'Adele' rage simmers in the air

Irritation sometimes escalates to aggression in cranky airline passengers.

Story highlights

  • A string of air rage incidents in the first months of the year highlight air traveler tensions
  • Experts point to alcohol as a key ingredient in many instances of in-flight confrontation
  • The author only simmered over an offending Adele fan's inconsiderate behavior

On a recent flight from Atlanta, I was delayed on the tarmac for an hour and a half. The woman seated behind me played two Adele songs on a loop on her iPad. On speaker. For an hour.

No one said anything. At one point the woman took a call.

"I'm on the plane," I heard her tell the caller. "It's Adele on my iPad!" Then, "I don't have headphones. But everyone likes Adele!"

Anyone who has ever been on a plane, and is over the age of 10, has probably experienced some form of air rage. Creating it, witnessing it or just making a supreme mental effort not to succumb to it by thumping your seatmate for an outrageous offense such as playing loud music, noisily speaking on the phone or eating food so stinky it might actually be considered a weapon.

The good news: you're not alone. The bad news: air rage is becoming routine.

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The International Air Transport Association (IATA) saw a 29% rise in incidents on board flights between 2009 and 2010. The Transportation Security Administration, however, has seen a decline over the last three years in security-related disturbances the agency has been called to deal with on planes.

Air rage: Passengers 'quicker to snap'

    However you slice it, you don't have to work too hard to notice multiple recent examples of passengers losing their cool in lavish fashion.

    This year alone we've seen some impressive displays of in-flight fury.

    January started with an unruly passenger aboard a Reykjavik to New York flight who finished his journey rather inelegantly duct-taped to a seat after an apparent display of screaming, hitting and spitting at fellow passengers.

    Later that month, a Jetblue flight from New York to San Diego made an unscheduled stop in Denver to remove a woman who allegedly became verbally abusive after another passenger was moved to a neighboring "even more legroom" seat near her. The source of the woman's rage was apparently that the man had not paid for the extra legroom ($65), but had been moved there due to a broken television in his seat.

    In February, a male passenger on a flight to Atlanta is accused of hitting another passenger's crying baby, uttering a racial slur as he did so.

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    According to an FBI affidavit, a passenger on a February Hawaiian airlines flight from New York assaulted a flight attendant, spat food at people and bit an air marshal.

    And another February incident proved that you don't even have to be up in the air to experience air travel-related anger. Yan Linkun, identified by NBC News as an executive and Chinese Communist Party official, became incensed at Kunming Changshui International Airport in Kunming, China. Learning he'd missed not one but two flights, Linkun vented his rage by flinging equipment and smashing windows in an impressive tirade that has since gone viral.

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    Frustrations on the ground and in the air may seem to invite air rage. Before fliers even reach their allocated metal bird, they've often struggled through security and customs lines and may face delays at the gate or on board. And the United States' recent mandatory government spending cuts could make those slowdowns at airports worse.

    Airlines, angling to make a profit, are chipping away at legroom or charging extra for a little more room, introducing new fees or bundling and unbundling the existing charges and re-jiggering mileage programs to favor the elite big-spenders.

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    Air travelers are agitated, but it doesn't quite explain why some boil over on planes.

    Is the altitude getting to them? HLN's Dr. Drew Pinsky points out that fliers can experience mild brain swelling even at low altitudes that can make it harder to keep your cool.

    Or are enraged passengers just under the influence?

    "If you want to look at one single contributing factor, you would have to point at alcohol," Dr. Drew says. Andrew Thomson, creator of airrage.org and author of several air-travel related books including "Air Rage: Crisis in the Skies," agrees.

    "Alcohol," he writes, "is the leading driver of air rage." In fact, many of the air rage incidents above were allegedly alcohol-related.

    Fortunately, no one on my flight was outwardly enraged or inebriated, though I'm sure, like me, many passengers were entertaining extravagant fantasies of how they'd deal with that offending Adele fan and her iPad.