Long gone are the days when driving or taking a boat was your only option to see the world. Taking a plane to your destination has become a fairly simple endeavour and the emergence of discount airlines has made it affordable for anyone wishing to travel — no matter your budget.
As frequent flyers ourselves, we dug deep and uncovered the hidden secrets that the airlines don't want you to find out. Time to buckle up and place your luggage in an overhead bin — it's going to be a bumpy ride!
If one window breaks, a modern jet's air conditioning system can keep everything relatively stable.
But if a window pops on the left side, and another window pops on the right, then the air streaming between them both will literally suck out anybody within a 10 row radius of the broken windows.
A little known fact is that aircraft crews are exposed to just as much radiation as workers at nuclear power plants. They actually average a bit higher on occupational exposure.
Most do not like that topic being brought up, especially on the aircraft as people's irrational fear of radiation could panic some passengers.
It's not secret, but it's something that the vast majority of the public are unaware of.
It might seem lame but honestly, being respectful and kind to the flight attendants will make your trip a lot more enjoyable. It’s just like any job that has a service element, if you’re polite to us and have manners we are more likely to give you an extra drink/snack if possible, even move you to a seat with more leg room if we can.
We deal with so many entitled jerks that simple kindness really does go a long way.
Also, I was once asked if I could “open a window” because a passenger was too hot... at 35,000ft... passengers leave their brains at home sometimes haha bless them!
Flying Alaska from Hawaii to Mainland, sitting toward the back end of the plane. In past flights, food service for purchase begins in the front of the plane working toward the tail. By the time the food cart gets back to mus in the last rows they often hve have run out of entrees to sell. So this last flight again sitting in a back row, I got up and walked back to the galley and asked the attendnt if I could "reserve" a meal. She said no but that she could sell us our meal right now now. I gave her our row and set number, she stopped by our seats, ran our credit card and sold us two meals. Then she rolled the cart to the front of the aircraft to begin selling meals to the passengers in front. By the time she had the meal cart back to our location in the back of the plane, she had indeed run out of meals but we had finished ours which we prepurchased.
We can make you hot chocolate.
We have a polaroid camera on board for kids/special occasions. We usually go around the cabin and take pictures of kids, but if you ask us nicely, we'll take a picture for you and put it in a nice souvenir sleeve. We might even let you wear our red hat.
We have all kinds of goodies along the lines of earplugs, razors, pens, combs, and playing cards for you if you ask. Sometimes we have chocolate.
But we won't give you anything if you're a jerk.
When I was learning to fly, the first thing my instructor said to me, "All plane landings are just controlled crashes." And I learned that it is indeed true. Nearly all of the procedures you would take in the event of an unplanned landing/crash are the same as when you're floating down to the landing strip as planned. Ever seen those videos where a plane is landing and it looks like it's hovering? That's because it is and the pilots are sweating trying to get the thing to touch down on rubber and not metal. Things go wrong all the time, and I've seen planes fixed up with duct tape because everyone is behind schedule and duct tape fixes everything. Umm, not really repair crew that gets paid 12/hr.
I'm an air traffic engineer. Nearly 90% of pilots questioned a few years ago said it happens that when they wake up from their nap during a flight, they see their co-pilot sleeping.
We carry organ donations a lot. Most common seem to be corneas and skin. Skin is usually carried in the overheads (if we’ve no wardrobes in board) and corneas get to ride in the cockpit.
Those little headphone you get (and buy, on some airlines) are just repurposed from previous flights. Sometimes you’ll get little bits of ear wax in them (blankets and pillows are also just washed and returned, I’ve found holes glued back together in business class blankets)
There’s times we’re taking off “on a wing and a prayer” so to speak. Airlines will sometimes take off when they’re not sure if they’ve fixed a known technical fault fully. They’ll just be ready to turn back if needed.
If you start dying and we’re doing CPR we absolutely have to leave you on the ground and strap in once the landing gear comes down for our own safety. Many crew have chosen to ignore commands to be seated and continue the CPR though, so be nice to your flight attendant! They might be more willing to risk injury giving you CPR that way.
