Winning Over a Cranky Flight Attendant

Have you ever had a flight attendant from hell who turned out to be an angel in disguise?  I did on a recent United Airlines flight. Kind of.

I was flying from Los Angeles to Philadelphia on a recent Sunday night redeye. It was an A319 with only eight first class seats and as I settled into my seat, my first impression was the scowl on the face of the purser standing in the galley.

The lady next to me in row one had a purse in her lap and our first interaction with the FA confirmed my fears. Walking by her seat, she tersely stated, “You need to put your bag up” and just kept walking by.

On her way back to the galley, the lady in 1A asked her if she could store the bag for her. The response was “no.” I took the lady's bag and stored it away.

As is often the case on full United flights, overhead bins filled up and before boarding was close to completion, leaving passengers standing in the middle of the aisle searching for a place to stow their bags.

You should have heard the purser. She fumed loudly about “these people” who bring on bags and how she was not going to deal with them. Across from me in 1E was a Japanese gentleman who had a laptop bag out. He got the same scolding as the lady next to me and was visibly dumbfounded when the purser harshly instructed him to put his bag up but did not offer to assist.

Surprisingly, the purser managed pre-departure beverages, offering passengers the following choice, “Orange juice or water?” Nothing more was said to each passenger. Before we took off, she came through the first class cabin taking meal and beverage orders.

When offered the cold pasta plate with chicken breast, the lady next to me asked what the other choice was. The purser indignantly replied, “Nothing!” to which my seatmate responded back with a hearty laugh that seemed to set off the FA even more.

Naturally, I decided to push the envelope. When she asked me if I wanted the snack, I leaned toward her and asked if she would mind heating it up for me. I was expecting an emphatic NO, but the crew meals were already in the oven warming up, so she obliged, not even protesting.

For good measure, she scolded the gate agent for not enforcing carry-on limits (fair point) before the door was shut. There was no welcome aboard or thanks for flying United—instead, she just told everyone to “be quiet” while the safety video was played.

We rolled down the runway and soon took off, experiencing a bit of chop for the first 20 minutes of the flight, during which the purser sat stoically in her seat. Passengers began to get restless and a couple got up to use the lavatory after 15 minutes. Bad choice.

Over the loud speaker, the purser yelled, “Sit down! Yes you. Sit down NOW.” I turned my head and saw she was referring to a passenger in the exit row who had stood up and opened an overhead bin. The passenger ignored her and she again yelled, “Close the bin and sit down NOW!”

The passenger continued to ignore her and she threw up her hands, shook her head, and said, “Forget it. This isn’t worth it.”

It wasn’t for another 15 minutes—30 minutes into a 4.5hr redeye flight—that she got up to take care of beverages and meals in first class. My seatmate had since fallen asleep and being in 1A, she was first to be served. The purser began yelling (yes, yelling) at her to wake-up and get her tray out, but I told her just to skip the woman—that she preferred to sleep. Surely, if she wanted a meal she could have one when she woke up…

Next came out my plate, which was nicely warmed. I’ve got to say—the United “snack” goes from being tolerable to downright tasty when it sits in the oven for a half hour. I was very pleased with the way it turned out.


Everyone had gone to sleep in the first class cabin, leaving just the purser and me awake. I honestly felt sorry for her, and noticed a Palestinian flag lapel pin on her uniform. I figured I would try to start up a conversation with her, if she was willing to engage.

When she came to collect my plate, I thanked her profusely for heating up my meal. She nodded indifferently. Then I asked her if she was Palestinian, noting her pin. A shocked look spread across her face and she even cracked a smile for a moment.

“Yes I am,” she responded, “And I’m also part Native American. I’m surprised you recognized that flag. Most Americans don’t know that.”

That was all—a subtle insult at Americans—but it seemed to change things.

She soon offered me a second blanket and then presented me with a United amenity kit I had never seen before with eye shades, ear plugs, and an inflatable pillow (similar to what US Airways sells). She added, “Only pursers get these.” It had the old United tulip logo on it and I actually used both the eye shade and the blow-up pillow—they worked well.


I nodded off to sleep and awoke about 30 minutes from Philadelphia. The purser noticed I was awake and came over to me, whispering, “Would you like a scone?” I nodded and said, “Yes, thank you” and she brought me over a hot scone in a bag.

No one else in the cabin was offered one other than my seatmate (who asked me to ask the purser for one).

We landed in Philadelphia soon after and I bid the purser مع السلامة و شكرا (thank you and goodbye in Arabic). She smiled at me before I left, then returned to her scowl.


Adrian May 22, 2012 at 09:13 pm

Everyone has their own story and I'm sure no matter how horrible on the outside they may seem, that there is a nice side of them. No mater what though, professionalism should still be practiced and maintained, especially as a Purser.

Brad May 22, 2012 at 09:31 pm

Matthew, I give you credit for getting through to her and proving she is a decent person, despite her poor customer service skills. Everyone has bad days, but that sounds awful. There is no excuse in a customer facing position. I would lose my job if I treated my customers like that.

matt May 22, 2012 at 10:29 pm

Out of curiousity, how prevalent is the oh/water pdb? Is that the standard or abnormal at UA. I'm 90% delta so really only know their product well. I can't imagine service to that standard - it's open bar or nothing at DL, with water as well normally.

