A Flight Attendant’s Tips on When to Use the Call Button

Airplane interior seats

This, my friends, is a really good question.

First, for anyone that didn’t happen to read it, Brian Cohen wrote about this issue last week. In it, Brian asked me to add my crew perspective on the matter. This is a tricky one – not because I don’t have a opinion on the matter, but because the situation is that no matter the answer I give here, someone is likely to get mad at me. That probably tells you something.

That something is: a lot of passengers feel they can and should ring that bell for any darn thing they like; a lot of flight attendants firmly feel it’s for “emergencies only.” You could ask ten passengers and ten flight attendants when it’s appropriate to ring the call bell, and you might get just as many different answers. You can see that in this Flyertalk discussion. Officially, no one is “wrong.”

What does the call button say?

If you look to the call sign itself, I think it tells the whole story, including our confusion. Have you ever noticed that the icon has gone from a female wearing a skirt, holding a serving tray with a cup on it (you can still find these on some planes), to a unisex shape holding nothing?

What’s s/he saying? “Times have changed. I’m not what I used to be,” but the airline leaves the conclusion open. Like a good, old-fashioned stewardess, s/he adds no opinion that could rile anyone up. S/he just dutifully offers the basic fact – gently with a diplomatic, non-judgmental smile – and leaves us to decide what to do with it. So here we all are, uncertain.

There is simply no hard rule…anymore. Back in the day when the button was clearly for drinks and what-floats-you, I think it was meant for whatever and whenever a passenger wanted. However, the service, in every way, was different. Flying was expensive, a luxury, and the crew-to-passenger ratio was not 45-50:1. That call bell ding! hailed a “stewardess,” pretty openly there to be sexy and doting, with mostly one target audience (read: white businessmen). We also actually had amenities to offer you!

At the same time, I don’t like the “for emergencies only” line some adopt. I understand why they say it (as in, there are usually hundreds of you onboard), but it’s bad advice, in my opinion. Aside from being a bit stingy – and as I’ve written about before – there are plenty of innocent reasons why call lights might not get our attention. Some readers took that article the wrong way, but to be clear, none of those reasons were that we purposely ignore them (big no-no. We’d get in trouble for that). They generally amount to: there are several things that can result in the drowning out a service ding on many flights. That’s exactly why depending on them in an emergency is a terrible idea. Yes, use them in an emergency, but please also employ a form of communication that does not usually mean “I was looking for the light button” or “I’m thirsty.”

How do I think passengers should use it?

As a philosophy, I am happy for you to use it at your discretion – as long as your discretion doesn’t mistake “flight attendant” for “personal servant” (that definitely happens!), and remember (if I may reiterate) that there are usually 200 hundred of you onboard. If you respect those facts and still see a need to ring, I support you. Most of my friends, I think, feel the same. Let’s be honest among friends though: In reality you just have to feel out your crew.

I will put out there that drink requests are a little bit special. I do prefer you come ask for it yourself (mostly I’m just afraid if passengers see me “running” for a drink, 1000 other dings will follow and it will get out of hand), but I wouldn’t be grumpy about it. Not unless you start dinging over and over.

As I like to say, all things in moderation. Trapped at the window? I can see that’s awkward! Need a hand? I’ll happily help. Feel the need for a cheeky drink that you’re occasionally too lazy to come to the galley for? I might tease you, but oh, go on then!

Still unsure? Here’s another measure: If you’re the kind of passenger to care if you should use it, you’re probably ok to do so. I promise to do it with pleasure, if you promise not to get carried away.

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Comments (Showing 14 of 14)

  • MileageGoblin at 4:24pm June 24, 2014

    I practice my “10 minute rule” when it comes to ordering drinks. If I I don’t need to use the restroom and 10 minutes passes before a FA walks by to check on passengers, I’m pressing the button. I’m sorry if that interrupts whatever is going on in the galley.

