Are there ethics to scoring free booze mid-air? One flight attendant weighs in

BOBBY LAURIE  |  Special Contributor

COFFEE, TEA OR ME  |  Being an IFB (in-flight boyfriend) is OK as long as the flirting is harmless — beware the spurned steward.
COFFEE, TEA OR ME | Being an IFB (in-flight boyfriend) is OK as long as the flirting is harmless — beware the spurned steward.

The airline industry is nickel-and-diming travelers to death: We pay extra for checked luggage, carry-on bags, a window seat (or aisle seat!), early boarding and food. Back in the day, alcohol was the only thing you had to pay for.

And, if you handle it right, the one thing you might still get comped.

Flight attendants often use alcohol as a bargaining chip or a token of appreciation. They’ll offer it to someone willing to change their seat, someone whose in-flight entertainment system is inoperative, to compensate for a spill or as a way to say “thank you” (it’s very, very, rare).

Some passengers have become wise to cozying up to flight attendants for free stuff. And such boozy flirtations are common among gay men. While traveling, I came across this tweet by @MrSeventyTwo: “Boarding now. Gay flight attendant. Let’s see if I can get hooked up with free drinks.” I sent him a message: “So, it’s that easy huh?” He quickly responded: “Is flirting with gay flight attendants acceptable for drinks? Is it offensive? What’s a sure way to win their hearts over?”

That got me thinking, Carrie Bradshaw-like: Is flirting for Frangelico acceptable? Or would I trade a few moments of self-esteem for a mini-vodka?

As a flight attendant myself, I’ve fallen victim to frugal flirting. Once working a cross-country flight, I noticed a guy laughing with his two female seatmates and looking in my direction. When I reached his row to pick up his cup, I asked, “Are you enjoying yourself?” “No, but I would be if you stayed and talked with us for a bit.”

I did. He was cute and a captive of the middle seat. He complimented me a few more times until I had to get back to work. “I enjoyed chatting with you — come back and visit,” he smiled, looking in my eyes. Blushing, I asked if I could get him anything. “A vodka tonic would be great.”

I happily gave it to him free of charge. Did I stop at his row because he caught my attention? Yes. He actually had my attention and interest from the moment I saw him look in my direction. Did I offer him a drink because he was gay? Yes. Would I have offered to get him anything if he didn’t flirt with me? Yes, but I wouldn’t have given it to him for free. We engage passengers and they engage us in conversation all of the time. But he gave the illusion of being interested in me. (It was just an illusion — although he asked my number, he never called.)

This same situation happened to my friend Nathan. Nathan’s interaction with the frugal flirter went as far as him sitting down next to the passenger to keep the conversation going. A few drinks later, they exchanged phone numbers. The passenger sent a text message after deplaning but was never heard from again.

Investigating this trend further, I asked an airline passenger if he’s ever flirted with the crew for a free drink. “Yes,” he said, ”male and female.” He added that he believed the crew knew that he was only after a free drink.

So the question remains: Is this unacceptable or offensive? The consensus among my fellow flight attendants is that it is acceptable — with a stipulation. The passenger should make clear he just wants to be the flight attendant’s IFB (in-flight boyfriend) and not lead them on.  If you do want to make your flirtation more, well, grounded, exchanging numbers is OK … just be sincere.

Remember, though, that flirting will not always guarantee a free drink. Sometimes, it can land you in hot water. It’s sometimes difficult to balance tomato juice while serving during turbulence, and you don’t want it to end up on you.

For travel ideas, visit

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 15, 2010.