Delta Air Lines ejects unruly passengers from a flight in Florida. Why is plane rage so common?

Delta removed two unruly passengers from a flight at a Florida airport earlier this week after one cursed out the flight attendants while on board. It was only the latest disruption by irate flyers as incidents with out-of-control passengers have peaked during the pandemic.

Inside the plane, passengers are a captive audience. If one’s argumentative or overly reactive, it’s a good place to act out and to flaunt rules.

What we’re seeing is both frightening and fascinating. As a licensed clinical psychologist and psychology professor, I have some thoughts as to why air travel seems to be bringing out the worst in people.

To start, air travel has never been fun for many of us. We feel a bit claustrophobic and may even have a mild fear of flying, aggravated by turbulence and unknown sounds. The truth is, I don’t know anyone who likes to spend hours in a large aluminum pressurized tube, strapped to what seems like ever-diminishing seats. On top of that, at least 2.5 percent of folks have full-blown aviophobia, with excessive fears of crashes, an intense need to control the flight experience and extreme concerns of losing control over themselves while in flight.

Air travel then got significantly more complicated and stressful after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. Prior to that traumatic event, we could stroll into the airport, buy a ticket and get on a plane. No ID necessary. No emptying our bags of items like electronics or water bottles. No passing through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints. No pat-downs from safety officers. Post-9/11, we must arrive hours before our flight and wait captive inside the building until it’s time to board.

But the Covid-19 pandemic has sent our nerves through the roof and into the sky. Take the ongoing hassles at the airport: flights getting canceled or delayed, long security lines, boarding the plane by classes, bag-check fees, no more free meals. Then add in the nearly two years of pandemic stressors: the possibility of new lockdowns and travel bans, staying cooped up at home, business closures, mask-wearing requirements and the need to keep 6 feet away from others to avoid catching the coronavirus. The tension and unpredictability have only become worse, and we’re understandably hyperaroused, financially burdened and resentful before we even get on the plane.

Add alcohol to the mix, and things can get combustible.

Dr. Kimberly Yonkers, professor and chair of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School, believes the uptick in air rage reflects larger societal tensions.

“I think it has to do with the tenor of our county and the me-first attitude,” Yonkers said. “Some people believe that no one has the right to tell them what to do. But that is how societies, organizations, teams, families work — together, with rules.”

Martin Williams, a clinical and forensic psychologist and a private pilot, echoed that perspective, noting that most of the uptick in airplane incidents (though apparently not this past week’s) stem from the refusal to follow the federal requirement to wear masks on board.

“Passengers who don’t like to be told to wear masks are crammed in a small space often with people they didn’t choose to sit next to,” Williams said. “Sometimes even people they perceive as potential enemies.”

Indeed, inside the plane, passengers are a captive audience. If one’s argumentative or overly reactive, it’s a good place to act out and to flaunt rules. No one can kick them off mid-flight at an altitude of 30,000 feet. Thinking of themselves more than the collective, these passengers exercise their power to thwart others and authority.

Of course, there are likely additional factors at play. Using a database of onboard air rage incidents on an international airline over several years, researchers found that physical and situational inequality predicts antisocial behavior: The probabilities of air rage were increased by the presence of a first-class cabin and when passengers had to board from the front of the plane and walk through it to get to their poorer-quality seats. Knowing that luxurious conditions are beyond reach in the front of the plane makes flying in economy worse.

It’s also likely there’s an issue of work-related burnout and exhaustion in flight attendants and other airline crew. If the flight attendants are more stressed like the rest of us, they probably don’t have the ability to deal with passengers’ problematic behaviors nearly as well as they would have in the past. With many flights canceled and crews getting sick, the flight attendants who are present are likely working with few breaks and little sleep.

All these influences contribute to air rage. When people are anxious and agitated in a situation where they don’t have control, as when on a plane, they often act out to try to manage their feelings. So now, what are we going to do about it?

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