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Why there are so many viral confrontations on airplanes

The many, many factors that stress people out while flying.

Getty Images/Uppercut RF

A white man on a Ryanair fight was caught on video last week berating a black woman passenger sitting next to him. After he called her a “stupid, ugly cow” and an “ugly black bastard,” and asking her to not speak a foreign language (although she was speaking English), flight attendants intervened, moving the elderly woman, not the man who was verbally abusing her, to a different seat.

Incidents like these are extremely common, and even have an official name: “air rage.” Every few weeks, a new story makes headlines, whether it’s men yelling at flight attendants or women yelling at babies. Of course, flying is a notoriously frustrating process, but so is going to the DMV or registering for internet service. Yet air travel seems to elicit a unique rage.

According to the International Air Transport Association, from 2007 to 2016 there were 58,000 unruly passenger incidents reported. And while some sources say air rage incidents have increased, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, the prevalence has decreased steadily since 2012 (as of October 1, there have only been 77; in 2012, there were 183). Thanks to social media, a meltdown on a plane can now reach millions of people in minutes, which Sara Nelson of the Association of Flight Attendants says may actually scare people into behaving better.

So what is it about flying that leads to such video-worthy confrontations? Talking with Nelson and a psychologist, I found that it has a lot to do with how stress and physical restrictions affect a person’s psyche.

Flying is a stressful experience

Air travel is stressful even under the best of circumstances, and a large part of that comes from having to relinquish control, which happens long before you reach the plane seat.

Upon entering an airport, you are sifted through a regimented, mandatory, and inconvenient set of steps.

If you’re checking in luggage, it must be under a certain weight; if you’re carrying on, you have to worry about there being enough overhead bin space. While waiting in line at security, you are hollered at to “please have your ID out,” so a guard can evaluate you like a bouncer at a club. Once you get through that, you must efficiently remove your shoes, belt, jacket, etc., along with liquids and electronics from your bag, and put them in plastic bins to be properly examined. After posing with your hands above your head in a mysterious machine, you are then rushed out and have to simultaneously put on your shoes and reassemble your luggage.

And that’s just “security.” You still have to find your gate, probably buy some overpriced sandwich, and then wait for your group number to be called (assuming, that is, there are no flight delays or other snafus).

So once you reach your seat, the stressors on a plane are that much more potent. And Sally Augustin of Design With Science, a company that offers consultations on how to build spaces with positive psychological outcomes, says the whole concept of airplanes is terrible from a psychological perspective. “We’re in a tube where we can’t leave and where all sorts of stressful things happen to us, so it’s not surprising with all the mental energy that is diverted to dealing with that stress, we snap at each other,” she says.

Augustin says a violation of personal space is basically built into airplanes’ design. The simple act of sitting next to someone feels intrusive, which is even truer in today’s age of shrinking plane seats. ”You’ve got people who are way too close to you,” she says. “They are imposing on your personal space, and that makes us feel stressed, which is a short step to becoming irritable.”

The separation between first class and economy can exacerbate this: A study on how airplane design affects air rage found that the mere existence of a first-class section on a plane led to a nearly fourfold increase in the possibility of an air rage incident in economy; the study authors theorized it may have been due to a sense of deprivation and frustration.

Air travel is full of other stressors that you must comply with, like restricted mobility. The average person also doesn’t understand avionics, which can make turbulence or noises from the plane that much more anxiety-inducing (though statistically, flying is much safer than driving).

To alleviate stress, many passengers turn to alcohol and/or drugs, which Augustin says is a risky method. According to IATA, alcohol or drugs were a factor in 33 percent of unruly passenger incidents, and were definitely a factor in a June incident when a plane en route from Dublin to Ibiza had to make an emergency landing in Paris to remove three drunk passengers who were getting too rowdy. Drinking or taking sleeping pills on flights can lead to unpredictable behaviors, especially because your body may react to those differently given the atypical altitude and pressurization of an airplane cabin.

Air pressure and dehydration on a plane can also lead people to irrational action. Augustin says that when the air pressure is low, your problem-solving skills aren’t as acute, and on a plane, you can’t simply remove yourself from a situation. “When your cognitive performance begins to degrade, you don’t get to more sophisticated thought processes,” she says. Insert: yelling at a baby.

Flight crews bear a lot of the responsibility for handling air rage incidents

When flyers’ erratic behavior goes viral, everyone is put under a microscope, including those trying to help. One of the biggest problems people had with the Ryanair video was how the victim of verbal assault was asked to move seats.

Nelson has been a flight attendant for 23 years, and has been dealing with air rage before viral videos were a thing. “If someone is acting out toward someone else, you may see flight attendant placating them, but this is not because they condone it,” she says. “We take the least amount of steps to relieve the situation, and in that case, it may seem discriminatory, but we do the same thing with sexual assault victims: We’ll move the victim rather than the perpetrator.” (The logic: The person who isn’t in a rage is likely to be more compliant and thus easier to move.)

Flight attendants are trained to deescalate volatile incidents, which, Nelson says, teaches methods like using a “schoolteacher voice” or attempting to “cajole, calm, and soothe the situation.” The IATA published an entire guide on unruly passenger prevention and management and lists “incident motivators and triggers,” such as alcohol, mental breakdowns, and emotional triggers off-board (like losing a job).

Other triggers could be irritation with another passenger’s action or personality differences among travelers, two things that are harder to avoid on airplanes. In a private car, you don’t have to talk to anyone, and on public transportation, you can simply move. But on a plane, you have to abide by a set of rules that puts you into very close quarters with others — including people whom you might avoid pretty much everywhere else. Add to that the higher price tag of a plane ticket and people may feel entitled to lash out against people who infringe on their comfort. “When people feel out of control, they are going to act out against people who are closest to them, and in that plane, it is only a matter of inches,” Nelson says.

Even flight attendants aren’t immune to this stress — as was the case in 2017 when a man who refused to vacate his seat on a United Airlines flight was violently dragged down the plane aisle, bloodying his face. And last year on an American Airlines flight, a flight attendant was accused of violently taking a stroller from a woman, upsetting her to the point of tears and almost harming the infant she was carrying. When another passenger intervened, the flight attendant yelled at him too.

When an incident on an airplane happens, passengers are split up, or in extreme incidents, the plane must land, as was the case on a Qatar Airways flight last year. A woman used her husband’s thumb to unlock his phone while he was sleeping and discovered he had been cheating on her. Apparently, she caused such a ruckus that the plane had to make an emergency landing. Reports said she had also been drinking.

In all cases, Nelson says air rage is a federal offense and an FBI case can be opened on those who behave badly on flights. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, passengers who exhibit unruly behavior can be fined up to $25,000 and prosecuted on criminal charges. Reporting air rage incidents is up to the discretion of the flight crew.

Nelson says flight attendants are lobbying to raise the jail time penalty and civil penalty for air rage incidents, but while in the air, there’s only so much you can do. “It’s very hard to get justice on a plane,” she says. “You have limited options when you are in a metal tube.”