Skip to main content

Why We’re All Flying Tantrum-Class

New research finds obvious signals of inequality make air rage incidents more likely.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Sean MacEntee/Flickr)

Air rage” incidents have been increasing — or at least, have been increasingly publicized — in recent years, but it’s unclear what specific conditions breed these explosive outbursts. The New York Times identified overcrowded cabins as a catalyst, while a Reutersarticle blamed shrinking seats.

While those factors may play a role, newly published research points to an entirely different explanation: Airplane travel provides a provocative, in-your-face illustration of the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

“The modern airplane is a social microcosm of class-based society,” argues the University of Toronto’s Katherine DeCelles and Michael Norton of Harvard Business School. “The increasing incidence of ‘air rage’ can be understood through the lens of inequality.”

Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers provide evidence that disruptive incidents among economy-class passengers are more prevalent in planes that also have a first-class section.

Furthermore, they find such episodes are more likely in all sections of the plane when economy-class passengers are forced to file through the first-class cabin to get to their seats.

Airplane travel provides a provocative, in-your-face illustration of the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

The researchers utilized “a private database of all incidents of air rage from a large international airline over several years,” which contained information on more than one million flights. The unnamed airline defines a disruptive passenger as one who causes “one or more crew members to become less able to maintain order in the cabin.”

Focusing on both the design of the aircraft and the specifics of each flight, DeCelles and Norton controlled for such factors as leg room, seat width, and delays. (Not surprisingly, they found air-rage incidents were more likely on longer flights, and flights with longer delays.)

They then compared flights with two levels of passenger comfort and service (first class vs. economy) to those with no such distinctions. The results were striking: The chances of an on-board air-rage incident among economy-class passengers were 3.84 times higher in planes that also included a first-class section.

DeCelles and Norton then compared airplanes in which all passengers board from the front (meaning economy passengers have to walk past their more privileged counterparts in first class) vs. those in which economy-class passengers board in the middle and go directly to their seats.

“Front boarding of planes predicted 2.18 times greater odds of an economy-cabin incident than middle boarding,” they write, “an effect equivalent to an additional five-hour and 58-minute flight delay.”

Intriguingly, the odds of an air-rage incident among first-class passengers were far greater in planes where everyone boarded from the front. It seems watching the less-wealthy pass by increased certain first-class passengers’ sense of entitlement, leading to an explosion when their expectations were, for whatever reason, not met.

“Incidents in first class were more likely to be a result of belligerent behavior, involving a passenger’s expression of strong anger,” the researchers note. “Incidents in economy were more likely to result from emotional outbursts…. These preliminary results are consistent with research linking high status to displays of anger, and low status to reduced self-control.”

The findings have implications beyond air travel. “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 anti-social behavior,” DeCelles and Norton conclude.

In other words, when the design of a space — and the flow of traffic — make class distinctions impossible not to notice, it can trigger arrogance on one side of the divide, and angry resentment on the other.

And that can make the skies a lot less friendly.