Just like reclining your seats or using a first class lavatory as an economy passenger, whether or not you should use the call button for flight attendant service is a pretty hot button issue (no pun intended).
But is it really not appropriate to use this call button for basic service requests such as asking for a drink re-fill?
In this article, we will take a look at both the arguments for and against using the call button and explain why it may or may not be a good idea on your next flight.
Table of Contents
Should you use the call button for flight attendants?
Using the call button for flight attendants is somewhat controversial when used for non-urgent purposes.
However, if you are struggling to locate a flight attendant or have limited access to the aisle, you can probably use the call button to make basic service requests for things like drinks without any major issue.
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How to use the flight attendant call button
Some passengers get the call button mixed up with the button used to turn on the reading lights directly above their heads because the two buttons can be so close to each other.
Typically, the call button will have some type of stick figure icon on it and will be a different color from the overhead lights button so you can look for that difference if you are in doubt. (The overhead lights are often indicated by a lightbulb.)
Hitting the call button will cause a light to turn on directly above your seat and may cause a noise or another light to light up in the galley in order to get the flight attendant’s attention.
Once you hit the call button, that light most likely will remain on and so you will also need to remember to turn it off. Typically, it’s a good idea to turn it off as soon as you see a flight attendant approaching your seat.
Why do passengers not like using the call button for flight attendants?
One of the main reasons why passengers try to refrain from using the call button is that they are afraid a flight attendant will respond in some type of rude fashion.
For example, they may reprimand the passenger for using the button to request a drink and insist that the button only be used for emergencies or urgent scenarios.
Other passengers may just be uncomfortable “summoning” someone for service requests, especially if they are not flying first class or business class.
And lastly, it’s just not a very popular thing to do. Many passengers have probably never used the button before and are unsure about the attention it may draw to them.
Arguments in favor of using the call button
The call button itself indicates it can be used for service requests
On some aircraft, the call button for the flight attendants actually shows a person in a “server position” holding a tray or holding an arm out. Some even have an actual drink on the button!
This indicates to many that the button is there at least in part so that you can make service related requests like asking for another drink or snack.
It’s difficult to get the attention of a flight attendant
Sometimes you only have a couple of flight attendants patrolling your aisle and these flight attendants move very swiftly past your row before you can even move a muscle.
Then there are those flight attendants that are highly skilled at avoiding eye contact with passengers….
And lastly, sometimes chatty flight attendants go MIA in the galley for extended lengths of time and don’t perform walk-throughs.
These are all situations where the call button becomes handy.
Engaging at the galley is more intrusive
An alternative to pressing the call button is to simply walk up to the galley to make your request to a flight attendant.
Some passengers view the galley area, where the crew assembles the trolley and gets a break from passengers, as an area that should be mostly off-limits to passengers.
Also, if you hit the call button it gives the flight attendant time to figure out when to head over to your seat versus when you come to them in the galley they may have to drop what they are doing to help you out.
By encroaching into that galley area you are “intruding” on the flight attendants which can be a problem if they are particularly busy trying to get things in order.
On the flipside, a lot of flight attendants are happy to chat it up with passengers when they visit this area so it’s not clear to me that this should be a no go zone for passengers.
Airlines tell you to ask for anything you need
If you ever watch or pay attention to the safety video from an airline, sometimes you will hear them tell you quite clearly that you can ask them for anything that you need.
Presumably, this would involve using the call button.
Arguments against using the call button
Emergency use only
Some believe that the call button is for “emergency use only.”
For example, you should only use it if somebody next to you is having a heart attack or you see an engine on fire outside of your window.
The idea here is that flight attendants are not on the plane to serve you in the way that a waitress or waiter is and instead they need to focus on safety issues.
While you definitely can use the button for emergencies, I think a lot (probably most) would agree that these buttons are not reserved for emergencies only.
Flight attendants don’t spend all of their time focused on troubleshooting safety issues and they have the training and skillset to assist with basic service requests. There’s no reason why they should only be responding to emergencies.