Don't drink your own drink. It's a federal crime. If I see it, I'm going to take it and cut you off from buying any more from us. If you're annoying about it, I will have you arrested when we get there. You don't want that.
Likewise, if you're under the influence before you come on, you're not flying. Another federal law. Wait, let me rephrase that -- if you appear to be intoxicated, you're not flying. Don't board the plane singing and trying to high five every passenger you walk by. You're gonna get thrown out.
It's not actually illegal to join the mile high club. It's just super rude. Don't try it on a plane with only two lavatories on your way to Vegas at 10:00 in the morning. If you really want to, take an international redeye. The plane will be bigger, the lights will be off, and there's curtains around the eight lavatories. Have a party. In that gross, gross, lavatory. They're grosser than the tray tables.
Flew Asian and African routes for Lufthansa from 1999 -2001. Saw a LOT of stuff. So, the list is as follows:
There is a secret crew rest compartment up in back of a 747 and downstairs in the hold of an A340/A330. Yes, we sleep there. Yes, we hook up there -- quietly.
Every LH flight attendant has slid down every slide of the plane types s/he flies on. Including the upstairs of a 747 - scary. There is also a huge, 6 meter deep pool near Frankfurt airport, where we trained with life rafts in cold, "rainy" (instructor turned a hose on us) and horribly wavy conditions. It's not as much fun as being in the wave pool as a kid. We have also all put out fires and evacuated each other from "burning" (dry ice) plane mockups. This is LOTS of fun, especially the bit where you shout the evacuation commands in each other's faces.
The first passenger to slide down the slide has to pull other passengers off the slide. the command for this is: "You slide down first! Stay at the bottom! PULL PEOPLE OFF!" When they have finished laughing about the poor English, they will probably run away and save their own lives instead of pulling anybody off.
The water on board is fine. But the tea and coffee don't taste very nice.
The first class passengers get the better air. FACT.
The uniform is for protecting flight attendants from abusive passengers. The thing that really sticks with me from service training, and is still useful in my present job as a teacher is: "let the uniform take it!"
Air crews drink. They DRINK. I have seen pilots drink more than they should have just a couple of hours before block times. LH is not the most notorious airline for this. The most notorious airlines for this are KLM, BA and Qantas.
Yes, there is a lot of intimacy on layovers.
Yes, there is lots of smuggling of knockoff "designer" stuff from Asia to Europe and North America to be sold as real on ebay. We went through a separate customs channel, and were rarely checked.
Despite all emergency training, essentially, you are just a flying waiter. The flight crew are flying bus drivers.
When an aircraft sits overnight (yes, even at outstations), aircrafts are cleaned. Pillowcases are cleaned (but still don't use them). Tray tables are sanitized. Blankets are taken to be cleaned.
First flight of the day, it's fine. Last flight of the day? Ehhh... Things get surprisingly dirty.
Ex-flight attendant here. If an explosive device is found the plan is to do a controlled explosion -- placing the device by the door and ripping up seats and using luggage to build a wall around the device then blow out the door.
I'm sorry but there is no way in the world that would work.
In the event of a situation where passengers have to cover their heads you do not 'lock' your fingers over head but place one hand on top of the other. If something falls on your hand/head, you'll still have one good hand to use.
I used to work with elderly people and one of my clients was a former pilot that finally quit when he realized in the middle of a flight, his dementia had progressed and he couldn't remember where he was supposed to be flying to. Meaning he had been flying for a commercial airline with dementia for quite some time before that.
I'm not a flight attendant but I work the ramp. To elaborate on the constant question about corpses in the cargo hold, it is of course true that we send full bodies on planes a lot. Some in caskets some not. Twice in the 7 years I've been doing this, "fluid" has leaked out of the boxes the bodies are in and got all over the luggage.