Flew US F recently as well, and the pdb gin and tonic was a flawed of tonic and mini of gin, which seemed a bit too coach-like. Friendly crew though, just different standards.

nelumbo May 22, 2012 at 10:32 pm

Unfortunately this purser was too lazy to distribute the warm scones to every single passengers in the first class cabin. She was not professional.

HansGolden May 22, 2012 at 10:40 pm

When she snapped at the lady to put her bag up, you should have had the lady reply, "Bukra fil mish mish." :-D

@HansGolden: LOL

@matt: That was standard practice on pre-merger UA and you still see it on many flights.

@nelumbo: That's the sad part. Her mood improved after our talk, but not enough to serve the scones to each passenger--and there were only eight!

SAN Greg May 22, 2012 at 10:57 pm

Perfect example of someone who belongs in a different job (she would be happier, the company would be happier, and pax would be better taken care of!).

Matt May 23, 2012 at 09:20 am

@Matthew - I assume the merged airline is moving toward the PMCO standard then? Order what you want? Perhaps a change you'll like.

and reviewing my previous post, autocorrect is simultaneously wonderful and awful. At least I've gotten better about catching when it renames my customers to quite derogatory terms.

On the carry-on size limit and etiquette enforcement side, I do not envy the airlines that situation. Enforce the rules, and you're setting yourself up for a confrontation with your customers - very difficult to keep things civil given the expectations of customers that they can haul giant steamer trunks on board. Don't enforce them, and people haul more and more junk on board, the bins fill up, and you get negativity that way.

I flew US and DL back to back a couple of weeks ago - the US FAs were very aggressive about getting people to load bags wheels first etc. - something I've always dreamed of in a lot of ways, but something that in practice, even just observing the situation, was a lot less pleasant than the much more gentle and marginally less effective urging from the DL FAs. There's got to be a happy medium somewhere, and I think that DL crew was pretty close to it.

Confrontations, regardless of who is "right" just make everyone surly.

Tim RC, Anderson May 23, 2012 at 01:53 pm

I'm sorry, what a first rate COW. How do these people get away with this? If this kind of disgusting rudeness was displayed by a hotel, cafe, restaurant, store employee they would be fired. Hell, no hotel, cafe, restaurant, store employee would even think of behaving like this. What is it about American FA's that make them the worst in the world. Rude, bitchy, miserable, sods of people. I have no sympathy for these people at all.

If you hate your job, then quit. You have a fantastic job flying the skies travelling to different cities and countries and the chance to interact and meet fascinating people. Geez be thankful you have a job in this economy. People clean bathrooms, work in toll booths and scan groceries for a living. FA's have an exciting wonderful job if they would care to take pride and enjoyment in what they do.

This story upsets me so much. What a b__tch of a woman.

There is no question she needs to be re-trained or fired, but my point in posting this story was not to savagely attack her, but to show that even the seemingly rudest FA can be won over with kindness.

That shouldn't be necessary, but it is what it is.

Scowly flight attendant May 23, 2012 at 05:08 pm

Just want to point out one thing. Company does not cover OJI for injuries caused by flight attendants lifting passenger bags into the overhead bin. You might not believe it ... but ... that's why the announcement is "if you need help we will assist you." Not lift it for you. Assist means a lot of things based on how long that flight attendant has been flying and whether she has been hurt once and learned that lesson the hard way. Sounds like the passenger items around you could have been light but each flight attendant has to draw a line. I wouldn't have lifted the bags either.

@Scowly flight attendant: Even a 1lb purse?

If UA were to cover it, would you pick up the bags?

Sam May 24, 2012 at 02:07 pm

Just out of curiosity how do you know arabic?

@Sam: I've picked up a few words here and there in Arabic, Spanish, and French, with English being the only language I can speak fluently and German somewhat proficiently.

travis May 24, 2012 at 08:31 pm

She definitely needs another line of work, like a bouncer. It's not the job of a customer to humour an employee simply to 'beg' for what they should be doing. There is little in the way of professionalism by attendants on U.S. carriers. That said, being a bit older than most of the bloggers, I recall dressing up for flights (think 1960s) and that pretty much ended by the 70s. It would be nice if passengers voluntarily wore civilized attire aboard, and left the droopy pants and sandals at home. It would lend a dignified atmosphere which might infect the crew. It takes two to play life's game of civilization. While flight attendants are in the cabin first and foremost for the safety of the passengers, the last 25 years on U.S. carriers has seen almost the end of anything resembling their other job description: providing courteous service to paying passengers. Most are now school marms with an attitude. And with 911 that pretty much sealed the end of anything labled 'customer service'; the attendants switched from heating your plate to packing heat. All aboard ConAir.

Sam May 25, 2012 at 12:23 pm

I like that. I've learnt how to say please, thank you etc... in other languages (spanish, Italian, french etc...) just to be polite when I am abroad and on a foreign airline.

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