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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.