Believe it or not, it is perfectly legal to remove a person from an overbooked flight (however, note that the passenger has the right to receive compensation). The airline will remove the person of lowest importance to them. That means the passenger who is not a member of their loyalty program and who bought the cheapest ticket.
You can, and probably will, be arrested for disobeying crew instructions. Yes, the seatbelt sign is on and we have had a PA indicating turbulence. No, it is not bumpy right now but that doesn't mean you can get up and use the toilet, you are a grown adult and can hold on for five minutes. Yes, I have seen a passenger crack a vertebrae for disobeying our instructions to remain seated before hitting clear air turbulence.
On that note, there has been a huge shift recently to pursue and seek the highest amount of damages if you assault or abuse crew. We don't care who you are, your safety is all we care about. The only thing that tops your safety? Our safety.
We are trained in self-defense and to defend the flight deck at all costs. We are extensively trained on how to deal with threats - verbal and physical, explosive threats, suspicious articles, dangerous goods, hijackers and other terroristic acts. We have handcuffs on board and will use them if you need to be restrained.
For the long haul, there are basic kits that certified doctors can use onboard. These include stents, catheters, viagra, adrenaline, IV kits and devices that will literally be shoved down your throat if you're not breathing. Long haul flying can mean you could be hours away from diverting to a hospital.
If you're flying short haul, definitely bring antibac wipes or sanitiser. A lot of airlines will have the crew 'turnaround' the plane meaning they pick up your rubbish, fold your seatbelt over, file your magazines in the seat pocket and then welcome new passengers on board. I have lost count of the amount of times I have had to tell people how disgusting it is to change their baby on the tray table or in a seat.
I ALWAYS recommend you never, ever, ever, EVER use or put anything in the seat pocket. They are cleared of rubbish but are never 'cleaned'. I have pulled out and seen all sorts been pulled out from there. Dirty tissues, sick bags, knickers, socks, peoples feet, gum, half sucked sweets, apple cores... and then next flight you go and put your phone/laptop/iPad in there.
I'm a long haul flight attendant, coming up to six years. I've worked short, long and now ultra long haul flying. From economy to first class and everything in between. Obligatory, my opinions are my own and not reflective of my employer and I can only speak for the airlines I have worked on.
Everyone asks about the water and whether it's safe to drink... To clarify, the tanks ARE cleaned out but it depends on what you define as regularly. Ours go a maximum of a week before being scrubbed out. It's basic Health and Safety. Also our boilers have filters built in before pouring tea or coffee. I've seen people not want to drink the water because it appears cloudy. This has nothing to do with the water and is due to the air pressure. If you tap the side of your bottle/cup, the bubbles will dissipate quickly.
When flying overseas there are generally no systems tracking the movement of your aircraft for several thousand miles. That's how they go missing.
People fake needing a wheelchair to gain boarding priority. Ten wheelchairs get on and only one person needs it getting off. We call them miracle flights.
If you checked your Dog there's about a 30% chance it's terrified before it even gets on the plane, who knows how scared it gets during the actual flight. Bag room agents will usually try to comfort a scared animal, but all we can really do is talk to it, so if you write your pet's name on their carrier it usually helps a lot.
I've never seen a cat who was scared in the bag room, cats don't care.
Employees and their families get "ID tickets" (ID is for "industry discount"), which means they only pay taxes and fees and nothing for the actual ticket.
The airlines basically lets them fly for free. And not just with their own airline, but with every airline in any alliance. The tickets are standby tickets, so you're not guaranteed to get on board, but you get a seat more often than not. The family members can also travel using these tickets without the employee.
My dad worked for an airline, so I used to get free tickets with airlines as well. I usually traveled in business class, all around the world. A return trip between Europe and Japan was something like $200 USD in business class, and maybe $50 USD in economy.
I don't get any perks anymore, as it was only valid until I turned 25.
Paramedic here. If you switch on your alarm lights on the ambulance while being on the inner field of the airport (because...well you just get there sometimes) they will totally shut down all incoming and outgoing flights until they know exactly what's going on. My buddy learned this the hard way. Needless to say, people got mad at him....
