Updated 02 February 2015

Why do people get air rage?

In yet another air rage case, the niece of celebrity designer Ralph Lauren has been charged with drunk and disorderly conduct on high. What is it about air travel that makes passengers snap?

Since the 9/11 attacks, the airline industry has cracked down on even the slightest whiff of potentially unruly behaviour.

Yet cabin crew report they still have to deal with verbal abuse and drunkenness on a regular basis, and even physical attack is not uncommon.

There’s no escaping the law either with this particular kind of misbehaviour: you have a plane full of witnesses and nowhere to go. So what is it about air travel that seems to cause people to lose it so spectacularly?

What is air rage?

“Air rage” refers to any unruly behaviour on a plane (and in airports too) that poses a risk to passengers or personnel.

The phenomenon is defined as "aberrant, abnormal, or violent behavior exhibited during the air travel process" by travel security expert Dr Andrew Thomas, Associate Professor of Marketing and International Business, University of Akron.
It can range from verbal abuse of other passengers and airline staff, expressing dissatisfaction with service in an overly forceful manner, to drunkenness, sexual harassment, physical assault and self-harm.

Air rage triggers
As anyone who’s ever set foot in an airport knows: flying is highly stressful, making people more psychologically vulnerable to anger and anxiety, and consequently emotional outbursts and violence.

The culture of alcohol consumption on board and in departure lounges exacerbates the situation. Dr Joyce Hunter, Associate Professor at Saint Xavier University's Graham School of Management in Chicago, calls the combination of alcohol, anxiety and anger the “Triple-A Triggers” of air rage.

Common initial annoyances that can build up to an air rage incident are dissatisfaction with service, seat allocation squabbles, domestic disputes, passengers annoyed by those in front of them inclining their seats, and being caught smoking (often surreptitiously in the cabin toilet).

In fact, one of the most common air rage scenarios is that of drunk passengers attempting to light cigarettes, then becoming abusive when told to extinguish them. Nicotine withdrawal experienced by smokers who do obey the in-cabin smoking laws may also be a stress factor.

Alcohol is a contributory factor in about half of all air rage cases. Other factors associated with air travel, such as fatigue and sleep deprivation, can amplify the effects of alcohol. The major source of alcohol is from duty-free consumed prior to boarding.

The lower levels of oxygen and higher levels of carbon dioxide often experienced in-cabin may also affect mood and stress levels.

Handling air rage
Cabin crew receive training on handling air rage, which involves nipping incidents in the bud as soon as possible.

Staff often scan passengers as they are boarding and make a mental note of potential troublemakers. If disruptive behaviour occurs, crew are trained to give the offending passengers a warning as to the consequences if the behaviour continues, before action such as restraint is taken.

Several suggestions as to further ways to reduce air rage incidence have been made by air safety experts and cabin crew themselves.

One recommendation is that passengers should only be able to claim duty-free alcohol purchases once they have arrived at their destination.

Air travellers will be pleased to hear that Dr Hunter believes excellent customer service should be included as a key strategy for reducing air rage.

Hunter, Joyce A (2009). Anger in the Air: Combating the Air Rage Phenomenon
Rolfe, Peter (2000). Air Rage: Disruptive Passengers. The Causes and Cures
Thomas, Andrew R. Thomas (2001). Air Rage: Crisis in the Skies.
Image of angry man: Shutterstock

Olivia Rose-Innes is Health24’s EnviroHealth Editor. Read more of her columns and articles or post a question to her expert forum.


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