Air rage triggered by walking past first-class seating, study says

Story highlights

  • The presence of first-class seating was more associated with aggression than small seats and delayed flights
  • Experts caution that other factors could increase the risk of air rage on flights with first-class sections

(CNN)What is it about air travel that brings out the worst in us? We squabble for space in the overhead compartment and on the armrest. Some passengers have even been caught kicking each other and screaming at the flight crew, as YouTube videos bear witness.

A new study suggests an unexpected trigger for these rare cases of air rage. It found that passengers in economy seating were 3.84 times more likely to have an incident of air rage if they were on a plane that had a first-class section. They were 2.18 times more likely to have an outburst if they had to walk through first class to board the plane, as opposed to boarding in the middle of the plane, directly into the economy section.
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    "Psychology (research) tells us that when people feel a sense of deprivation and inequality, they are more likely to act out," said Katherine A. DeCelles, associate professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto. DeCelles is the lead author of the study, which was published on Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
    Passengers are probably not even consciously aware of the deprivation and inequality, and how much it is stressing them out, DeCelles said. However, she and her colleague were not able to talk with the enraged passengers to get a better idea what set them off.
    There was also a nearly 12-fold increase in the rate of air rage among first-class passengers on flights where all passengers boarded through the first-class section, compared with flights that had separate entrances for first class and economy.
    "When people from higher social class backgrounds are more aware of their higher status, they are more likely to be antisocial, to have entitled attitudes and to be less compassionate," DeCelles said.
    The researchers looked at a database from a large international airline that collected information on air rage during several recent years. DeCelles and her colleague could not reveal the identity of the airline or specify the years or exact number of air rage cases because it could be used to identify the airline.
    Overall, cases of air rage were rare. For every 1,000 flights on planes with a first-class section, there were 1.58 incidents of air rage in economy and 0.31 in first class, adding up to a total of a few thousand cases of air rage during the several-year period. However, flight crews might not have reported every case of air rage, so the real number could be higher, DeCelles said.
    Flight crews categorize air rage in one of several types: belligerent behavior, emotional outburst, noncompliant behavior, and incidents involving drugs, alcohol, smoking or sex. The researchers found that belligerent behavior, such as an expression of anger, and intoxication were more common in first class, whereas emotional outbursts, such as a panic attack, were more common among economy passengers.

    Is air rage on the rise?

    According to news reports, the rate of air rage has been on the rise in recent years. But confirming the rise, and putting numbers on it, is tricky because the Federal Aviation Administration, which tracks this information, does not require flight crew to report air rage. The airline DeCelles studied did show a significant increase in reports of air rage over the years they investigated.
    Of all the indignities of air travel, the crowds and tiny seats in coach take most of the blame for inciting air rage among travelers. Yet in the current study, DeCelles said, the presence of first-class seating was a better predictor of air rage than the more notorious hassles of flight delays or having scant room between you and the seat in front of you. And the researchers found the nearly fourfold increase in air rage cases after controlling for other factors such as small seats, flight delays and longer flights.
    "It could be a ceiling effect (with the small seats)," DeCelles said. "You are already feeling super cramped and that extra half-inch is not going to make that much of a difference."

    Is first class really to blame?

    Although the presence of first-class seating could predict air rage, it is not clear from this study if it is actually contributing to this behavior, said Michael McCullough, professor of psychology at University of Miami.
    "There could be another thousand things associated with the presence of first-class seating" that are piquing air rage, said McCullough, who was not involved in the study. For example, even though the researchers took into account the size of the economy cabin, there could be features of planes that do not have a first-class section that make people feel less pressure and less like they are being treated like cattle, he added.
    "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. (This study) is provocative, but it does not strike me as an open and shut case," McCullough said. If the researchers are actually right that the presence of first class, or having passengers walk through first class, contributes to the risk of air rage, "someone ought to insist we change the way we structure planes ... some of these incidents really are public hazards," he said.
    In extreme cases, flights have to be diverted or law enforcement has to be called onto the aircraft to handle an unruly passenger.
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    It could be possible to have more planes load passengers in both the middle and front of the aircraft so travelers do not see passengers in the other section, DeCelles said. "Most aircraft do have doors in the middle, from what I am told from airline executives," she said. The bigger issue is whether the airport has the capability of attaching two jetways to the plane.
    In addition to reducing the incidence of air rage, boarding at the front and middle of the plane could probably also make the entire process of boarding go faster, DeCelles said.