You know how all the other armrests can be raised except for the one next to the aisle?
Turns out that one can be raised as well via a small button in a divot on the underside of the armrest. Useful if you want to spread out a bit more, though some flight attendants may tell you to put it back in place.
Co-pilots are served different meals and cannot share. This is done in case of food poisoning.
My partner worked for an airline for about 4 years as one of the guys who loads and unloads your luggage and waves wands. Nothing is safe in those bags. They pop open all the time and your [stuff] just gets haphazardly shoved back in. They get tossed around like volleyballs. TSA is a lie. A lot of decisions about boarding or switching flights, etc., are at employees discretion.
Almost every commercial flight you ride on has a corpse on board. Possibly two if you're on a widebody (large) air craft.
Flight attendants have a list of who is who and what seat they are in. As well as what level of frequent flyer they happen to be. Or if they are employees or family and friends tickets. This is why you will see them being rude to someone or bending over backwards for jerks.
Flights are routinely overbooked because there's an estimate per route of what percentage of people tend to miss the flight. So if you don't have a seat assignment, you might not get on. Which is why they ask for volunteers. If you are a frequent flyer and know the busy times and flights you could volunteer all day from every flight going to a hub and make $1,000 in credit.
Invest in quality luggage. You are the only one that handles your bag with care. Your bag is going to take a beating in the system.
Don't be shy about asking flight attendants for extra servings of food/drink. I've seen, on more than a few occasions, free food and liquor given out when their mobile pay devices were not working. Also, pretty much everyone who has access to the aircraft when it's not in service takes food and drink from the galleys. So it's not really worth much to the airline. If you're super nice to the FA they can probably get you whatever you want on the house.
Not a secret, just common sense; the reason some bags miss their flight or get misrouted is because passengers don't remove old tags. It confuses handlers as well as the conveyor belt scanners. I see it happen all the time.
If you check a skateboard by just slapping a sticker on it, it will get ridden or used as a dolly.
This one is pretty much on its way out as a 'secret' nowadays, but: There really is no good reason passengers need to switch off mobile devices during takeoff and landing.
The frequencies used, combined with the lack of signal power in the antennae of consumer grade mobile devices, means there is 0% chance of them ever interfering with the plane's sensors and instruments in any way whatsoever.
This has been tested ad nauseam since the beginning of aviation/mobile communication technology, and it has NEVER shown to be a problem.
There are a number of tools out there to help you have a good flight experience:
Seat Guru will give you information on seat selection so you know if your seat has a misaligned window or extra legroom, etc.
Route Happy aggregates some key factors aggregating data on aircraft type, seat pitch, onboard entertainment, connections, etc to help you select a good flight.
Flight Stats has data including information on the historical on-time performance of your flight.
Some fun airline websites include:
Flight Radar 24 which shows you all flights in the air around the world. You can click on a plane to see its origin and destination. You can filter by airport to see all flights headed to/from your city. It's a lot of fun to play around with.
Airline Empires is a web game that lets you run your own airline deciding where to open routes, how to price them, what aircraft to purchase, etc. and compete against other real people running their fictional airlines.
Pilot here. Not really secrets but here are some tips. When you book on sites such as Expedia you may only have 30 minutes to catch a connecting flight. At busy hubs this is too short, I promise. We will not hold flights for you even if you are 2 minutes late. Wave through the window wildly and we'll just wave back. If we are running late, don't stand up to pack up your things. We have to stop the airplane and every one has to wait until you buckle up.
Unless I'm working on your flight I have no idea what gate your flight is going out of or if it has left yet any more than those huge boards with departures on them. If you are on a smaller regional jet and the flight attendants ask you to gate check your bag, do it. If you say "I know it will fit" we will still make you put it under the plane. That is usually not the reason it has to be put under. If I have to get out of my seat because you are harassing our flight attendants about it, your bag and you are not making it on this plane. The best things to make your trip go smooth is read signs, give yourself extra time and sit down and shut up.
