It seems hardly a month goes by without a report of a passenger flying into a rage while on board a commercial aircraft. It has become so common there is even a web site devoted to cataloging these incidents.
The displays of emotion are often chalked up to the decline in service by commercial airlines – long lines, delays and cancellations, and having to pay fees for things that were once included in the fare.
But researchers at the University of Toronto and Harvard have come up with another explanation.
Katy DeCelles and Michael Norton studied these incidents and concluded they are more likely to occur on aircraft that have a first class cabin. They say the odds of an air rage incident go up even more if coach passengers have to walk through first class to reach their cramped seats.
Four times more likely
Just having a first class cabin, the study found, made air rage four times more likely to occur than if the plane were a single class cabin.
"I expected there to be more support for a lack of leg room as a contributor to air rage, given the attention that leg room has had -- but there wasn't," said DeCelles, an associate professor of organizational behavior and human resource management.
The study relied on a database of thousands of flight incident reports, covering several years, on a large international carrier. The incidents had to be of a serious nature and included passengers refusing to sit down, yelling obscenities at a flight attendant of belligerent behavior closely associated with too much alcohol consumption.
While there may be a lot of factors contributing to air rage, the researchers suggest an overlooked one is perceived class inequality, feeling slighted because someone else is enjoying better accommodations.
However, the research does not explain why celebrities, and others who are sitting in first class, sometimes engage in air rage. Actor Alec Baldwin, who presumably flies first class, has been bounced off at least one flight for allegedly getting into a tussle with a flight attendant.
Flight attendants, themselves, have been known to flip out at passengers. In one case a couple of years ago, one member of the flight crew deployed an emergency chute on the tarmac to escape the aircraft.
Another possible explanation for the rash of air rage incidents is an increase in the number of passengers who simply feel that deserve better than what they're getting. Mental health author Joseph Burgo writes that people who erupt in what he calls narcissistic rage may also express a frustrated sense of entitlement.
“By which I mean the feeling that one has a right to be given something which others believe should be obtained through effort, and unrealistic expectations of favorable treatment or automatic compliance with one’s expectations,” he writes.
And a lot of those folks are sitting in first class, not just in coach.