Anger Aloft

June 15, 2021

THIS PAST WEEKEND, airport boardings in the United States broke two million mark for the first time in fifteen months, bringing passenger totals to about 75 percent of pre-pandemic levels. That’s the good news. The bad news is, along with the long lines and suddenly full cabins has come a well-publicized rise in so-called “air rage” incidents, several of which have resulted in flight diversions, injuries to passengers and crew, and arrests.

What gives?

Air rage is nothing new, but the dynamics are a little different this time. Not surprisingly, a majority of the latest incidents revolve around masks. This is nothing if not predictable, given how politically charged mask wearing has become, to say nothing of the discomfort factor. But although nobody enjoys wearing masks on a plane, their use is mandatory and the rules aren’t changing any time soon (not before September at the soonest, when TSA’s mandate is up for renewal). People have little choice but to comply, which is both the problem and the solution.

While it might seem a stretch, the anonymizing effect of masks could be making this worse. It’s all but impossible to accurately gauge a masked person’s expression, which, at the fight-or-flight point of a hostile encounter, can in some people trigger anger or even violence. The fears, frustrations, and aggravations of the past year, meanwhile, have left many people traumatized and on edge.

We’re also seeing a rush of bodies into a system that, in terms of staffing, is lagging weeks or months behind. TSA staffing is down, and many airport restaurants and facilities remain closed. This means longer wait times for just about everything, which leaves people irritated and frazzled even before they step aboard. Some of the checkpoint lines I’ve witnessed over the past few weeks are the longest I’ve ever seen.

Another factor is a demographics shift among flyers. Business travel remains by and large curtailed, while a growing number of leisure travelers are taking advantage of cheap tickets to budget vacation spots. Many of these people are infrequent flyers unfamiliar with the rules and hassles of air travel, and thus more prone to acting out.

Then we have alcohol. Historically, inebriation is a factor in more than 80 percent of air rage incidents. The most recent statistics are incomplete, but several airlines have temporarily banned alcoholic beverages in their economy cabins.

Above and beyond all of this, meanwhile, are the baseline stressors of air travel: noise, crowds, kids, cramped seats, delays. None of these things is going away, and neither is air rage as a phenomenon. Flying has long had a way of bringing out the worst in people, and this will go on. What airlines need to figure out is how to keep the numbers from rising disproportionately.

A zero-tolerace approach to inflight violence is absolutely essential. That being said, could carriers be a little less heavy-handed in how they set the table, so to speak? Air travel was already a confrontational experience in some respects, and has grown more so under COVID: more rules, more being bossed around, more repercussions if you disobey. I understand the need for a tough stance, but at some point the onslaught of public address warnings and threats can have a detrimental affect, inciting rather than calming those who are prone to hostile behavior in the first place.

Which isn’t to blame airlines. The affronts and hassles of flying are duly noted, and getting on a plane is no longer the rare and special event that once beckoned our imaginations and, in turn, our best Sunday suits and behaviors. But that’s hardly an excuse for what we’re seeing. This is ultimately a behavior problem squarely on the shoulders of passengers. And, if you ask me, it’s symptomatic of our society’s increasingly shitty behavior in general. Are we coarser and more unruly as passengers, or as human beings? It’s maybe more of the latter than we care to admit.

Perhaps the best antidote is nothing more than a gradual return to normalcy. Fortunately, that seems to be where we’re headed.


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35 Responses to “Anger Aloft”
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  1. Ian says:

    The comment about the difference between the effects of alcohol and cannabis reminds me of a very old joke. Three travelers arrive at the gate of a walled city. One is drunk, one is a pot head, and the other is on LSD. It is late, the gate is locked, and a sign states that the gate will open at 9:00 AM the next day. The one on LSD says, ” Let’s float through the key hole”. The drunk says, “Let’s break the gate down”. The pot head says, “Let’s sit down and wait until 9.00 A.M.”. Perhaps banning alcohol but handing out cannabis gummi bears would mitigate air rage.

  2. Jerry says:

    Will respectfully disagree with Patrick that the blame rests “squarely on the passengers.” Passengers absolutely bear the responsibility for their actions, but as he does say in his note the entire flying establishment sets the table to bring out the worst in even otherwise calm, rational people.

