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Should You Tip Your Flight Attendant?

Welcome to Upright Position, SmarterTravel's new weekly series in which editor Caroline Costello discusses emotional and controversial travel topics. Join the debate by leaving a comment below!

There is a poll on the homepage of our sister site Airfarewatchdog that asks, "Have you ever tipped a flight attendant when flying?" I found the poll's results surprising, given that the concept of offering gratuities to flight crew hasn't crossed my mind, well, ever. Out of more than 500 people who took the poll, nearly 30 percent of respondents said yes, they have tipped a flight attendant in the past.

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Really?

This is news to me. There isn't much of an economic foundation for tipping the person who gives the safety demonstration and distributes Terra Blues chips. Flight attendants aren't dependent upon tip income in order to achieve a livable wage. (Still, their salary levels are by no means good rationale for withholding gratuities. Gadling says they make $35,000 to $40,000 annually, on average.) Further, most airlines discourage flight attendants from accepting tips.

Maybe it's not about the money. An essay on tipping on the Financial Page of The New Yorker attests to the social motivation behind the practice: "Tippers aren't trying to drive hard bargains or maximize their economic interests; they're trying to demonstrate their status and to reciprocate what they see as good behavior." If tipping is more a gift imparted in a personal exchange than a requirement in an economic arrangement, then it jibes with air travel.

Flight attendants are super service workers. Their primary role is keeping passengers safe in case of catastrophe—not refilling coffee. They work grueling hours and have extensive training. And their day-to-day grind is poles apart from the glamor of that Pan Am TV period drama. Since attendants are so much more than wait staff, perhaps they do deserve a little recognition in the form of a few bills. Your flight attendant is busy. He's running up and down serving drinks, comforting children, disarming disgruntled passengers. Arguably the fastest and easiest way to communicate some appreciation is to hand him a gratuity on the way off the plane. Will your offer get rejected? Maybe. At least you tried.

It's about recognition and recompense for above-and-beyond behavior. If tips are generally appreciated by flight crew (let's assume here that they are), there's no harm in offering them. There's also no danger that in-flight tipping will become a "thing" and kick off a coach-class shame spiral for budget travelers who keep their wallets closed. A practice that isn't sanctioned by the airline industry is not going to become a trend anytime soon.

What do you think? Should travelers tip flight attendants?

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