Why Don’t Flight Attendants Get Tipped?

Think of all the service people who habitually get tips: hotel bellmen, taxi drivers, waiters and waitresses, the guys who handle curbside baggage at airports, sometimes even the baristas at Starbucks. But not flight attendants. Why not?

Maybe it’s because they’re thought to earn a pretty good living and don’t need the tips. Maybe it’s because they’re simply thought to be salaried employees of a sort that for whatever reason shouldn’t accept tips. Maybe for some reason they are actually prohibited from accepting tips. Maybe it harks back to the day when most flight attendants were women and most passengers were men — and, given the somewhat mystical (or perhaps mythical) reputation of the amorous businessman and the foxy stewardess, the exchange of money at flight’s end may have raised some questions about just what the stewardess had done to deserve the tip.

Still, it’s very odd to me that so many service people who perform similar functions get tipped and that flight attendants don’t. Especially when they often work so hard for so many people, running back and forth with drinks, pillows, headphones, etc. Yes, I know that most people are pretty unhappy with the airline experience these days, and I know that the occasional flight attendant is crabby beyond belief, but in my experience most of them do a really great job, often under trying circumstances.

It’s not that I’m advocating for yet another kind of worker to get tips. But having flown a lot lately, and seeing how hard flight attendants work, it struck me as odd that they don’t get tipped. At least I’ve never seen anyone tip a flight attendant. And when I asked flight attendants on my last 5 flights if they’d ever gotten a tip, each of them said no, never. Their reactions to my question ranged from quizzical to hopeful.

Most economists have argued that tipping is a horribly inefficient and archaic practice. (FWIW, Levitt makes fun of me whenever I tip anyone for anything; and if I recall correctly, Ian Ayres and Barry Nalebuff wrote about tipping in their engaging book Why Not?) But that has hardly stopped people from doing it — increasingly so, it seems to me. I think on my flight home today, I’ll simply slip the tip instead of asking the question, and see what happens.


wcw

You don't tip flight attendants because you usually don't give them any cash. I have seen tipping when people buy booze on planes, since they break out their wallet.

On the economics, it may be inefficient, but you are a jerk if you do not tip in the US, where the IRS taxes implied tips -- not tipping that sort of an employee actually costs him money on tax day. Tip, and vote for people who'll improve wage and other laws until the economy rights itself.

coyotesqrl

Not that tipping would be a necessarily bad thing, but airlines are run on awfully tight schedules, if any significant percentage of passengers tipped flight attendants, it would cascade through the system and reduce the number of flights. Since the airlines already overbook, I think this would be a bad thing.

Now, if those who chose to tip could pull off the handshake handoff when walking out the exit, that would be fine; however, most people have to fumble around for money and then take time proferring it. It just doesn't seem plausible.

rvman

I imagine not tipping flight attendants comes from their origins. They were there, originally, as medical 'first responders' and most of them were trained nurses. They also fulfilled, while not doing the first function, the separate "Steward" function of dealing with luggage, etc. One doesn't ordinarily tip a nurse, either. (In a sense, the nurses tend to fulfill the same functions in a hospital - patient monitoring/first response, coupled with steward-type food service, cleaning, and delivery.) At this point, I imagine a campaign to be tipped would be considered 'beneath' them. They are unionized labor, and make fairly good money as low-skill jobs go. (The medical training, today, is mostly the sort of first aid and CPR stuff that 'safety officers' tend to have in workplaces, with a lot more reps and refreshers.)

prosa

We sometimes think of flight attendants as being glorified waitresses, but their primary purpose is to ensure passenger safety. They give safety briefings at the start of flights, make sure that passengers are properly belted, assist passengers who are sick or otherwise in distress, and direct evacuations. Given their safety-related role, tipping seems somehow inappropriate.

Mike D

Being a flight attendant is actually a very sought after job. The interview process is very intense, training is long, and there are not a whole lot of positions available. The salary is decent, and there are many great benefits to the job like having a flexible schedule, travel, and very inexpensive or free personal flights. (I knew someone who was able to go standby on any flight for free).

That being said, they have a lot of motivation to give excellent customer service already. I think people tip either when it's expected (restaurants,bar,etc.) or when they receive exceptional service beyond what is expected.

As a parallel, when we receive excellent service from a Nurse in the hospital (who could also bring you food, drinks, and make sure you're comfortable), do we tip them?

