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Tipping In The Air
A New Surcharge?

By on January 29, 2019

By Bob & Sandy Nesoff

Not all that many years ago there was a small, independent airline called “KIWI.” It was employee owned, low fares and only about two aircraft. Its basic route was between Newark and Atlanta, later expanding to a number of other cities and purchasing new aircraft.

KIWI was founded in 1992 (and folded in 1999) by former Eastern Airline personnel and pilots and offered fairly inexpensive flights, more comfortable seating and decent meals. But the bubble was about to burst.

Booked on a flight from Newark to Atlanta to meet a someone in Atlanta for a magazine feature, we arrived at the airport with more than sufficient time for departure. As it turned out it was way more than enough time. For reasons that were never explained to the waiting passengers the flight was nearly seven hours late in departing. Several frantic phone calls to the interviewee took place to let him know we would (hopefully) be there in daylight.

In the air the staff was almost professional. One flight attendant decided to sit down by us and go into a litany of problems with the airline. She commented “What did you expect?” when the delayed takeoff was mentioned. That comment took us a bit aback.

She finally rose and walked to another passenger to deliver a snack. He thanked her and, somewhat surreptitiously slipped a few dollars into her hand, smiling and thanking her. She stuffed the money into her pocket and nodded a “thank you” to the passenger.

To say that we were shocked would be to put it mildly. We’ve flown major and minor airlines in the Caribbean, Africa, Europe, China, the South Pacific and more. Not once did we ever see a gratuity offered to a flight attendant…much less observe a flight attendant taking the tip.

On the return flight, also delayed by nearly seven hours because there was only one aircraft flying that route back and forth, we saw a different cabin crew. This crew didn’t hold back, bad-mouthing the airline and airing all of its deficiencies. Again the flight attendants were offered gratuities and they accepted.

The interesting thing here is that the employees were all shareholders in the line and when it finally went down, their investment went with it. They came from Pan Am and Eastern, both airlines then remembered only in history. Now they were able to as KIWI to that list and they were unemployed again.

Now this is a long way around to today’s subject. Should you tip flight attendants?

The answer is “Maybe?”

The fact of the matter is that most airlines grossly underpay their flight attendants. While pilots make exceptional salaries, the men and women who walk the aisles delivering coffee. Drinks, snacks and on longer flights, meals, are on the lower end of the pay scale.

All too often passengers regard them as little more than airborne waiters and waitresses, the fact of the matter is that they are highly trained individuals. You would want them assisting you in the event of an emergency, a crash or if there is a medical situation while at 38,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean.

But you don’t tip cops, doctors and nurses.

Frontier Airlines is an anomaly when it comes to tipping. None of the major domestic or international airlines condones tipping. Many of them simply look the other way when it happens, but they do not encourage it and, to be truthful, in the decades of flying that we have done, we’ve never seen it happen.

Frontier flight attendants originally were require to share their tips much the same as  staff in a diner or pizzeria are required to do. The budget airline is one of those that charges for soda, snacks and virtually everything but the air you breathe…and that may be coming soon.

Until just a few years back Frontier offered passengers to option of leaving a gratuity when they paid for snacks or food by signing a tablet and swiping a credit card. As of today Frontier is the only American-based airline giving passengers the option to tip. But the downside for slight attendants was that they had to pool all the tips: again just like a diner or pizzeria.

As of this January, Frontier, in its munificence, no longer requires crews to share. Much like the KIWI flight attendant Frontier’s staff can simply pocket whatever they receive. If the tip is added to the tablet, I t will be credited to the particular attendant.

While Frontier says it is entirely up to the passenger as to whether or not a tip should be given, there is a psychological pressure to do so when there is a slot for it on the tablet. That’s like the bill at the aforementioned diner/pizzeria that has a line with “suggested tip” at the bottom of the bill.

We can just picture the expansion of this practice.

“You want something more than a bag of peanuts? OK, sign the gratuity line or I may just spill your cup of coffee in your lap.”