Flight Attendant Call Button: When Should You Use It?

To push the flight attendant call button, or not to push the flight attendant call button, that is the question. I’ll share my take, and then I’m curious to hear how OMAAT readers feel.

In this post:

What is a flight attendant call button?

Every airplane seat has a flight attendant call button, typically in the overhead console, right by the reading light and individual air nozzle (if the plane has those). The flight attendant call button, is, as the name suggests, a way to call a flight attendant to your seat.

The flight attendant call button typically depicts a person with a tray, suggesting that the call button is intended for service. However, that’s not how all flight attendants interpret it, so I wanted to talk about that in a bit more detail.

Flight attendant call button on All Nippon Airways Boeing 737

Controversy around flight attendant call buttons

In most of the world, the flight attendant call button seems to work as intended. It’s a useful way to call over a flight attendant, whether you want a drink refill, or there’s some sort of an emergency.

However, in the United States I’ve heard several flight attendants over the years announce that the call button is in fact the “emergency flight attendant call button,” advising passengers to only use it if absolutely necessary. Suffice to say that this kind of announcement isn’t approved by any airline.

While people will often joke “well I’m happy you consider my drink request to be an emergency,” let’s talk about when it’s actually appropriate to use a flight attendant call button.

Should a call button be used for service?

Using the flight attendant call button in first & business class

Broadly speaking, it’s always appropriate to use the flight attendant call button for service in first & business class, especially on international airlines. You’re paying a premium for more service, and having an extra request on a long haul flight isn’t unreasonable.

I’ll take it a step further — at top airlines, crews generally prefer that you push the call button rather than going to the galley with your request. Foreign carriers typically have thick curtains between the galley and the cabin, and you generally shouldn’t try to go into the flight attendant’s “space” without permission. They’d much rather come to you. So absolutely push the flight attendant call button — it’s the courteous thing to do.

I do want to mention just one caveat — try to be respectful of the overall service flow. For example, if a cabin has 50+ business class seats and the crew is doing service with a cart and is currently in the aisle, wait until they finish that round of service before pushing the call button again.

When it comes to using the call button, you can’t beat Emirates first class, where you can voice or video call the crew with any requests, without them even having to come to your seat.

Emirates’ first class “room service” feature

it’s also interesting to observe the cultural differences between airlines when it comes to service approaches. For example, in Singapore Airlines first class I generally don’t push the flight attendant call button, since even on a long haul flight a crew member seems to pass through the cabin every 10-15 minutes throughout the flight. The service is just so proactive that I don’t find it necessary.

Cathay Pacific first class is exactly the opposite — the crews are spectacularly reactive. That might sound sarcastic, but it’s not. On Cathay Pacific you (hopefully) won’t see a flight attendant once between meal services without calling them, and that’s so that your privacy is maximized. But if you push the call button a flight attendant will cheerily appear within seconds.

The call button is essential in Cathay Pacific first class

Using the flight attendant call button in economy

Using the flight attendant call button in economy is trickier. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, but the staffing ratio in economy is different than in first & business class, and in many cases flight attendants have to walk a lot further to your seat. Also keep in mind that on long haul flights the crew has rest periods, reducing the staffing ratio even further.

Personally I think there’s nothing wrong with using the call button in economy:

  • Try to use it sparingly in general

  • You should totally use it if you have mobility issues

  • It’s fair to use if you’re in a middle seat and can’t get out, because the person next to you is sleeping

That being said, in economy I also think it’s more reasonable to stretch your legs and go to the galley yourself. Generally there’s a small setup with snacks and drinks, at least on long haul flights, so you can help yourself to that. Furthermore, in my experience flight attendants are typically “sitting in the open” more in economy than business or first class, given that the volume of requests is greater.

I’d be a bit more reserved with the call button in economy

Are the “rules” any different on US airlines?

The above are my general thoughts, though is the story any different on airlines in the United States? This accounts for the fact that:

  • Airlines in the United States don’t have “real” curtains between the cabin and the galley, but rather have “nets,” if anything at all

  • Some flight attendants at US airlines seem opposed to using the call button for service, because, you know, they’re there for your safety

On US airlines I’m generally a little more hesitant to use the call button. I see what kind of a vibe the crew gives me. In general I don’t mind pushing the call button in international first & business class on a US airline, while I avoid it on domestic flights.

US airlines are inconsistent with the call button

Bottom line

All airplane seats have individual flight attendant call buttons, though customs around using them seem to differ. In the United States, some flight attendants seem to think these buttons are just for emergencies, while outside the United States there are consistently no issues with using them for service.

Where do you stand on using the flight attendant call button, and what has your experience been?

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