I for one like tipping, and do it sometimes in order to receive good service, which I know is backwards. For instance, if you were to tip a flight attendant early in the flight, I'll bet that you will get better service than any non-tippers for the remainder of the flight :-) I also always tip for Alcohol.

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marrymeflyfree

Flight attendants don't readily accept tips for a couple of reasons. Firstly, we don't rely on tips for income as bartenders or waitresses do. And secondly, we aren't bartenders or waitresses. We're there to ensure a safe and secure flight; the inflight service is secondary to that, even though that is (ideally) all you will ever see us do. My job, aside from the safety aspect, is to make you feel as welcome on board my aircraft as you would in my home. You certainly wouldn't offer a tip to your dinner host - and likewise it is (or should be) out of place to offer a tip to your flight attendant.

Of course this ideal has changed, sadly, as service standards and wages have declined among many US carriers. Despite the changes, I don't believe that tipping is appropriate on board and it certainly isn't necessary. Many of my colleagues have taken such drastic pay cuts that they may disagree, but supporting their bid for liveable wages and pensions would likely be far more appreciated.

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BasilB

Air travel is a strange place- I don't know why it's not normal for people to tip. I know many people (including an economist or two) who refuse to tip altogether. They invariably have some sort of logical justification they use to defend themselves when challenged by friends, but they are completely missing out on the social aspect of things. No matter what your logic is, the person who just served you is going to think that you were unsatisfied with their performance if you don't tip. Arguments aside, you just affected a person's day negatively. It's mostly harmless, but so are many other minor public antagonisms like not flushing a public toilet or butting in line at the store.

Morally, the only justification I would acknowledge is if the person serving you has more money than you do. Ironically, the only people I know who refuse to tip are much better off than the people serving them. Most people I know who don't make that much money have at one point or another had to work in service, so tip reasonably. Because service people get tips, their minimum wage is often lower than jobs that don't get tips. I used to make 20% less than a walmart worker per hour when I was a busboy because the waitresses were supposed to tip me. I also got taxed as if I got a certain amount of tips, whether I got any or not.

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elephant man

Levitt makes fun of you for tipping?? I was once eating in the Subway in Hyde Park on 57th St when Prof Levitt was also there, ordering to go. I watched him pay for his sub, leave the place, then hand a handful of bills to a guy sitting outside begging for change. I'd say tipping makes a lot more sense than that. Most of the beggars in Hyde Park dress better than I do.

hombrelobo

You forget that the tipping is getting more and more important in the US, but less and less in the rest of the world. No other country in the world thinks 20% is reasonable, and many (Singapore, Japan, The Netherlands, Germany) find reasonable not tipping at all.

And for the record, the single thing that I hate most in the USA is precisely tipping. It looks like blackmail to me.

BasilB

In many places in Europe, a 20% tip is included in the bill, and is not optional. It's not blackmail, it's kindness. If you wish to be unkind, don't tip.

Toast1185

Flight attendants are retained primarily to ensure a smooth flight, which means handling rowdy passangers and doing the things that would cause mass chaos if each individual did it independently. When you go out to eat you have the option to go somewhere that you serve yourself so you don't need to tip a waitress. When you go on vacation you can carry your own bags so you don't have to tip a bellboy.

On an airplane, you don't have a choice. If you want a drink, you need the flight attendant. If you want a meal, you need the flight attendant. It's a result the fasten your seat belt, don't move around the cabin environment. If there was a DIY airline that offered a cheap alternative I could understand tipping for services that you opted into, but that hasn't happened yet. Flight attendants are retained and employed primarily as airline employees and not to sell their services to the passengers.

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bobjuch

You don't tip flight attendants for the same reason you don't tip the folks at the ticket counters: They're supposed to be professionals.

I hear some American restaurants are now added 20% to the bill. I will walk out of any that do. I tip 20% or more for good service, but if the service is bad I want the right to reduce the tip. Once a waiter ran after me as I was leaving. He caught up to me just as I reached the area by the front door where many people were waiting to be seated. He shouted, "Excuse me sir! Was there something wrong with my service? You left me only a $xxx tip." (I had left at least 10%.) I replied with a long list of complaints about his service. I hope he lost his job for that.

Gaijin51

I've been living in Japan for several years now and one of the things I love about the country--maybe the main thing--is that you don't have to tip anyone here!

