Today may be a good time to fly.  Airlines appear to be on their best behavior, as evidenced by soaring marks in passenger satisfaction surveys.[1]  Passengers are on good behavior too—in an effort to avoid being “involuntarily de-boarded” by security, or ending up in a fistfight with an unruly fellow traveler.  Crew and passengers alike just want to reach their destinations on time and unharmed—two goals that go hand in hand when flights are grounded due to onboard violence.  

For travelers, it is hard to “sit back, relax, and enjoy” a flight given the recent graphic news coverage of air-rage incidents.  Why did the world react so viscerally to the viral footage of Dr. David Dao being physically dragged off a United Airlines flight?  Because public sentiment reflects collective concern: he could have been any of us.  We all face deadlines, family emergencies, or other exigencies that could prevent us from giving up our seat in an overbooking situation, even in the face of substantial compensation.  We fear: David Dao today, one of us tomorrow. 

In an effort to understand and prevent future incidents, research has identified possible sources of air rage.  Some of the findings may surprise you.

What Causes Inflight Infighting? 

Frequent flyers are familiar with the usual inconveniences.  Cramped quarters, the fight for bin space, shrinking seats, decreased on board amenities and increased security.  Adding to the list of irritants are travel delays, the stress of tight connections, overall travel fatigue, and sometimes flight anxiety.

Yet do any of these factors cause air rage—or is there something else?  Some research indicates it might be a question of class. 

Class Distinctions May Breed Perceived Inequality

Research suggests that air rage may be related to physical and situational inequality. Specifically, aboard a plane, antisocial behavior can be triggered by physical design that highlights inequality.[2] Katherine A. DeCelles and Michael I. Norton (2016) describe a modern airplane as a “social microcosm of class-based society,” resulting in perceived inequality.[3]  Their research found that having a first class cabin increased the incidents of air rage in economy class, and front boarding which requires walking through the first class cabin (as opposed to boarding from the middle of the plane), increases the chances of air rage in both economy as well as first class.[4]

This research was subsequently critiqued in Marcus Crede, Andrew Gelman, and Carol Nickerson, “Questionable association between front boarding and air rage.”[5]

Party Destinations and Group Travel

Other research has identified potential risk factors associated with problems in the sky.  One study out of Australia conducted a roundtable examination of unruly passenger incidents, and identified some passenger profiles as well as behavioral red flags that caused problems in the air.[6] Their information sharing suggested that unruly passengers were more likely to be traveling on holiday, especially to “party” destinations, rather than flying for business.[7]  Increased unruly passenger incidents were associated with destinations for major entertainment or sporting events. [8]

While no “problem passenger” profile emerged,[9] there were some interesting statistics.  Background characteristics such as ethnicity, gender, or even class of travel (first class, business, economy) did not predict unruly passenger incidents, yet groups of passengers traveling together such as sports teams, groups of workers, or party participants were identified as potentially problematic.[10]

Roundtable participants recognized several approaches to minimize risk of an unruly passenger incident during group travel.  One strategy involves speaking with the leaders of groups traveling together.[11] With group business travel, airline personnel can also make contact beforehand with the group´s employer to find ways to remind employees that company codes of conduct apply during company travel.[12]  Strategies include enforcing an alcohol policy, and encouraging the wearing of company uniforms to increase visibility.[13]

When Wheels Up Means Bottoms Up: Managing Intoxication

The Australian roundtable discussed intoxication separately as an in-flight risk factor, given the correlation between alcohol use and disruptive behavior.[14]  Participants noted that responsible alcohol policies both aboard aircraft and in the terminal have decreased intoxication-related passenger incidents.[15] One challenge related to monitoring passenger in-flight drinking is the difficulty gauging levels of intoxication, particularly because altitude can potentially increase alcohol´s effects at lower blood alcohol levels.[16]

Reducing Air Rage by Addressing Aired Grievances

Inflight disruption and discontent may be diverted or avoided through addressing passenger complaints, and by increasing consumer information and comfort.  In “Air Rage: Gamification Techniques for Managing Passenger Behavior,” Dr. Leon James provides several suggestions.[17] 

One is increasing the frequency of informational updates provided to passengers in the waiting area regarding the status of the flight, which will also prevent needless standing around when passengers could be comfortably seated.[18]  And speaking of waiting areas, another suggestion is increasing terminal security so passengers will feel more comfortable closing their eyes to rest for a moment without constantly worrying about luggage theft.[19]  Increasing the focus on passenger comfort, both aboard the plane and in the waiting area, and offering something in return to make up for uncomfortable conditions is another way to enhance the traveling experience. [20]

The bottom line is that air rage should not become an expected, “normal” part of airline travel.  The recent spate of aggression has hopefully prompted a re-examination of behavioral policies for both passengers and crew, geared to restoring flying in the friendly skies.

About the Author:

Wendy Patrick, JD, PhD, is a career prosecutor, author, and behavioral expert.  She is the author of Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press, 2015), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller Reading People (Random House 2008). 

She lectures around the world on legal and behavioral science topics, including threat assessment. The opinions expressed in this column are her own. 

[1] https://www.usatoday.com/story/travel/flights/todayinthesky/2017/05/10/j....

[2] Katherine A. DeCelles and Michael I. Norton, ”Physical and situational inequality on airplanes predicts air rage,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America Vol.113 Iss. 20 (2016): 5588-5591.

[3] DeCelles and Norton, ”Physical and situational inequality,” 5588.

[4] DeCelles and Norton, ”Physical and situational inequality,” 5588.

[5] Marcus Crede, Andrew Gelman, and Carol Nickerson, “Questionable association between front boarding and air rage,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Vol. 113, No. 47 (2016): E7348.

[6] Susan Goldsmid, Georgina Fuller, Sarah Coghlan, and Rick Brown, ”Responding to Unruly Airline Passengers: the Australia Context,” Trends and Isues in Crime and Criminal Justice No. 510 (2016): 1-6.

[7] Goldsmid et al., ”Responding to Unruly Airline Passengers,” 2.

[8] Goldsmid et al., ”Responding to Unruly Airline Passengers,” 2.

[9] Goldsmid et al., ”Responding to Unruly Airline Passengers,” 2.

[10] Goldsmid et al., ”Responding to Unruly Airline Passengers,” 3.

[11] Goldsmid et al., ”Responding to Unruly Airline Passengers,” 3.

[12] Goldsmid et al., ”Responding to Unruly Airline Passengers,” 3.

[13] Goldsmid et al., ”Responding to Unruly Airline Passengers,” 3.

[14] Goldsmid et al., ”Responding to Unruly Airline Passengers,” 2.

[15] Goldsmid et al., ”Responding to Unruly Airline Passengers,” 2.

[16] Goldsmid et al., ”Responding to Unruly Airline Passengers,” 2.

[17] Leon James, “Air Rage: Gamification Techniques for Managing Passenger Behavior,”

American International Journal of Contemporary Research Vol. 4, No. 10; (2014): 24-30.

[18] James, “Air Rage: Gamification Techniques for Managing Passenger Behavior,” 25-26.

[19] James, “Air Rage: Gamification Techniques for Managing Passenger Behavior,” 26.

[20] James, “Air Rage: Gamification Techniques for Managing Passenger Behavior,” 25.

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