There’s One Thing That Makes People Four Times More Likely to Get Angry on Planes

Image via Justin Ross Lee

Judging by the increase in news stories reporting incidents of air rage, public misbehavior while flying seems to be on the rise. But what exactly causes people to lose their cool in the first place while aboard commercial airplanes? New research suggests it’s classism.

A study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that passengers in economy seating were 3.84 times more likely to become unruly when first-class seating was present on a plane. According to the study’s authors, Katherine DeCelles of the University of Toronto and Michael Norton of Harvard Business School, that increase is equivalent to what would be expected of passengers who have undergone a 9.5-hour flight delay.

“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 (whether economy passengers must pass through the first class cabin),” they wrote in their study.

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The researchers, who analyzed incident reports taken from an international airline’s private database for their study, also found that economy passengers were 2.18 times more likely to engage in incidents of air rage if they had to walk through first-class as opposed to boarding directly into their section. That increase is nearly on par with a 6-hour flight delay.

Of course, air rage is not exclusive to economy passengers, and apparent classism upped the likelihood of air rage among first-class passengers at an even higher rate. They were observed to be 12 times more likely to act up on planes where passengers boarded through the front and had to walk through first class.

Tellingly, the researchers also found that the air rage exhibited in the two airplane seating classes were usually different. Belligerent behavior, or anger resulting from feelings of entitlement, according to the researchers, was more common among those with first-class seating (36%t versus 27.8% among those with economy seating), while emotional outbursts were more often seen among those in coach.

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Intoxication was found to be involved in about 32% of all incidents.

Overall, only 1.58 incidents of air rage in economy and 0.31 in first class occurred per 1,000 flights since 2010.

According to the researchers, signs of inequality are apparent in most of society’s settings and may be responsible for unconsciously triggering negative behavior.

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“These results point to the importance of considering the design of environments—from airplanes to office layouts to stadium seating—in understanding both the form and emergence of antisocial behavior,” they wrote.

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