Some baggage on a busy flight may get left behind on purpose because the cargo hold is full. We would cover the carts with the leftover baggage when hauling them back to the sorting station so the passengers wouldn't notice and freak out. I'm a former ramp worker so I know from experience.
Flying at dawn and dusk and generally at night is pretty dangerous. It is around these times when wildlife are on the move and the airplane is at the greatest risk of being hit. I always fly middle of the day because of this. You know those flocks of starlings that can be massive? Well even though airplanes are built to take hits from birds these can damage a plane because of how dense they are. Geese took down the plane Sully was flying and that was just a few birds. Planes have hit elk on the runway while landing and completely destroyed the plane (everyone got off and lived). People taking over a plane don't scare me, a goose does.
If you're European you have really, really good consumer protection against delays, cancellations etc.
If you're more than three hours late, your compensation starts at 250 euros, and goes up depending on the length of your flight and the length of the delay.
When I went to London a few years ago, my flight was overbooked, so I got bumped to a flight four hours later. The compensation I got was more than the ticket I bought... round trip.
I used to work for a warehouse that supplied a certain airline with items. The headsets that are given to you are not new, despite being wrapped up. They are taken off the flight, “cleaned”, and then packaged again.
Friends of mine were flying back from one of the Thai islands and were sitting by the emergency exit. A few minutes before they took off, a couple of maintenance guys came on with what looked like the biggest roll of duct tape they'd ever seen, and started vigorously taping up the door. The flight went fine and nobody mentioned the door!
The coffee is absolutely disgusting because no one washes the container that goes out every morning. The station agents who get paid way too little also don't care about cleaning it. I certainly didn't when I worked for an airline.
Also, we weren't given the proper supplies to clean it. We pretty much just rinsed it out and dumped coffee into it.
I'm an outstation mechanic for multiple airlines. I cover all flights at a major U.S. city airport -- by myself. Where to start? If your flight has a maintenance delay and there is no on station mechanics for that carrier I get called. If it's a quick fix, I fix it. If not we check to see if it can be deferred to get fixed later. Either way, most of your delay is spent waiting on me to do all the paperwork to clear the aircraft or for me to finish the other seven calls I'm out on to get to your plane. There is also constant pressure on both me and the pilots to clear/fly aircraft that have some fairly significant problems. I have airlines try to get me to sell some pretty sketchy stuff to the pilots to get them to fly and avoid a costly delay.
Don't get me wrong, the airlines would never willingly fly an unsafe aircraft. But if there is an engine vibration that is just under the limit they will fly it. If the oil is super low but servicing it will cause a delay and will be serviced at the next stop. If the pilot encounters something at altitude that I can't duplicate on the ground-- sign it off and see if it happens again. Those are the ones I usually push back depending on what it is.
I used to work for a major airline in Philadelphia International (PHL). Theft amongst workers is horrible. Workers would open suitcases while inside the cargo area, waiting for the next cart of bags to pull up. They'd rummage through and find small electronics to take.
This wasn't something that only happened a few times, there was at least one guy on every team that did it. I reported a few people, but the bosses didn't care. Eventually, I got into a position where I could direct which employee did what and I kept the bad ones out of the plane.
Some workers would walk around the break rooms trying to sell what they just stole, some traded items, and others took them home.
Always keep valuables in your carry on. If possible, don't even check a bag.
I live in the UK and fly British Airways fairly regularly for work (gold frequent flier). I can't speak for the American carriers where upgrades seem to be the norm, but with BA (and many other carriers) they operate on an operational-upgrade policy. That means essentially the only time they offer up upgrades is if they have oversold the cabin.
I've flown Toronto-London a few times and been upgraded to business on each leg of 3 round trips because it's a popular flight and frequently oversold, but more often I fly short haul throughout Europe and on those routes it's not uncommon to see a completely empty business class section.
