The Aeroplane Seating Arrangement that Triggers 'Air Rage'

By George Dvorsky on at

New research shows that the mere presence of a first class cabin on an airplane — plus the added experience of having to shuffle through this cabin while boarding — contributes to “air rage”, both among economy and first class passengers.

Air rage typically describes disruptive or violent behaviour committed by passengers and airplane crew. Flight attendants often have to bear the brunt of these outbursts, which can involve everything from refusing to sit down and buckle up to outright hostility and belligerence. It can also include “rule breaking” behaviour, such as smoking in the bathroom.

The Airplane Seating Arrangement that Triggers 'Air Rage'

Modern airplanes are “a social microcosm of class-based society.” Image: Caribb/Flickr

By analysing an international airline’s database of thousands of incident reports, researchers from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management have found that cases of “air rage” among passengers in economy class are more frequent on flights when there’s a first class cabin. And cases of bad behaviour are higher in both first class and economy class when economy passengers have to perform the walk-of-shame through the first class section while boarding.

This research, which now appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows the degree to which our everyday physical environments — and our prevailing sense of inequality — can sometimes turn us into complete idiots. The findings can be extended to other domains, including cruise ships, trains, sporting events, concerts, and office spaces.

As lead researcher Katherine DeCelles explained to Gizmodo, airplanes are like a miniature version of class-based society. “It’s a small world of the greater society that we live in, though one that’s greatly concentrated,” she said.

Travelling by plane is stressful enough, but DeCelles believes that seating inequality on airplanes often serves as “the straw that breaks the camel’s back”, and that air rage can be partly explained and understood through the lens of social inequality.

By looking at a comprehensive collection of incident reports from a large, international airline, DeCelles, along with her colleague Michael Norton, sought to determine if seating inequality had a noticeable effect on passenger behaviour. The researchers looked at data circa 2010, spanning some one to five million flights over several years.

DeCelles and Norton considered two forms of inequality: the sense of inequality on aeroplanes caused by the presence of a first class cabin (i.e. “physical” inequality), and the sense of inequality experienced by needing to board the plane from the front and having walk through the first class section (i.e. “situational” inequality). Temporary exposure to both physical and situational inequality contributed to antisocial behaviour.

The Airplane Seating Arrangement that Triggers 'Air Rage'

Image: DeCelles & Norton, 2016.

The presence of a first class cabin caused a noticeable spike in air rage incidents among economy class passengers. The chances that an economy class passenger will become unruly or noncompliant is 3.84 times greater when a first class section is present. The researchers say that’s equivalent to a 9-hour flight delay in terms of its psychological effect on passengers. In terms of actual numbers, the presence of a first class cabin will result in about two inflight incidents per every 1,000 flights.

When passengers have to board the plane from the front, the chances of an inflight incident among economy class passengers is 2.18 times greater compared to when they board from the middle, which is equal to a 6-hour flight delay. Surprisingly, when passengers board from the front, the odds of an incident happening among first class passengers jumps nearly 12-fold compared to when boarding happens at the middle of the plane.

The researchers took care to prevent extraneous factors from creeping into their analysis. Their controls included the most commonly invoked explanations for air rage, including leg room, seat width, flight delay amount, cabin space, and other factors such as flight distance, number of seats, and whether or not the flight was international. “Our effects are above and beyond the effects that you’d expect to see from those things,” DeCelles said.

The researchers also observed different types of air rage depending on where the passengers were seated. First class incidents were more likely the result of belligerent behaviour, often involving a passenger’s expression of anger (36 per cent among first class passengers compared to 27.8 per cent among economy class). DeCelles calls this “entitled reactions.” Alcohol is served free in many first class sections, which may partly account for these bad behaviours. In economy class, the incidents tended to be the result of emotional outbursts, such as those stemming from stress, fear, anxiety, and so on.

Most incidents involved individual travellers — mostly males — lashing out against a flight attendant, not other passengers.

“The sense of inequality really relates to perceptions of unfairness, deprivation, frustration, agitation, and anger, which can in turn give rise to aggression and violence,” DeCelles said. “People are not trying to get into first class — that’s not what we’re seeing — we’re generally seeing people’s emotional reactions, and what could be framed as a frustration reaction. And then being packed into a plane will intensify how you’re emotionally feeling and reacting.”

The Airplane Seating Arrangement that Triggers 'Air Rage'

Image: Stanford Prison Experiment

DeCelles said it’s not feasible to get rid of first class cabins. But there are things that can be done to reduce the salience of class differences, such as eliminating the use of curtains, and removing red carpets from first class cabins. In one extreme case, Decelles recalled a trip when first class passengers were treated to freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, and the enticing aroma wafted back to the economy section. “Those things can be changed,” she said. [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences]