Sometimes air travel sucks. Delayed flights. Crowded airports. Stressed and testy airline employees. And planes always seem to be packed to the gills. Maybe it’s not surprising that air rage incidents are up, with the International Air Transport Association reporting that “unruly passenger incidents were up 47% in 2022, overtaking 2021’s record high of one incident per 835 flights.” Source. And between 2007 and 2017, the IATA reported over 66,000 incidents.
What Causes Air Rage?
“Air rage” is defined as when airplane passengers become abusive or unruly, antagonizing crew members and other passengers and endangering flight safety.
What causes these unruly passenger occurrences? A 2021 study of 238 air rage incidents reported in the media between 2000 and 2017 found that most violators were male (76.2%) and “precipitating factors included alcohol consumption (55.7%) and nicotine withdrawal (9.2%). Flight diversions were necessitated in 35.5% of cases.”
Leon James, a professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii who has studied air rage notes that “when you crowd people together, there is a point at which they are no longer able to function appropriately. Crowding breeds feelings of alienation, cynicism and anonymity. It leads to a breakdown of ordinary social inhibitions — such as controlling one’s explosive emotions.” Source. Add in the stress of travel and a dose of sleep deprivation and normally lovely people can turn into assholes.
But another factor might be at play: first class.
The Existence of First Class is Also a Factor
Researchers from Harvard Business School and the University of Toronto think frustrations flowing from the feelings of inequality due to the existence of first class lead to more air rage incidents. They think that “the modern airplane reflects a social microcosm of class-based society, making inequality salient to passengers through both the physical design of the plane (the presence of a first class cabin) and, more subtly, the boarding procedure” where the economy passengers board after first class passengers and must pass through the first class cabin.
The researchers examined air rage incidents and found that “onboard economy incidents are 3.84 times higher when first class is present versus absent” and roughly equivalent “to the effect of an additional 9-h and 29-min flight delay.” Wow. And air rage incidents were 2.18 times greater if economy passengers boarded from the front and had to walk past first-class than if they boarded from the middle of the plane straight into economy.
This finding makes intuitive sense. Flying in coach can be crowded and uncomfortable and lead to irritation, which is made worse because some people on the same plane are enjoying greater luxuries. When suffering is universal, it is easier to bear (or “misery loves company”).
What about the first class passengers? Don’t they act up sometimes? Yes. The researchers hypothesized that there would be more first class air rage incidents when economy passengers boarded from the front of the plane? Why? Because having economy passengers file by them increases the first class passengers’ sense of entitlement. The data confirmed the hypothesis as “front boarding of planes predicted 11.86 greater odds of a first class air rage incident than boarding from the middle.”
Plus, the type of incident differed between first and economy class passengers with incidents in first class more likely to be a result of belligerent behavior, involving a passenger’s expression of strong anger, whereas incidents in economy were more likely to result from emotional outbursts.” The researchers noted that this pattern was “consistent with research linking high status to displays of anger and low status to reduced self-control.” An example of first class unruly behavior occurred earlier this year when “a retired British business executive was arrested and charged after an aggressive and expletive-filled meltdown onboard an American Airlines flight upon learning only vegetarian meal options would be available within the first-class cabin.”
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