Your chance of getting upgraded is based on some secret voodoo magic behind the scenes but likely there will be a correlation between the fare you bought (fully flexible refundable ticket vs. ultra-discount nonrefundable ticket) and your frequent flyer status with the carrier, and probably the time you checked in for your flight. Again, this is based on my experience with European carriers where premium cabins are generally reserved for those that paid for the product, US carriers may differ.
Just a couple of things we won't tell you-
Our pay: You'd be surprised how little airline pilots make. The salary for pilots is based off of their rank/seniority. Unless you are a senior captain who is making 200k a year working for some Middle Eastern airline, pilots usually make about 60-80k a year. When you start off as a junior first officer, you'd make 20k.
Our struggle: We get up there, we open the doors, and we smile at passengers coming into the plane. That smile masks the sleepless nights and horrible jet lag we've been having, not to mention the lack of 'real' food and the continuous stress day and night. We don't tell you that we got no sleep and we're flying this plane half-awake because we don't want to scare you. Next time you disembark, give the pilots or the flight attendants a wave, or even better- a thank you.
We don't have to eat airline food: Yes, you read that right! Flight attendants give us special meals, so that if the airline food shipment was contaminated, we won't get sick. Also, the captain and the first officer have to take different meals; this is to prevent us from getting sick, because if the chicken is contaminated, and we both take it, we'd both get sick and we might even be incapable to fly. Captain gets to select first, but usually they let first officers choose first. You won't be seeing us in a couple decades: I'm deeply saddened by the fact that planes today basically fly themselves. All we do is the math, the paperwork, and the PanAm smile. The flight is taken care of by itself. Pilots still land the plane 99% of the time, but with ILS the landing procedure will go extinct in a few years. Sure, we still get to push the throttle and fire the plane into the sky, but even that is falling prey to rapid advancements in technology.
The satisfaction we get from flying you guys: I just love that feeling of landing a plane and taxiing to the gate, waiting for the passengers to disembark. And when they get off, the sheer satisfaction of getting them there safely is unmatchable. The pay might not be extravagant, and the stress can be high, but it's worth the smile on the passengers when they reach their destinations.
I hope I helped!
I worked for a US regional for a few years in various departments.
If your flight is delayed or canceled for things that cause the airline to be at fault, the airline is responsible for accommodating you. For example, they cancel the last flight out to your destination because the pilot called in sick, they now have to get you a hotel for the night and rebook you on the first flight out the next day. However, things that they aren't at fault for, like weather, ATC system delays, etc, they don't accommodate you. We ran a very old aircraft that would constantly break down and cancel tons of flights, but we would routinely blame cancellations on "ATC" or "en route weather" because the passengers don't know the difference and not only do we not have to accommodate them, now we can charge re-booking fees.
Don't spend a lot of money on your luggage. Buy something that is cheap but durable. Those plastic-ish ones are the best in my opinion. Any kind of soft material will be destroyed by the rampies (guys who load the planes). Especially if they have FRAGILE written on them, they will toss them and drop them on purpose.
If you ever hear a gate agent or flight attendant say "delta-bravo", that's phonetic for the letters DB. You might hear the gate say to the crew, "We have a delta bravo in one-one-charlie." Look over and see who's sitting in seat 11C, yeah that's the [person] they're referring to.
The stuff other people said about traveling is absolutely true. It is hands down the best perk of any job around. I went from the US to Italy for $54 round trip. Almost went to Dubai but that fell through, but it would have been $36 round trip. Tokyo was also $36. Anywhere in the U.S. was free. I've been around the world and back, I wouldn't change a thing if I could do it all over again.
I've worked as an agent at a small airport and I have my pilot's license. I'm basically the guy that checks you in, loads your bags, scans your boarding pass at the gate, marshals the aircraft out, and de-ices your aircraft. So;
First, we're extremely busy and have a lot to do. Hassling us isn't going to get you anywhere. In fact being really nice will go you leagues further.
We don't have the authority you think we do when it comes to anything related to your travel. I can bend the rules based on my interpretation of them if my supervisor allows it or I can explain it as such.
