Reports of abusive or violent incidents on US flights have surged recently. Pandemic-linked factors are driving the behaviour – and there may be more to come.

On the night before the Capitol uprising, fliers from Texas heading to the now-infamous Donald Trump rally in Washington DC were caught on video in a heated shouting match that flight attendants appeared unable to control. At the time, it seemed like an isolated incident tied to a politically charged event, but in the weeks and months that followed, similar videos of unbridled air rage began to flood the internet. 

There was the Southwest Airlines flight attendant who was punched in the face; the violent Delta Air Lines passenger subdued near the cockpit; the fed-up American Airlines flight attendant scolding passengers for making his flight “a living hell”. Replayed endlessly on social media, these viral videos have come to underscore a worrisome spike in air rage, which the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) says is at an all-time high. 

Between January and mid-June, the FAA received approximately 3,100 reports of unruly behaviour, of which 487 have been investigated. That compares to a yearly average of 142 investigations over the last decade. While this is the first year the FAA has tracked all reports, a spokesperson told the BBC that “the number of reports we’ve received during the past several months is significantly higher than the numbers we’ve seen in the past”. 

Of course, there have been incidents elsewhere in the world – including Northern Ireland, The Netherlands and New Zealand – but nothing on the scale of what’s happening in the US, where airlines have become so alarmed by the trend that a coalition of industry groups sent a letter to the US Justice Department on 21 June, pleading for help. 

So, why is this happening now? Air travel seems to have several ingredients that make it problematic for a society rapidly emerging from a pandemic. For starters, most customers are cramped into tight spaces with complete strangers, where they have little control over what’s happening to them. Experts say this can lead to nervousness, negative feelings and the kind of outbursts that are now well-documented online. Political polarisation and mask mandates seem to have heightened tensions too. But even deeper than that lie prickly issues of the pandemic’s mental-health legacy, and how it’s emerging in the unfriendly skies. 

The mask factor 

Air rage is, of course, far from a new phenomenon. In fact, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), a trade group that represents 290 global airlines, was concerned about this back in 2017. Yet the triggers seem to have changed since then. 

In the past, incidents of passengers behaving badly often involved quarrels over mixed-up seats, smoking in the toilet or fliers not getting the kind of service they expected, says Robert Bor, a director at the UK-based Centre for Aviation Psychology. Now, they’re mostly about masks.

Some may perceive fellow passengers as threats to their physical health and safety (Credit: Getty Images)

Some may perceive fellow passengers as threats to their physical health and safety (Credit: Getty Images)

“People who were recently cooped up are now freed and asserting themselves, creating a kind of battleground for infection-control wisdom,” says Bor. “Most people are pretty neutral on whether they have Coke or Pepsi, but they will have very strong feelings when it comes to issues relating to health, human rights, access to air and so on; it triggers people to behave in slightly more militant ways.” 

The FAA says that, of the 3,100 unruly passenger reports so far this year, 2,350 involve people refusing to comply with the federal mask mandate. Part of the issue is that US planes are now carrying more passengers than earlier in the pandemic. Numbers more than doubled between January and June from around 700,000 daily travellers to around 2 million (pre-pandemic, figures were between 2 and 2.5 million per day). 

Meanwhile, the US federal mask mandate that was supposed to end in May was extended for public transport until 13 September. This dissonance, between masks not being required in everyday life but being a requirement on a plane, may be contributing to the current spike. 

Post-pandemic ‘survival instincts’ 

Another reason, however, could be people’s responses to the stressors of re-entry into the world after more than a year of pandemic isolation. 

“We saw something similar after 9/11, where you get back on an airplane for the first or second time, and you look at people, particularly as close as they are to you, and you don’t see them just as a fellow traveller, but also a threat to your physical health and safety,” says Andrew Thomas, an associate professor of international business at the University of Akron, US, who also runs the incident-tracking website AirRage.org.

The pandemic has actually triggered some of our very evolutionary behaviours – Sanam Hafeez

Sanam Hafeez, a New York-based neuropsychologist, believes the pandemic has made us hypervigilant to the point where the tiniest slight can be taken as an act of aggression. 

“The pandemic has actually triggered some of our very evolutionary behaviours that we didn’t even realise we had,” she explains. “So, we respond by pouncing almost like we were designed to.” For those who’ve been really isolated – or endured the brunt of the pandemic – “it’s very possible that, while you didn’t really lose your social skills, they were taken over by your survival instincts”. 

Air rage, she adds, is often a reaction to an acute stressor that has nothing to do with the flight itself. If you’ve recently been fired, lost a loved one, broken up with a partner or suffered from a medical issue, “you are carrying all of that onto a plane, and because everyone there is a stranger, and you are in this very cramped space with masks on, that might be all the trigger some folks need to snap,” she explains. 

Drinks – and showmanship 

Alcohol is another element mixed into the air-rage cocktail. “It’s what we would call a co-factor, in that it may make somebody who is susceptible [to air rage] to be a little bit less able to manage their feelings and behaviours,” explains Bor. 

“People don’t always understand or appreciate the effects of alcohol at altitude because we know that consuming onboard an aircraft is going to have a different effect to having alcohol on the ground,” he adds, noting that the rule of thumb is that it’s actually twice the effect.

Air rage is happening in multiple countries, but it's specifically spiking in the US (Credit: Getty Images)

Air rage is happening in multiple countries, but it's specifically spiking in the US (Credit: Getty Images)

Several US carriers have decided not to serve alcohol right now, including Southwest. American is only serving alcohol in business and first class on domestic flights. United has delayed a return to alcohol sales on most flights fewer than 800 miles. Of course, travellers are still free to drink as much as they want at the airport bar before they get on the plane. 

And if a passenger – drunk or otherwise – becomes abusive or combative, surrounding passengers documenting heated moments on their phones only adds fuel to the fire. Hafeez says that for some people, not backing down becomes a matter of pride: “You know you’re being recorded, so maybe you want to go down as the one who won the fight, because there is a little bit of showmanship – or protecting your street cred – involved in all of this.” 

More to come? 

Some analysts believe the current uptick in air rage may also have to do with the deterioration of the economy class experience overall. Once viewed as rather luxurious, many now see air travel as more of a nuisance with cramped seating, pared down service and minimal amenities. Moreover, increased fees for checked bags in recent years have meant more travellers now carry everything onto the plane, creating bottlenecks and friction.

The fundamental problem that causes [air rage] – taking away the mask issue – is just being packed into economy class – Andrew Thomas

“The flight experience used to be a [US luxury department store] Nordstrom experience and we are approaching a Walmart experience,” says Thomas, who has been documenting air rage incidents since 2001, when he first wrote a book on the subject. “The fundamental problem that causes [air rage] – taking away the mask issue – is just being packed into economy class.” 

The FAA has responded to the uptick in abuse and violence by adopting a new zero-tolerance policy. Since it was issued in January, the aviation body has so far proposed $563,800 (£406,125) in fines, including a new record fine of $52,500 against a passenger who allegedly stormed the cockpit door and assaulted flight attendants. The fines keep rising, but so, too, do the number of incidents, suggesting they may do little to disincentivise a passenger in the heat of the moment. 

Thomas fears that air rage hasn’t yet reached its peak, particularly given that the prime summer travel season in America is only just beginning. Meanwhile, he also has concerns that similar issues could arise in Latin America, Europe and Asia once air travel begins to approach pre-pandemic levels in those regions. 

“This is an American thing right now,” he says, “but I think that you will see that, once air travel numbers start going up, some of the same factors at play here will play a role elsewhere.”

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