United Flight Attendant Says Call Button Is For Emergencies Only

Christine learned an interesting bit of in-flight trivia on her recent United flight: those little call buttons are for emergencies only. What’s more, the flight attendants can psychically sense when it’s an emergency and when you’re just foolin’ with them, and they’ll ignore you if they suspect you’re just going to ask for water. And no, needing to take sinus medicine to prevent clusters of needle-explosions going off in your skull during descent is not an emergency, so go back to your seat.

Christine doesn’t usually fly United, and only got booked with them when she had to reschedule a flight at the last minute:

I slept for the bulk of the flight and when I woke up, I realized I needed to take sinus decongestion pills to avoid sinus pain during the descent. Because I am a frequent air traveller, I knew that I only had 30 minutes left in the flight and if I didn’t take the pills, the pain would be unbearable. I would have gone to ask for a cup of water myself, except I was in a middle seat and I didn’t want to disturb the passenger seated next to me. So, I pushed the flight attendant call button above my head. This is something I have done on other planes many times in the past and I didn’t think it would be a problem.

After 5 minutes, I looked around to see if the attendants were busy with other customers. The aisles were clear and the attendants were in the back of the plane. They seemed to be talking to each other and I assumed they were busy, but I eventually realized they weren’t preparing or doing anything other than chatting. One of the attendants looked up and saw me, so I waved–I assumed that maybe the button system wasn’t working and that they didn’t know. I thought that, if she saw me waving and if she saw the orange light on, she would come over. The attendant turned back to the other attendant and started talking again. I was at a loss for what to do.

Eventually, the passenger in the seat next to me woke up and asked me if I needed to get up. I said I had been trying to avoid bothering him by calling for the attendant, but after 10 minutes, it didn’t seem like they were coming. He graciously got up and I went to the back to the attendants, who were chatting.

I said to the attendants, “Sorry to bother you. I don’t know if you saw the call button or anything, but I just wanted a cup of water. I didn’t want to disturb the fellow next to me because I have an aisle seat.”

The attendant who was standing–I believe she was of Asian descent, but I didn’t get her name–said curtly, “That button is just for emergencies, not water.” The other attendant didn’t say anything.

I said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I have used that button before for water and, besides, the little figure on the button is carrying a cup. I assumed I could use that button to request water.”

She repeated that, again, the button was for emergencies only. She gave me the water, I took my sinus medicine, gave her the empty cup, and asked how I was to turn off the button. She said that it would turn off if I pressed it again.

I was really surprised because I have been flying my whole life and I have pressed those buttons before and I’ve never been told that they were for emergencies only. I’m not used to receiving such brusque service, either. After I sat down, I realized that if this had truly been an emergency, neither of the attendants would have come to help me. There was no way of discerning between an emergency and a request for water without having first come to me. I know I’m a bit slow, otherwise I would have brought this up with them when I was still standing and talking to them but then again, they didn’t seem to be in the mood for providing customer service. I decided to e-mail my feedback instead.

It is arguable whether or not needing water to take sinus pills prior to descent qualifies as an emergency, although I would like to point out that by the time I received the water, we were close to descending and the sinus pain would have been incredibly debilitating if I had to wait a few minutes longer for the pills to start working.

I think a more appropriate response would have been to come to my seat when the button was pushed. If it had not been an emergency, the attendant might have said to me, “Those buttons are for emergency only, not for water. If you want water, please come up and request it in the future.” I think this would have been appropriate and reasonable response.

Also, if these buttons are, in fact, for emergencies and not water requests, perhaps the buttons should be labeled, “For Emergencies Only.” Also, what constitutes an emergency for using the buttons?

For those who tend to suspect the worst in our OPs (you don’t have a real disease! you shouldn’t have lost your job stupid! only communists have sinus problems!), let’s review:

  • she slept for most of the flight, so unless she is a horrible sleepwalker or has night terrors, she couldn’t have been that much of a high-maintenance passenger;
  • she waited 10 minutes before getting up;
  • she got the water herself;
  • the little figure on the call button is holding a cup; and
  • the button isn’t labeled “for emergencies only”.

Our first reaction was to think Christine should have insisted that the flight attendants do their job properly. The trouble with that is, airlines have us all by the balls right now and know that if we act even the least bit exasperated they can accuse us of endangering the flight. We’ve seen “Flight Plan,” and we know where that leads. So we’re not sure what she should have done. (But sending the above email to corporate is a good start.)

Clearly, Christine, that is an emergency cup on the button, which you should only request in the event your plane is crashing. An emergency cup may just save your life one day! We’re not sure how, though, so this looks like a good place to end this post.

(Photo: Zinnia.)