Since the beginning of the year, the Federal Aviation Administration has reported a sharp uptick in the number of passengers behaving badly.
In a typical year, the Federal Aviation Administration logs between 100 and 200 incidents. In the first three months of 2021, it reported a whopping 1300, despite the fact that the number of passengers was still well below normal levels.
It’s difficult to account for this recent uptick, but it’s hard to dispute that air rage has become a growing problem over the past few decades. The usual explanations — shrinking legroom, alcohol and flight delays — have merit. But these are arguably overshadowed by a decades-long trend: the transformation of air travel from an elite prerogative to a service that divides passengers into haves and have nots.
This wasn’t a problem in the early years of aviation — and not necessarily because wealthy passengers were better behaved. Look carefully at the interior of the Pan Am Clipper, which crossed the oceans in the late 1930s. They featured comfortable beds, luxurious fittings and delicious dinners served on china. These flying palaces gave passengers a remarkable amount of room to sit, lounge, walk and mingle. They weren’t claustrophobic in the least.
Most important of all, perhaps, was the fact that they weren’t stratified by class: Everyone enjoyed the same luxuries. There was no distinction between first class, business class and coach. Every passenger belonged to the elite.
The idea of different classes of passengers was born in the postwar era, but at first, this didn’t mean putting people into seats of different sizes and comfort levels. Instead, “coach class” in these years simply meant a ticket on a plane that made more stops. All passengers on these planes sat in precisely the same seats and enjoyed the same amenities and legroom as passengers on nonstop flights. It simply took longer to get to your destination.
The problem of air rage arguably traces its origins to a momentous shift in travel unleashed in 1952. That year, the Civil Aeronautics Board in the U.S. and its global counterpart, the International Air Transport Association, began permitting flights that charged passengers different fares on the same flight.
In 1955, planes began flying with different “classes” of seats. While first-class seats continued to enjoy amenities, coach-class seats began their long slide into discomfort, losing legroom with every passing decade.
Not coincidentally, it was precisely in these years that you can find the first expressions of concern over unruly passenger behavior. Conventional wisdom held that alcohol was to blame. Sen. Strom Thurmond became the public face of reform, introducing legislation banning airlines from serving booze. He argued that children should not be corrupted by “flying saloons.”
The Civil Aeronautics Board disagreed. It reviewed all the cases of alcohol-fueled bad behavior, concluding that none imperiled other passengers, much less planes. Thurmond’s legislation went nowhere, though airlines adopted a “voluntary” pledge to make sure that passengers weren’t served more than two drinks each. In the end, the push to ban alcohol died out by the 1960s.
In the 1970s, high fuel prices accelerated the inequalities that increasingly defined air travel. As airlines struggled to make money, they crammed in ever more coach seats into the same space, while cutting amenities for coach-class passengers.
Yet air travel remained highly regulated; individual carriers had little leeway in setting fares. But in 1978, President Jimmy Carter unleashed the power of the free market on air travel, deregulating the industry.
Airlines responded by creating ever more extreme distinctions between different classes of passengers. Passengers willing to withstand ever-shrinking levels of legroom and bare-bones service could now fly far more cheaply, if uncomfortably, sitting at the back of planes while their well-heeled counterparts enjoyed free drinks and plenty of room at the front. It was during this era that air rage suddenly became increasingly common.
An academic study of air rage incidents published in 2016 shed some light on the issue. It found that the presence of a first-class section made it 3.84 times more likely that someone in economy class would act out. This rage-inducing effect was equivalent to delaying a plane by 9 hours and 29 minutes.
Likewise, making economy-class passengers board from the front of the plane — where they get to see the comfort enjoyed by first-class or business-class passengers — had a similar, if lesser effect.
Understood this way, the growing reports of air rage that appeared in the 1980s and 1990s weren’t a function of the fact that economy-class passengers found themselves crammed in ever-smaller seats, but that the inequality in seating arrangements grew, often dramatically, during these years. The bargain-basement seats grew ever narrower, while the business-class seats gained amenities.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this: Narrower, more cramped seats are cheaper, enabling more people to travel. If they want the legroom, they can pay extra for it. But as this study makes clear, such rational thinking may not prevail when passengers find themselves parked on a runway in cramped, uncomfortable seats while they watch well-heeled customers relax, surrounded by creature comforts. That’s particularly the case when alcohol gets added to the mix, loosening people’s inhibitions.
Airlines have responded in predictable fashion, attacking the symptoms of the problem. They’ve trained flight attendants to disarm belligerent passengers and handcuff them. They’ve cut back on alcohol as well. But at the same time, the distance between the most comfortable and least comfortable on planes has only increased. It’s also gotten more stratified, with intermediate seating classes that, perversely, may foster more resentment.
There’s no obvious solution to this. Abolishing luxury seating isn’t particularly practical. But at the very least, the FAA may want to consider defining a reasonable lower bound to the distance between rows and the width of seats. Legislation passed by Congress in 2018 enjoins the FAA to do precisely that. But so far it hasn’t set these standards and shows no sign of doing so.
Which means that for now, air rage is likely to remain an issue for the simple reason that contemporary air travel hammers home the fact that social inequality is, quite literally, a pain in the butt.
Stephen Mihm, a professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to Bloomberg Opinion.
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