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20 Rules Flight Attendants Must Follow on Airplanes

Think your job has a lot of guidelines? Wait until you hear about these flight attendant rules.

Two flight attendants on the way to their planeHinterhaus Productions/Getty Images

Flying by the rules

Although it may seem glamorous, being on the cabin crew of an airplane comes with a lot of guidelines. These go beyond the rules passengers need to follow when they fly. And some of these flight attendant rules come as quite a surprise, says Emilia Ryan, a flight attendant for a major U.S. airline.

“My first flight was in 2019, and it was magical,” she says. “I loved everything about it: free travel to exotic locations, fun coworkers, interesting work, meeting new people. That is, until the COVID-19 pandemic hit.” Ryan was grounded for months, and when she came back, it was to a whole handbook of new flight attendant COVID-19 rules about face masks, social distancing and sanitation. And that was in addition to the already long list of rules cabin crews are required to follow.

What can flight attendants not do?

There are plenty of things flight attendants wouldn’t do on an airplane, but there are also things they’re simply not allowed to do. From hairstyles to the number of rings on their fingers to their Instagram accounts, practically everything is regulated. (Thankfully, in 2015, airlines finally got rid of the long-standing and antiquated rule that flight attendants can’t get married or pregnant.)

“Most of the rules and standards are there for a clear reason, like safety or professionalism, but it was still overwhelming—I won’t lie,” Ryan says. “I was terrified of making a mistake.”

Next time you’re talking to a flight attendant, you can ask about these rules and other flight attendant secrets. Or you can keep reading to find out the surprising flight attendant rules we learned from the airlines and crew.

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They must meet height requirements

Because crew members need to help passengers with their bags and reach medical kits, most airlines have height requirements for their flight attendants. For most airlines, everyone needs to be between 4 foot, 11 inches and 6 foot, 4 inches tall, and be able to reach items 6 feet, 7 inches off the ground. Some airlines, like British Airways, have even more stringent height restrictions. Just call them Goldilocks.

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Commercial Jet Taking off from Reagan National AirportGregory Adams/Getty Images

They aren’t paid until takeoff

One of the harshest realities of being a flight attendant is that they’re not paid for time spent waiting in the airport, boarding or helping passengers load luggage—or for anything else that happens pre- or post-flight. Here’s some airplane trivia for you: Paid hours for most cabin crews begin only once the boarding door is closed and the plane starts moving. (That’s right: Your dillydallying could be costing your flight attendants money.) Delta announced in 2021 that it would pay certain cabin crews during boarding, and hopefully other airlines will follow suit.

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Women can’t get creative with their makeup

Airlines are particular about how their flight attendants look, and while most don’t require female flight attendants to wear makeup, some do. Emirates, for instance, is all about high-maintenance beauty and requires that female flight attendants wear red lipstick and lip liner during every shift. Other airlines specify that women’s makeup should be complementary to their skin and “not extreme.” Usually, nail polish needs to be chip-free and in a classic color like nude, pink or certain shades of red.

Looking for more airplane info? Here’s what to do if you’re dealing with a delayed or canceled flight.

gender fluid African male wearing makeup while looking at camera outdoor - Transgender, queer LGBT conceptVanessa Nunes/Getty Images

Men can’t wear eye makeup

While many airlines stipulate that women must wear makeup, they often restrict men from doing the same. That said, some airlines do allow for creative expression. In 2021, United Airlines—which previously had flight attendant rules preventing men from wearing makeup—relaxed its restrictions. Now, flight attendants of all genders can wear makeup and nail polish. Southwest allows their male flight attendants to wear bronzer or concealer, as long as it “looks professional, conservative and complements the uniform and the employee’s complexion.” Trendy styles, on the other hand, are not allowed. Oh and scent? Flight attendants can wear perfume or cologne only if “applied sparingly.”

Supplement your airplane know-how by learning how to get reimbursed for lost luggage.

Refreshing glass of ice tea (or alcohol mix) centered on the window of a jumbo airplane, with blue sky above and snowy white clowds below.NLN/Getty Images

They can’t dip into the hard drinks

Not only do flight attendants have to stay sober on the job (thank goodness!), but some aren’t allowed to imbibe until they’ve changed clothes. JetBlue, for instance, doesn’t let employees drink alcohol while wearing their company ID or any other part of their uniform. They also can’t drink within eight hours of flying.

An unrecognizable woman stands on a bathroom scaleSDI Productions/Getty Images

They need to keep their weight in check

Employee height isn’t the only physical feature an airline will judge. Some, such as Southwest and American Airlines, require weight to be “in proportion with height.” This sounds harsh, but it’s an airplane safety rule. The idea is that the crew needs to be able to maneuver quickly and without getting in the way of passengers during an emergency.

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They need to conceal tattoos

While policies vary from company to company, most airlines don’t allow visible tattoos—and that includes ones that are covered with makeup or bandages. If the uniform’s shoes reveal foot tattoos or the tights are too sheer to hide them, a flight attendant won’t be hired. That said, the policy is slowly changing. When United Airlines updated its uniform policy in 2021, it announced that cabin crew will be able to have visible tattoos, provided they’re smaller than the employee work badge. And Virgin Atlantic became the first U.K. airline to allow visible tattoos when it relaxed its policy this year.

