What’s the Real Policy for Tipping Airline Customer Service Employees?

In January there was much buzz about the Frontier Airlines policy of supplementing flight attendant wages with customer tips.

Most airlines don’t permit flight attendants to accept tips, and they have mixed feelings on the subject — some simply want more money (although tipping may ultimately mean lower salaries), while others worry the emphasis would then shift from safety to service. But what about other agents you encounter at the airport?

At American Airlines airport customer service employees are allowed to accept “promotional items, complimentary tickets or perishable gifts (candy, fruit, etc)” that’s worth no more than $100. American tells employees to “share[..] with colleagues when practical.” However gifts worth over $100 must be returned.

Employees are not allowed to accept “cash, gift cards, and gift certificates” regardless of amount. So no Starbucks gift cards.

The airline’s concern of course is that a customer (or supplier) might give something to an employee and the employee would then do something that benefits the customer or supplier in return. It’s a fine line between a tip and a bribe (tipping at hotels for an upgrade is accepted at Las Vegas but elsewhere is usually thought of as a bribe).

Of course I find the best way to get ‘special treatment’ is to just be nice, and if you don’t get what you want or need to just ask someone else (“hang up, call back“).

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. the emphasis would then shift from safety to service

    Really? Bring on the tipping then!

  2. A well known member of frequent flyer forums hailing from New Orleans brings on board a King Cake (when in season) for the FAs when on a long haul flight. AFAIK, it’s always been graciously received by the FAs.

  3. Last week on a shinkansen (Bullet Train) in Japan one of a party of 4 loud young Americans (from Minnesota it transpired) was telling/bragging to the others about the great tip he gave to someone at the airport.
    He was blissfully unaware that tipping is not part of the Japanese culture, is unwelcome, and can be perceived as extremely insulting. The reluctant recipient may have taken the tip to spare the dude embarassment by refusal possibly, but I’m sure would have been insulted to some degree.
    The thing is, the Japanese strive to provide good service without any thought of putting out the begging bowl. Their mindset is that doing their job well is a reward unto itself.
    I guess it is incomprehensible to Americans that someone would not want to hustle you for a few bucks for the smallest service, but there it is.
    Read up on the basic customs of any country before you visit to avoid looking like a goose.

  4. Most tipping in the hospitality industry is a form of corruption; it is getting an advantage via a financial consideration. Most Americans like to put a different spin on it, almost always couched in terms of reward for service, rather than reward in anticipation of a benefit.

  5. In all European and Asian Airlines that I have flown, tips are not allowed

  6. As a former airline employee the only folks to tip at the airport is Sky Caps (for handling luggage) and Wheel Chair Attendants. Have things changed?

  7. I agree with @Aircraft Lover, and would add that tips are not expected, and will be politely refused should you be gauche enough to assume it is.
    Also you can add Australia to that list.

  8. In Cambodia, I was not sure about tipping. So I asked the owner of the hotel who was American. He gave me a half answer. He said that his English guests do not tip, but Americans usually do and the tips from Americans really helped out the wait staff. So I decided to tip.

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