  3. Paulo Lavigne says:

    Concerning long lines, I can’t understand why most people don’t read something while standing in them. Reading books and/or articles is a lot more fun than just staring at the ceiling, isn’t it? Reading also has a calming effect, which could lead to fewer episodes of air rage. I also strongly recommend doing it while flying (but make sure to look out the window now and then. Don’t forget you’re flying, people! Yay!!!).

  4. CAMERON W BECK says:

    Those here who say ” a significant factor may be the proliferation of edible cannabis products” are peddling nonsense. A. They do not understand the benign effects of cannabis and B. Are not fingering the real “significant factor”: ALCOHOL

    I’ve seen plenty of people get drunk and belligerent. I’ve never seen a pot smoker/eater in anything other than a pleasant mood. And I’ve seen a lot of them.

  5. ItsLevel says:

    I don’t know. 🤔 but wait until the collective masses finally discover that they’ve been lied to about the shape of the earth! 😆

  6. Jim M says:

    The rise in on board rage and delirium incidents make one ask “what’s changed”. It’s a long list but a significant factor may be the proliferation of edible cannabis products which are of unpredictable dosage and therefore unpredictable effect. Being stuck inside an aluminum tube is no place to find out you’ve ingested more than you counted on.

  7. Mark says:

    That’s not really the affect cannabis has on a person. It’s actually the opposite, they become less confrontational. You’d much rather be on a plane with people who are baked than drunk. Except they’d run out snacks faster.

  8. MtnRanch says:

    Has anyone looked at how much of the bizarre passenger behavior on airliners in recent years is attributable to the proliferation of edible cannabis products?

    There’s a tendency to want to blame recent problems on a single issue but there are variety of sources:

    Edible cannabis

    The rise of the “entitled attitude”

    Passengers who’ve discovered that that can bring on their own alcohol in small bottles in a quart bag.

    Passengers, knowing that they can’t get alcohol on board, “filling their tanks” before they board.

    The rise in divisive politics

    And all the other stressors mentioned in the article

  9. Simon says:

    @ stogieguy7

    Well offensive or not, it’s the truth. Alabama and Mississippi are two of the worst states when it comes to vaccination. Here’s some simple advice: if you don’t want to be looked upon like a bunch of backwater hicks, stop behaving like a bunch of backwater hicks.

  10. Joe Chew says:

    > Daniel Gless says:
    Well….the last man in the White House has a LOT to do with it IMHO. He normalized boorish behaviour and made it seemingly OK for his followers to do.<

    This has the ring of truth. However, he may have worsened (and exploited) such trends but didn't invent them. Given the number of Americans who voted for him, it's hard to escape the conclusion that we elected a conspicuously and unapologetically boorish President because we already had become, to a substantial extent, a nation prone to that sort of thing.

    Note here that the IATA began collecting statistics on disruptive passenger behavior in 2007 and there is a long list of reported incidents going back well before that (and not by any means limited to US passengers or airlines).

    A perhaps under-explored sidelight is the ever increasing number of drugs, prescription and otherwise, that we are mixing with our alcohol.

    We're simply not going to be any better aboard airplanes than we are on the ground, and civility is taking a beating lately. Which reminds of this recent take on the subject:

    So: What do the air-rage statistics actually look like over time and by nation?

  11. stogieguy7 says:

    @ Len: Your stereotype of Alabama is the same thing as my ridiculing ghetto dwellers who get free everything, vote as such and refuse to be vaccinated. Did you like that comment, or was it offensive. If it’s the latter, look in the mirror.

  12. Alex says:

    @Michael Palazzolo – Think you’re being a bit overdramatic there. While disruptive passengers certainly make flight crews’ jobs harder, I can’t think of any recent incidents that actually put the safety of the aircraft at risk. Sure every now and then you hear about some crazy trying to open a door, but they always end up with half a dozen passengers and crew on top of them before they even get it cracked. Such a thing also becomes physically impossible above 15,000 feet or so thanks to cabin pressure. And as far as modern flight decks go, you couldn’t break into one today if your life depended on it (as an unfortunate flight found out over the French Alps about seven years ago).