  • MikeFromTokyo at 6:26pm June 24, 2014

    I think it depends on the airline and class of service. On a proper airline in int’l J or F, flight attendants should be on call at all times, so it is okay to press the call button for any reason.

    On US domestic flights, with the possible exception of premium transcon cabins (e.g. AA F on three class aircraft), it should be used sparingly. Perhaps saying “emergencies” only is going too far, but there should be a good reason for using the button instead of getting up or waiting for an FA to pass by.

  • usafwso at 9:54pm June 24, 2014

    The airlines should just remove the call buttons and be done with it.

  • makfan at 11:42pm June 24, 2014

    I used mine for the first time in ages the other day, because the flight attendant forgot my salad dressing and I was the last one she served. Oh, the horror. 🙂 They were actually a great crew and I just turned it on to get her attention because I couldn’t easily get up with a tray full of food in front of me.

    I might use it between service in economy class on a long flight if I’m in the window and the others are sleeping, but if I’m on the aisle I will walk to the galley. If I’m in economy I probably brought my own bottle of liquid anyway. The little 6 oz cups they pass out aren’t enough for a 6-hour flight for me.

  • SF1K at 2:29am June 25, 2014

    So just wondering if in general people think it is more “ok” to use the button for service in premium cabins versus economy? Personally in Intl. F and also J (especially if in a seat where you need to climb over someone) I think it’s ok to use to ask for a drink, etc.


  • AlwaysFlyStar at 7:13am June 25, 2014

    Sometimes on US airlines, the cabin crew will get a bit bothered if you use the call button to ask for a drink. (In my experience, anyway)

  • SSteegar at 10:02am June 25, 2014

    MileFromTokyo- You are right that it’s a bit different in Premium Cabins. I literally invite my passengers in those Cabins (plus anyone with a special need in Coach) to use the call light.

    There’s just more structure to the situation up there all around. Not only is the stress on “service” in thise cabins different all around, but the lights are arranged to assist that. The call lights in these cabins are situated differently, which cuts out all the accidental dings, with the lights (usually) more clearly visible to us. Mechanics will also pay faster attention to burned out lights, etc. so they more more dependable indicators, and with the ratio being more like 6-11:1, it’s unlikely for requests to become overwhelming as it can potentially in Coach (though I do find that most people are polite about the bell in coach).

    In Coach, I’d say 24 of 25 dings are accidental (at least?). In Business or First, only 1 of 100 are accidental. Crazy the difference!

  • FlyingYan at 12:08pm June 25, 2014

    Things are quite different in Asia, especially in Premium classes. I always feel bad to press the call button to get my drink replenished… And when I go to the galley, crew always ask me “why didn’t you press the call button” and send me back to my seat and will bring the drink to me at my seat. Even in economy, they usually keep the galley for themselves and get you to use the call button.

  • thelark at 9:28pm June 25, 2014

    “…too lazy to come to the galley for”


  • MrPie at 5:14am June 26, 2014

    I’ve had no issues on CX flights long haul or short haul in Y.
    I end up using the call button 2-3 times each flight asking for a drink. No troubles from the FA’s.


  • BJM at 6:30am June 26, 2014

    What does the call button say? “Ding!”

  • FAllWay at 11:25am June 26, 2014

    Do your job. We can push the call button anytime we want. Only stupid US based airlines have problems with providing good service.

  • lupine at 3:47pm June 26, 2014

    Some flights have flight attendants who regularly walk the aisle in coach and who make it easy to ask for something. Other flights on the same routes (even the same airline) have attendants who retreat to the rear once the service is done. You’d wait a really long time if you waited on them.

    I like window seats. If this is one of the flights where the attendants busy themselves in the back, and the people in the center/aisle seat are sleeping or eating or using a computer I will push the call button rather than disrupting the whole row.

  • nth_utsera_sth_utsera at 7:51pm June 26, 2014

    Agree with two earlier comments. I assume the OPs remarks were about Y service?

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