Air Rage

Air Rage

Is airline passenger conduct declining — or are flight attendants just reporting it more?

Every so often, a media scold does the bidding of the airlines and the flight attendants unions and rushes out another alarming report that incidents of “air rage” are growing at an alarming rate.

I read again about this supposed crisis of “unruly behavior” by airplane passengers in a recent breathless report in The New York Times, my former home as the weekly business travel columnist for 16 years. And I had to wonder: Really?

Without any doubt, air rage occurs, and there have been some classic cases over the last few decades (see below).  Also undoubtedly, a lot of us are pretty uncomfortable on flights, with most airplanes flying full most of the time, and with coach cabins packed like cattle cars – except that federal regulations are stricter about transporting livestock than people, though of course the airlines don’t willfully slaughter passengers at the end of the journey. So there’s that.

But wait. What are we really talking about here when the media urgently informs us that more of us are guilty of air rage?

I have been a very frequent traveler for a about a quarter century. I have seen a lot, but I have never seen an instance of what I would call air rage or even what I would call disruptive behavior, though obviously it does occur. Annoying behavior, oh yes — but welcome to the world.

On the other hand, I have seen a few instances on an airplane where a passive-aggressive flight attendant, who might be as miserable as the rest of us in coach but who is at least being paid for the suffering, has overreacted to a passenger gripe or even a comment, and threatened or imposed disciplinary measures. This, by the way, gets logged as an incident of unruly behavior

Is “unruly behavior” really increasing on airplanes, or are overstressed flight crews just filing more reports, dutifully picked up by the media? Mainstream reporters never define what is considered “unruly behavior,” possibly because doing so specifically could take some of the air out of narratives of alarm and blame. So I consulted the International Air Transport Association’s sweeping “Unruly and Disruptive Passenger” definitions:

In summary, besides the instances of what would clearly be considered disorderly or felonious conduct on a city street, unruly airline passengers are defined as “a passenger who fails to respect the rules of conduct … or follow the instructions of crew members.” This encompasses behavior such as not turning off personal electronic devices when ordered, “verbal  confrontation” with flight attendants or other passengers, and various manifestations of “annoying behavior,” including “kicking and banging heads on seat backs/tray tables.”

So increasingly, I suspect, some flight crews might be literally making federal cases out of behavior that annoys them or other passengers, or in some instances simply constitutes a disinclination to be reflexively submissive.

On the other hand, there are some truly impressive reports of what anyone in their right mind would consider to be unruly and disruptive behavior.

Any summary of the greatest hits of (non-lethal) air rage needs to highlight the 58-year-old New York investment banker who in 1995 got very drunk in the first-class section of a United Airlines flight from Buenos Aires to New York, and tossed a fit when a flight attendant understandably declined to serve him more booze. His tantrum was epic. He raged through the plane, threatening and knocking down flight attendants, and concluded that bizarre performance with a grand finale, which consisted of dropping his pants, straddling a drinks cart and, uh, defecating on it. (The man, who has since died, pleaded to a disorderly conduct charge and was given probation and community service).

Here’s Wikipedia’a compendium of famous air rage incidents, including the Drink Cart Man.

I sincerely hope that you, or I, never are in the position of suffering through a long flight in a cramped coach seat and witnessing an inebriated first-class passenger tear through the plane like that guy did, especially with his closing act.

But a summer air-traffic mess is fast approaching, and tensions will be higher. The T.S.A. says this will likely be its busiest-ever summer travel season, with 263 million passengers expected to depart from domestic airports from Memorial Day through Labor Day weekends. A “hellish summer” may lie ahead for air passengers, The Los Angeles Times reports.

The overwhelming majority of those passengers know the drill and accept the indignities and discomforts with good social bearing, including the flight crews. So everybody should chill. Including the flight crews.


MEMO PAD – More flight delays: Boeing’s grounded 737 Max planes, responsible for  fatal crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia that killed a total of 346, likely won’t resume flights until late summer, according to Alexandre de Juniac  the head of the International Air Transport Association, which is meeting with various international regulators, reps from Boeing, and the airlines themselves to evaluate the situation. The final decision on whether and when those grounded planes fly again is “in the hands of regulators.” Worldwide, almost 400 of the 737 models have been grounded.

… United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz told CNBC that United understands that some travelers will decline to fly in a 737 Max once the planes are cleared again for takeoff. He said United, which has 14 of the grounded planes, plans “not to assume everyone will want to fly, or assume everyone will get over it.” United has orders for 16 more of the model due for delivery this year.

… Southwest Airlines, which has 31 of the grounded 737s, says that once the planes are flying again, wary passengers who find their booked route is on a 737 Max and choose not to fly it will be able to switch to another flight without having to pay a higher fare. Southwest, alone among the major airlines, doesn’t charge a penalty fee for rebooking a flight, but routinely  charge rebooked passengers for any difference in fare on the new flight.

… But the airlines continue enjoying fat city. This year the world’s airlines will see record profits – an estimated $35.5 billion -- for the tenth consecutive year, according to an analysis in May by the Inte4rnational Air Transport Association.

… International inbound traffic to the U.S. is wobbling, and fell 5.4 percent in March over March 2018, says the U.S. Travel Association.

About the Author: Joe Sharkey
Joe Sharkey’s work appears in major national and international publications. For 19 years, until 2015, he was a columnist for the New York Times — for 16 years doing the weekly “On the Road” column on business travel, and before that the weekly “Jersey” column for three years. He is currently a columnist with Business Jet Traveler magazine, and an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Arizona. A Vietnam veteran, he has written five books, four non-fiction and a novel. One of his nonfiction books, “Above Suspicion,” has been adapted as a major motion picture starring Emilia Clarke, Jack Huston, Thora Birch and Johnny Knoxville (and directed by Phillip Noyce), to be released soon. In January 2017, a new, revised edition of his book “Above Suspicion” was published in print and as an e-book by Open Road Media. Penguin Random House also released an audio book version in January. Open Road also published revised editions in e-book format of his true-crime books “Death Sentence” and “Deadly Greed.” In January 2018, the revised edition of “Death Sentence” was published in print by Open Road Media. In his newspaper career before the New York Times, he was an assistant national editor at the Wall Street Journal; the executive city editor of the Albany (N.Y.) Times-Union; and a reporter and columnist with the Philadelphia Inquirer. On Sept. 29, 2006, while on assignment, he was one of seven people on a business jet who survived a mid-air collision with a 737 at 37,000 feet over the Amazon in Brazil. All 154 on the commercial airliner died. His reports on the crash appeared on the front page of the New York Times and later in the Sunday Times of London Magazine. He and his wife Nancy (who is a professor of journalism at the University of Arizona) live in Tucson — where he is also working on a new novel about the exploits of an international travel writer who hates to travel. .