People say its unkind not to tip. So its like a guilt trip. Some people tip extra to be a martyr like its some kind of competition. That's why I hate the whole system. The wasted time. The wasted mental effort and anxiousness about "will this make me seem too cheap."

The alternative is that in places like Japan service employees are paid market wages.

Flight attendants don't get tips because they make enough money without it.

I totally agree with Mr. Levitt. Not because I'm cruel, but it is totally correct. Japan's economy does absolutely fine without tipping and the service is actually better! You haven't seen good service until you've seen good Japanese service.

The tipping system sucks. It's like a tax on the generous.

savetheclocktower

I like all the answers I've seen so far, and agree that (a) the rarity of cash transactions on airplanes and (b) the tight schedule of air travel are the two main reasons why we don't tip flight staff.

But the first thing I thought of was this: a critical component to the tipping custom seems to be the privacy of the transaction. The amount of your tip is generally known only to you, your waiter/cab driver/skycap, and perhaps a close friend or family member.

I think having compulsory tips in the tight confines of an airplane would make people uncomfortable, and for good reason. Sure, the lack of scrutiny means you can be a jerk and tip 10% on a check, but it also means that you're allowed to evaluate the tippee's performance objectively. The reliability of the tip as a performance metric would go down if people felt like they had to tip 20% regardless of quality of service so as not to be thought a douchebag by a nearby stranger.

Also: everyone knows at least one person who draws way too much attention to himself when he tips well. Now imagine that person trying to tip a flight attendant on an airplane. Now imagine resisting the urge to shove that dude into an overhead compartment.

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rico_suave

Gee, I don't know... maybe it has something to do with the fact that despite the "economic" response that airfare prices are reasonable, the perception by most travelers is that they're constantly getting less and less for their money. Not a recipe for inspiring generosity I would say.

tesslouise

Flight attendants aside, tipping may be inefficient, archaic, and something Levitt (who I suspect makes well above minimum wage) makes fun of, but it's also necessary to some workers. Not more than 10 years ago, a cafe in my hometown (in)famously paid its workers $2.50 an hour, claiming they'd make the rest up in tips. (How do I know this? Because my-mother-the-social-worker knew to direct her clients away from this cafe as they looked for work.)

JanneM

tesslouise, it's only necessary in places like the US because the wage structure assumes tipping. You can't live off a waiter's salary in the US. You can in Japan.

The solution is not to encourage tipping, but to ensure jobs pay enough for people to live on.

ariellem

Many people have brought up the reasons I'd use, so I'll summarize and add my own take:

* captive audience - coercion, lack of privacy
* awkward, especially if you're accompanied by screaming kids and your purse is in the overhead or under a seat
* airlines aren't exactly giving good service overall - would look like they're passing the plate via their best feet, to mangle some metaphors
* obnoxious tippers - arguing, perhaps, which of two seatmates will give a tip - disturbing the rest of the people on the plane
* you wouldn't tip your kid's teacher for taking good care of him when he made a mess at school either
* flight attendants would have to pay a lot of extra attention to keeping corporate money (for alcohol, for example) separate from their personal tips
* distraction potential: you could keep the attendants busy by giving them tips (especially those requiring change) and engaging them in extra chit-chat, while your accomplice elsewhere on the plane does something unsavory

Need some more actual flight attendants to weigh in now: how would you personally feel if people started thrusting money at you while in flight? Where would you stick it? How would you make sure you'd kept your tips separate from the airline's take? Would this be very distracting from your safety-oriented duties?

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rymanthestationer

There's not bucket at the exit. How are we going to know where to leave a tip if there is no bucket?

Gaijin51

I would like to make a point out about response #10:

"It's not blackmail, it's kindness. If you wish to be unkind, don't tip."

This is a non-sequitor! If you say that not tipping is unkind, then it is blackmail! If something is optional then it is optional. You can't give anyone grief for doing something that is perfectly within their rights! I do not mind paying a mandatory service charge, but "optional" tipping should be just that. Otherwise it's not really optional.

Mr. Levitt has inspired me to become a non-tipper. Next time I am expected to give a tip, I shall refuse and explain that I am philisophically oppesed to it if challenged. How can someone say that it is morally wrong. It's shifting the employer's responisbility to pay his employees onto the customer. If enough people did it, the system would change.

And don't tell me its wrong because they have to pay taxes on it. They all underreport their tips anyway. It all evens out by the end of the year. If you don't make enough money at your job, demand a raise or get a better job.

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