It was during training for his new job as a flight attendant in a business class cabin that Brad* realised what he was in for.
“Each instructor shared anecdotes about their horror stories,” he says. “The worst was an obese man who needed to pee but couldn’t fit in the lavatory and threatened to pee on his seat. The crew had to hold up blankets in the galley, and he took his trousers off and peed into a cup.”
As Brad – who works for a major US airline flying both domestic and international – would soon come to realise, working “up front” isn’t the easy ride you’d assume. “A lot of flight attendants don’t like working in first because it’s more work and the passengers tend to be more needy [than in economy],” he says.
A flight attendant on another US airline, who we'll call Pamela*, now works in first class after over a decade in economy. She agrees with Brad. “People feel more entitled,” she told The Independent.
Soon after his training, Brad was collecting his own anecdotes. General rudeness is an everyday occurrence: “There are too many times to count where people get on board and just hand me coats and say, ‘Seat 3E and I’ll take a vodka cranberry’,” he says.
That sort of brusqueness is also common among British business-class passengers flying the New York to London route, Brad adds. He says they tell him: “I am not to talk to them, just give them the meal of their choice and keep their glass filled any time it gets low.”
But Brad, who has been a flight attendant for six months, says business-class passengers on international flights are generally better behaved than domestic US passengers.
The real horrors, he says, pop up on certain short-haul routes: New York to LA, JFK to Port-au-Prince, and “almost any NYC-Florida flight.” JFK to Miami, he says, is notorious among flight attendants. “Everyone thinks they’re the most important person in the world. I once had a fortysomething male passenger who said he was a picky eater and asked me to remove the almonds from his mixed nuts, the shaved parmesan from his salad and the cilantro from his tabouleh.”
Mind you, that was nothing compared to the “very heavily plastic surgery-altered woman” flying from Washington DC to Phoenix who asked for water with “one medium-sized ice cube” and sent back her drink because the ice cube was too large. Or, for that matter, the pilot who carries a paint swatch in his pocket to demonstrate his preferred shade of coffee.
But sometimes attitudes can be more sinister. “Flying to Dallas one day I had a middle-aged couple where the man wouldn’t look at me, talk to me or acknowledge me because he didn’t like gay people,” Dan told The Independent. “I was taking orders and he wasn’t answering, and then he said, ‘I prefer not to interact with your kind,’ and told his wife that he wanted the pasta and a diet Dr Pepper.”
That incident wasn’t a one-off, either, but Brad has a way of dealing with it. “I make a point of looking at their travel record and see where they’re coming from or going to, and I’ll say, ‘Oh, Mr so-and-so, I see you’re coming back from Paris – I took my husband there one time and it was so lovely. If there’s anything else you need, please don’t hesitate to ask.’ I put the discomfort on them.”
So why work in business class? For the money. Flight attendants are paid more to be the lead, and the lead works up front, says Brad. “Most of my colleagues hate working first or business because the passengers are high maintenance, but I like the extra pay,” he says. “And in my old line of work, which was politics, my bosses were just as insane so it’s not too much of a difference.”
That’s not to say all premium passengers are bad eggs. Some check if he’s okay after witnessing him being subjected to homophobia or abuse.
And, of course, economy passengers – “the rats in the back” as Pamela called them – can be just as badly behaved. One man recently accosted Brad and asked him for compensation for the fact that his neighbour was putting his elbow on their shared armrest. That, he says, is the only time he’s come close to cracking.
But there is hope. Pamela says that premium passengers often acknowledge their bad behaviour. “They think that flight attendants have some superpower to fix everything from TV to seats to the fact that they’re just having a bad day,” she says. “I’ve learned to just always smile and nod, knowing that once they’ve got out all their drama, they settle down and start to turn around and realise what an ass they’ve been. Rarely do they apologise but on most of my flights they exit with a ‘thank you, you were so nice’.”
“Air travel makes people crazy and very bold,” says Brad. “But I do this because I love it.” Let’s see how he feels after a decade in the job.
*Name and identifying features have been changed