Furthermore, if this button was meant for emergencies only, that should be clearly communicated in the preflight videos.
Urgent use only
A more reasonable position is that the call button should only be used for urgent matters.
Obviously, the big question here is what do you define as urgent?
Here are some examples of what could be considered urgent:
- You’re suffering from a bad cough due to a dry throat and need a bottle of water
- You are hypoglycemic and in need of some sugar or bread
- You spill a drink on you or someone else
While the urgent use argument is more understandable, I still think that it still places the threshold a little too high on when it is appropriate to use the call button.
Sometimes people just need a drink to chill out!
When it is appropriate to use the call button
If you notice something that needs immediate attention then you should feel free to use the call button.
However, be aware that sometimes the call button is ignored and so it could be better to get up and go speak directly with a flight attendant to get some things sorted out.
Food and drink requests*
Personally, if I want to make a drink request, I will try to do that by getting up and heading to the galley.
I don’t think there is anything wrong with making a drink request via the call button, but (*) I would probably only use that button (sparingly) to make such a request if I wasn’t able to get the attention of a flight attendant.
Also, if you have mobility issues and were perhaps a pre-boarding passenger, you should feel free to utilize the call button without feeling the need to get up.
You are stuck in a window or middle seat
If you find yourself seated in a window seat or a middle seat and you know that getting out of your seat will require you to inconvenience the passenger next to you because they are eating, working on a laptop, sleeping, etc., that’s probably one of the most justifiable times to use the call button.
At that point, it’s just a matter of choosing to not inconvenience your fellow passenger(s) and a flight attendant should be able to understand your reasoning, especially if they know they have been hard to find.
If you are dealing with a broken seat, either your own seat or perhaps a seat in front of you or next to you, I think the call button can be a good choice.
For example, one time we had a seat in front of us that was broken and it was reclining ridiculously far back.
It would’ve been difficult to get out of our seat and I thought that it was more appropriate that the flight attendant would see how badly that seat was affecting us with us still sitting in the seat.
If your seatback TV is not properly functioning, that could merit the use of the call button.
When it is NOT appropriate to use the call button
Don’t use the call button for minor (non-time-sensitive) requests like requesting a flight attendant to throw away the wrapper to your pretzel package or to place your jacket in the overhead storage bin. These are non-pressing things you can do yourself.
If you have a dirty diaper or some other type of gross tissue that needs to be promptly disposed of, I believe you should do that yourself. It’s just a common courtesy to not involve others, including flight attendants, in the disposal of these things.
If you see that the flight attendants are pushing the cart through the aisle and they have already passed you up, consider just waiting until they finish their initial beverage service to buzz them.
This will allow them to get through the cabin more efficiently. (If they have skipped you that might be a different story….)
It’s one thing to make a request for a drink or snack mid-flight. But it’s another thing to make a request for a Bloody Mary every 30 minutes throughout the entire duration of your flight.
Try to be considerate of the time available to the flight attendants and consolidate your requests or keep them at a reasonable minimum. Just use common sense.
International first class and business class
I believe things are a lot different when you fly on an international first class flight with certain airlines.
If you have ever flown in an international first class cabin on an airline known for service such as Singapore, Emirates, Cathy Pacific, etc., you’ve probably noticed a huge difference with respect to the cabin crew.
The crew seems much more interested and well-trained in catering to your specific needs and requests.
What’s more, they do it with a positive and professional attitude so that you don’t ever feel like you are inconveniencing them.
On flights like these, you are practically encouraged to use the call button.
Indeed, I have used the call button many times on first class and business class flights with these airlines and have never been greeted with anything other than a very pleasant, “what can we do for you?”
In general, I try to avoid using the call button and prefer to make my service requests by walking up to the galley.
However, if you cannot locate a flight attendant or don’t have aisle access, I don’t think there’s any problem with using the call button for basic service requests — just don’t overdo it.
And finally, if you are flying first class or business class there’s often more of an expectation that you may use the call button so you should not feel weird about using it.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and creator of the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned full-time travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in major publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, US News, and Business Insider. Find his full bio here.