  13. Andrea G says:

    I usually hate the idea of expanding the already overly bloated legal system but not in this case. Assaulting a member of the flight crew should be a felony offense with associated punishments. This isnt like getting in a fist fight in a Walmart parking lot where all that’s on the line is your teeth and pride. Distrupting a flight and crew member’s ability to do their job impacts the safety of all onboard.

  14. Dan Prall says:

    Re Mike Menzie’s comment: In my quarter-century as a DEA forensic chemist [retired 1995], I had about a thousand trips to courts to testify all over the country, and there were times when I got last-minute notices to travel. Several times I got to the gates just as they were closing up and was the last one aboard; our lab was about 3 miles from Dallas Love Field.

    I recall one time when my trip was cancelled at the last minute. I was paged and got off the plane which was buttoned up right behind me so because All I had was one carry-on garment bag, no problem with lost luggage.

    Them wuz the good old days of easy flying. Not to mention the DFW to Denver flights on Frontier at 5 and 6 with steak & lobster & wine.

  15. Dan Prall says:

    Two press releases from TSA 24 June 21:

    TSA to restart flight crew self-defense training.
    TSA reminds passengers to remain calm and respectful at security checkpoints.

    You beat them to it, or they heard you and caught up.

  16. Mike Menzie says:

    Not to excuse any abhorrent behavior but I’m old enough (74) to remember when flying was fun. The gate rape by the TSA along with the ridiculous rules of removing shoes and no liquids, along with the long lines just to get through “security” and to your gate would put Saint Teresa in a foul mood. Maybe they should give MORE alcohol so the passengers will pass out til they arrive at their destination. Oh how I miss the Eastern Air shuttle; could run right up into the plane and didn’t even need a ticket. Younger generations will never know what they missed.

  17. Jeff Latten says:

    We have become an uncivilized society. Manners, politeness, civility, good behavior have gone down the drain. Now we have rudeness, loud screaming, “me, me, me” and “get out of my way.” Such progress.

  18. Daniel Gless says:

    Well….the last man in the White House has a LOT to do with it IMHO. He normalized boorish behaviour and made it seemingly OK for his followers to do. The president does it then so can I mentality.
    Sorry, he made that type of behaviour OK…and it rubbed off.
    C’est La Vie…and as ye sow, so shall ye reap.

  19. Tod says:

    I work in a customer service role here in Australia and I’ve noticed that over the last couple of years people have been behaving a lot worse.
    It’s a sad part of general society these days

  20. PAUL FOWLER says:

    Boom…you hit it right on the head…The icreasing shittiness of people is to blame, and I always feel for the flight attendents and go out of my way to make them feel appreciated…And per the Harvard study showing one of the safest plces to be is on a plane, I don’t understand the mask mandate ay all, but the TSA is the government!!

  21. Sandy Young says:

    I wish that the flight attendants could stab the unruly passengers with a sedative of some kind (like the ones used by wildlife biologists to sedate large animals, while the biologists perform some procedure on the animal). Sedate the unruly passengers for the length of the flight, and ask Law Enforcement to carry these passengers off the plane at the destination. Less work, overall, for the crew!

  22. Doubledown says:

    Been flying commercial since my divorced parents shipped me unaccompanied back and forth across the country. Flying was my best thing ever. My dad had been a combat pilot. Grown up I traveled for business and pleasure. I still loved flying then but loved airports less and less. It was about the trips for me, not just the destinations.

    No more. The entire process is so degraded now that a merely unpleasant trip by air is as good as it gets for me. I’m retired now, so I delight in finding ways to travel without airlines: trains, ships, cars. My problem is that my earlier experiences taught me that commercial air travel does not have to be miserable. Younger travelers don’t know any better.

  23. Katherine Davies says:

    As a former FA, who started in the profession exactly one year before 9/11, I can speak to the gradual increase of air rage from even before that day of infamy. Citizens of the US do not like rules that they feel infantilize them. Once the TSA came in, there was a downward trajectory in behavior, which all of us working then could measure. Add Covid and the associated rules, and selfish people cannot abide or follow them. I’m lucky not to be up there these days, and I wish my fellow FAs safety and peace.