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Portrait of a man with a beard and his hair in a bunCarolin Voelker/Getty Images

Men have to avoid “trendy” facial hair

United Airlines leaves no questions as to what type of facial hair is acceptable. Men’s beards can’t grow more than one inch below their chins, and their mustaches can’t grow more than a quarter inch below the mouth. They’re allowed to have a Van Dyke beard—with the beard and mustache connected—but goatees, soul patches and other “trendy” styles aren’t permitted. If you think it’s strange how closely airlines manage employees’ personal lives, you won’t believe the things your airline knows about you.

Shot of an unrecognizable young male athlete swimming in an olympic-sized poolPeopleImages/Getty Images

They need to be strong swimmers

On the off chance your plane needs to make an emergency water landing, you’ll be happy to know that your flight attendants are equipped to keep you safe in the water. Some job descriptions just ask that flight attendants be confident swimmers, but companies like British Airways only hire crew members who can swim 55 yards, then tread water for three minutes and prove they can help other people in the water.

Front view portrait of young woman wearing multiple earringsHalfpoint Images/Getty Images

They can wear only one pair of earrings

Flight attendants usually can’t show off a cartilage piercing, and many need to stick with the classic: one earring in each lobe. Hawaiian Airlines tells crew members not to wear multiple, upper ear or gauge piercings (facial piercings are out too). And United flight attendants are allowed to wear only “one earring per earlobe, no larger than a U.S. quarter”—and no bigger than a dime if they’re dangly. Men aren’t allowed to wear earrings at all on United, while Southwest lets them wear one pair of matching studs.

Man hand holding a folded dollar bill.antonio arcos aka fotonstudio photography/Getty Images

They usually can’t accept tips

Sure, flight attendants are the ones pouring your drinks and bringing your food, but they’re nothing like a restaurant server. Flight attendants are also in charge of your safety, and most airlines don’t allow them to accept tips from passengers. The one big exception is Frontier airlines, which now allows people to add a 15%, 20% or 25% gratuity when buying food or snacks. If flight attendant rules prevent you from tipping a crew member who went above and beyond, you might be able to give flight attendant gifts instead.

Female traveler hands fastening seatbelt in airplaneCreative Credit/getty images

They can’t use seat belt extenders

Along with maintaining a regulation height and weight, flight attendants must be able to fit into their equipment, uniforms and seats without adjustment. At Southwest, this includes not wearing custom-made uniforms and being able to sit in jump seats without using seat belt extenders.

Low section portrait of elegant young woman wearing high heels heels walking with airport with suitcaseSeventyFour/Getty Images

They have to pick from approved shoes

Most airlines are pretty picky about which shoes fit their uniform standards. They forbid stilettos, heels over 3 inches and cowboy boots—makes sense, considering high heels aren’t the best option for emergencies. But while you might think people on their feet all day deserve comfortable footwear, most airlines also say no to athletic shoes. That said, sneakers are a great choice for passengers to wear on a plane.

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They have to be extra careful on social media

Every airline has a social media policy that crew members are expected to follow. Generally, flight attendants are forbidden from posting anything controversial or obscene, or anything that might make the airline look bad. Posting internal communications is also verboten. The consequences can be severe: One Delta flight attendant was recently fired for posting a political cartoon on Facebook.

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Their hair must be a natural color

There’s a reason you’ve likely never seen a flight attendant with bright pink or rainbow-striped hair—and that’s definitely one of the first things you’d notice. Most airlines restrict hair colors for both men and women. United, for instance, allows its cabin crew to dye their hair—but only if the new hue reflects natural hair color; extremes and patterns are not permitted.

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They can’t have a fear of heights

It makes sense that if you have a fear of flying, you probably wouldn’t choose to be a flight attendant for a career, but British Airways also specifies that prospective flight attendants can’t have a fear of heights either. Sound scary to you? Here’s how one woman overcame her fear of heights … by jumping out of a plane.

Woman showing hands with all fingers full of rings with colored stones.Mario Marco/Getty Images

They can’t wear woven bracelets or stacked rings

Flight attendant rules for jewelry rival those for makeup and clothing. Which is to say airlines care—a lot. United Airlines limits women to four rings and men to two rings, none of which can appear on knuckles or thumbs. Other airlines specify that any accessories, including hair barrettes, tie tacks and necklaces, be a specific color—usually limited to silver, gold or black. Bracelets must be metal or metal-coated and no more than a half-inch wide.

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They can’t use all the medical equipment onboard

By law, all major flights need to carry a medical kit with equipment such as resuscitation devices, syringes and IV tubes, but the flight attendants can’t necessarily use them because they aren’t medically trained. Instead, they need to wait for directions from an onboard doctor. So what are the chances a doctor is on your flight? Apparently, there’s an MD on about 11 of every 12 flights.

close up of the hand of a Japanese Woman With Contact LensRichLegg/Getty Images

If they wear contacts, they must be a natural color

Flight attendants with less than 20/20 vision must wear eyeglasses or contact lenses to correct their vision. But they can wear only “natural” colored contacts—and United Airlines even specifies that the color must be the same in both eyes.

Assortment of mini bottles of alcoholInstants/Getty Images

They have to stop you from bringing your own booze on board

Just because you legally bought duty-free wine or squeezed mini liquor bottles into your TSA-approved liquids bag doesn’t give you the right to break into them on board. FAA regulations allow passengers to drink only alcohol that’s been served to them, and flight attendants would risk losing their jobs if they let you bend the rules.

Additional reporting by

Sources:

Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte Hilton Andersen, BS, MS, has been covering health, fitness, parenting, and culture for many major outlets, both in print and online, for 15 years. She's the author of two books, co-host of the Self Help Obsession podcast, and also does freelance editing and ghostwriting. She has appeared in television news segments for CBS, FOX, and NBC.