. Speaking of Newark New Jersey… I had the (dis)pleasure of experiencing their new renovated terminal a few weeks ago. All of these mid-walkway concessions areas where you self check out. Grabbed a quick $2.50 banana once and while checking out (no one in sight) the register asked me if I wanted to leave a tip! This would be on top of already paying both tax AND a mandated airport-union-workforce-something-fee. I laughed out loud and pointed it out to my wife, “why would I leave at tip at SELF CHECKOUT!?” A lady of certain ethnicity suddenly appeared and rudely in the Jersey way said, “I’m a human you know.” I felt no embarrassment on telling her that it’s absolutely ridiculous to even suggest a tip in such a place where I literally picked up my own item and walked over and did the job of checking out myself. Yes, I laughed as I walked away, with my $2.50 banana.
    Another beef I have, with United specifically is upon boarding they were handing every passenger these alcohol disinfectant wipes. I asked politely what they were for and was told, “to wipe down your area.” Well, I could see why upon sitting down. a united has figured out they can save labor costs by merely turning the plane around without proper cleaning and like so many other industries, just have the customer do the job that once was part of service. Nothing was clean. All they do is remove trash and large crumbs. The bathroom on the plane had a sink that contained a brown ring scum stain that hast to be at least 8 months old. I used one of my alcohol wipes to perform a test with a single finger to see if some mild wiping would clean a strip out of it. Yep. With virtually no elbow grease and a few swipes back and forth it left a clean streak cut directly through that brown scum. Above the sink is a sign that reads, “this lavatory as well as the entire aircraft has been treated with an antimicrobial surface sanitizer.” Lolololol.
    I will never fly again. It’s such a terrible experience in every way possible. Also, flight attendants were a position that started to increase the comfort and pleasure of flying. We have plenty of other transportation methods where you just stuff people in with nothing other than the expectation of them getting to their destination: train, bus, subway. The plane has become the Greyhound bus of the skies in the US. Including the riffraff who can’t conduct themselves in a polite, controlled, and civilized manner. Except now they employ much of that riffraff merely because of forced “diversity” hiring practices.

  16. Crew for a US domestic carrier (who flies TG, JL, KE, and OZ quite often). There are times when the call buttons should and shouldnt be used. With that being said, if we have just leveled off and are preparing for service, using the call light to order a beverage will be deferred until we bring the cart out (logic: Still setting up, service elements not ready; exception: Water).

    During boarding: If there is a seat duplication, please use it, but please give way and refrain from blocking the aisle so that we can get to you. If you need a water, simply use your voice (but know that your request maybe deferred due to heavy traffic in the aisle).

    Mid-flight (after or between services): If you need something, by all means, use the call button (just don’t have attitude, like the “you skipped me” (when you were obviously sleeping or otherwise engaged) or appear “inconvenienced” because you had to push the button, or because it took us time to get to you after swimming through the line of people waiting for the shitter).

    Descent/landing/taxi/take-off: During these periods, the service portion has either been closed or has not been opened. Please do not use your call bell during these times for anything less than an emergency or water (for medicine, coughing, etc). We cannot provide service items during these times due to FAA regulations. If an inspector is on board, we, the crew could be subjected to a fine if seen bringing a service item out.

    Of course, every airline employs its own SOPs and service guides which may or may not define call bell usage, etc.

    And finally, not related, but if you need to use the restroom at any point, just go. We are not enforcers, and only required by FARs to verbally caution… Once. Just be smart about it, and try not to go whilst the wheels are out. I know some of my colleagues go ape shit over this, but if you gotta go, you gotta go (obviously, on some airlines, the lavatories are locked, so not sure About their procedure or if youre sol).

  17. @Jonn

    You beat me to the punch. I gained my lifetime Platinum Elite card from Continental because of all the miles (not non-flight purchases) I made over the years. That airline went out of their way to please customers. I think, perhaps the writer is a bit dyslexic and confused Continental for UA. All downhill since the merger.

  18. LOL , sure … FA 37 years .. a year ago I had a passenger suffer a heart attack and was not breathing .. I started CPR and a call button rang right behind me 2 rows up and was asking for a coke !!

    So ALL your points you tried to make are moot.

  19. If I’m just requesting a drink, I always make a reasonable effort to get an FA’s attention in another way (flagging them down as they pass, or just make the request on my way back from the lav, etc.), but if those don’t work because the FA is hiding or whatever, I have no compunction about using the call button for service.

  20. I am in the window seat and would gladly get out if the airline left the two seats next to me open. It almost never happens like that, so instead of disrupting the good folks next to me, I push the button to get water so I can take my meds. Fortunately most of the flights are across the Pacific on non-USA airlines and the flight attendants are very nice and get me my water. Most of the ones on the domestic flights are that way, too. Many times I get out only once (for a bathroom break) on a 12 hour plus flight because I don’t want to disturb those next to me.

  21. I do understand why there are so many crew-passenger incidents on US airlines when FA`s can get angry over a call button. Rolling my eyes.

Comments are closed.