  24. Michael Palazzolo says:

    I believe that an extraordinary factor in misbehavior at 38,000 feet altitude is being grossly missed. At that height, any misbehavior, even a minor one, could spell death for hundreds of innocent people. It must not be tolerated for a single millisecond! It is too dangerous and potentially deadly, irrespective of whether alcohol, drugs or anything else is involved. Anyone wishing to place innocent people (including children) at that risk, needs to be treated severely; handcuffed, tied to his seat with cuff over their mouth, totally compromised. At end of flight, a $10,000 fine and 30 days in jail should be imposed mandatorily and that person barred from any future flights for life on any airline. Until that is done—the misbehavior will continue!!!

  25. UA Jetset says:

    The threat of long jail time, public humiliation, and loss of jobs should be enough to stop some of it,,,un fortunately there are enough total irresponsible, and frankly, stupid people out there that can make life miserable for the rst of us…

  26. phsiii says:

    (Typo above: “tolerace”)

    What I don’t understand is why airlines aren’t saying “Banned on one, banned on all”. If I* get banned on United for being abusive to an FA and then actually assault one on American, the FA’s lawyer is going to have a nice case for negligence on the part of American. Seems like a no-brainer these days.

    The anonymization caused by masks could well be an issue–good thought. I find that even in stores, if I even have to ask a question, I’m thinking all the time about how I present it so I don’t seem like I’m upset.

    Good stuff, as always, Patrick!

    *Not that I’m flying anywhere, nor likely to cause a ruckus if I did.

  27. Dave Scheff says:

    I just flew Oakland to Burbank and back, flights were completely sold (no empty seats) and everyone behaved perfectly – of course it’s literally a 50 something minute flight, but it was encouraging. Going to Nashville next month – thought it might be nicer to fly first so I splurged. Hoping I don’t end up next to some rich guy who gets in fights with flight attendants over his special rights to take his mask off or whatever.

  28. Len says:

    A damn shame, that most of the antimaskers, come from red states, as in, “I’m from Alabama, and there’s no way you’re gonna make me wear a left wing, mask on this f**king plane, you lousy commie.”

  29. UncleStu says:

    The existential stresses of quarantine, the horror of mask mandates, the life threatening dangers posed by airport public address announcements, the agony of long lines, loud children, the threat of possible toilet paper shortages
    how do we survive?

    People will act as badly as they are allowed. It is the way they were brought up and developed later. There are excuses, but I don’t care what they are because they do not matter.

    Reasoning with them does not work.

    Ban the jerks in public facilties, ostracize them from your personal lives.

    Once you do it, you experience a feeling of relief.

  30. Sam Cho says:

    I’m 74 and can confirm that, as you say, “we [are] coarser and more unruly as human beings.” This is not a phenomenon limited to air travelers but, sadly, can be observed in almost any public setting. The notion of “appropriate behavior” seems to have been completely discarded, which, in my humble opinion, is most unfortunate.

    I believe the airlines should consider removing alcohol from aircraft. The resulting loss of revenue could be recaptured by a small increase in ticket prices, baggage fees, etc. I would cheerfully pay more for a ticket to fly in an alcohol-free environment.

  31. Don Beyer says:

    The mandate to wear masks is pounded into your brain from an endless stream of announcements at the airport and on the plane. Yet hundreds are sitting in restaurants and food courts for as long as they can unmasked. Then 15 minutes into the flight, food and drinks are passed out and so the only ones on the plane wearing a mask are the flight attendants.

    Cut air rage by 80%. Simple. Ban alcohol at the airport and on the plane. Stop catering to the drunks. They spoil everything for everyone everywhere. The smokers have to wait.

  32. Gene says:

    While it could fall afoul of some antitrust rules, I think the airlines need a central repository for tracking bans. So if you punch an FA on Southwest, you’ll also find yourself banned for life on every US carrier, not just Southwest.

  33. Gez says:

    Bang on. The solution (across society in general) is massive fines and lifetime bans. Unfortunately i think selfish & childish is now the new normal,

  34. Speed says:

    Question that potentially unruly passengers should consider: Would you rather quietly spend two uncomfortable hours flying to, for example, Denver or 12 long and boring hours driving to Denver?

  35. Aunt Amy says:

    Hit the nail on the proverbial head!