When it comes to rebooking you a lot of the times our hands are tied. There is no such thing as a East to West "red-eye" flight anymore. That late at night people want to go home to their families just like you. We also can only re-book you on certain airlines that have agreements with us. So I could put you on a Delta flight but not Jetblue because we don't have an agreement. We're sorry but that's reality.
For the love of god show up at minimum an hour and a half to any flight. That's a great time to do it. Everyone shows up an hour to half hour later later so if there's something screwy with your itinerary we can fix it before a big rush swamps us.
We, the agents, didn't screw your stuff up and fixing it is very complicated. Why? We use antique computer programs that require a good deal of skill and knowledge. The system I started off on was SABRE. A 1980's style command prompt system where you had to type in code. For example to get you checked with no bags for flight 1441 in I'd type G-1441-SMITH*BT/NO BAGS. That's the easiest example I remember. Then assuming I entered in the right printer when I designated, it spits out your boarding pass. But wait it wasn't associated with a ticket so I have to do that which to be honest I drank away the memory of that entry. The second version was Qik and it has GUIs. Finally! However it was so strict in what you could do that we "old timers", anyone there that trained on Sabre, hated it. This makes my $10/hr job quite a chore when you're sitting there screaming at me or crying.
For the love of god, just because an agent isn't all smiles or empathizing with you doesn't mean they don't care. I got that complaint so many times. I'm balls deep in SABRE code trying to desperately find a solution for you so I'm sorry I'm not the shoulder for you to cry on.
I'm a frequent flyer.
The best way to get upgraded is to fly a lot on the same carrier. US carriers give away upgrade vouchers to their highest tier(s) (RPUs and GPUs on UA, SWUs on AA, MCUs on DL), which can be used for paid seats in certain fare classes*. They aren't guaranteed, but they're the best way to push the odds in your favor. I've flown LH and NH first by upgrading business tickets on less than popular routes (e.g. BLR -> FRA). Most airlines also offer complimentary upgrades on domestic flights to fill empty seats up front: again, the pecking order is "status, fare class, and time you booked your flight." The importance of status cannot be underrated.
"Luxury" travel credit cards (CSR, Amex Platinum) are also good ways to get points that can be transferred to airline rewards programs (often when they have a promotion running) to get well priced award tickets. The CSR 100k point offer from a few years ago when transferred to ANA would almost cover RT US to Tokyo in first.
As for in flight service: be a good passenger. Stow your carry on in the overhead bin properly (I always test close the bin to make sure it'll close), close bins that are full (a lot of the shorter FAs complain about not being able to close center bins on widebody aircraft, especially when they're full of 80+lbs of luggage), and if you come across a closed bin, don't open it (they're closed for a reason; and if they're empty, it's probably because the FAs want to stow their luggage in it--putting your stuff in there is only going to make them dislike you). Don't ask for the only can of a certain drink, because they'll get nagged the entire rest of the cabin for not having something. Address them by name when thanking them for something.
If you want to go above and beyond, I recommend bringing a bag of assorted chocolate (Ghirardelli squares or Lindt truffles, enough for all the FAs; on a domestic narrowbody one bag is probably enough) and giving it to cabin crew when you're boarding. I usually say something to the effect of, "I fly a lot and know your job is tough, so thanks for everything you do to keep us happy and safe." If it's during the holidays, I'll usually just say "thanks for putting up with all our crap." Sometimes they'll just thank you, and sometimes they'll ask where you're sitting--if they do, just let them know your seat number and usually you'll get better service. The key here is to do it without expectation of anything in return. You actually need to give them it because their job is tough and they have to deal with a lot of whiny people all day, not because you think it'll get you something.
*carrier specific, but the unpublished "secret" tiers (e.g. Global Services on UA) can often upgrade award tickets (though at this point you're in the top 1-2% of spend for a station, which in SFO where I am can be $50k+; chatted with a GS who spend $90k and wasn't sure he was going to get renewed).
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