Why bad passengers are good for you

When it comes to air travel, maybe good really is bad.

That’s not airline industry doublespeak. You know, as in: Surprise fees and sky-high fares, which passengers consider bad, are actually good for you because they’re good for an airline. I mean it literally. The increase in bad behavior by your fellow passengers is good.

Unruly passenger incidents really took off last year, according to a recently released report by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), a trade group. It counted 10,854 passenger disruptions worldwide, or one incident for every 1,205 flights. That’s an increase from the 9,316 incidents, which was one incident for every 1,282 flights, reported in 2014.

Most incidents involved verbal abuse, failure to follow crew instructions and “other forms of antisocial behavior,” according to the trade group.

That sounds like terrible news, but it isn’t. The worse that things get at 36,000 feet — and the IATA report was only a hint of what’s truly happening — the closer we all come to saying: “Enough!” And we have to get to that point soon if we’re ever going to make air travel better for everyone, not just the chosen few who are luxuriating in the lie-flat seats.

To get an idea of how bad air travel is, I recommend you board a plane between now and the end of this year. And be sure to fly in economy. You’ll see all sorts of unacceptable behavior shamelessly on display, almost none of which is reported by an airline.

There’s no shortage of examples. Sydney Pearl, author of “Diary Of A Pissed Off Flight Attendant,” says her latest shock came on a transatlantic flight, where the passenger behind her decided to stretch her legs directly into her personal space.

“Out of my peripheral vision, I noticed a bare and dirty foot slowly sneaking its way onto my armrest,” she recalls. “I was appalled to say the least.”

It’s a zoo up there, says frequent traveler and New York PR professional Richard Laermer.

“They put their feet up, watch really inappropriate clips on their laptops, and talk to you as if you’re their sports-watching buddy,” he says.

If a PR guy from New York complains about bad behavior, you know it’s bad.

What’s turning us into animals? That’s a fine question.

It’s a combination of several factors, according to psychiatrist Carole Lieberman. Passengers are putting their lives in the hands of strangers and often feel out of control. They’re worried about of a possible terrorist attack. Others are claustrophobic or afraid of flying, so (you guessed it) they self-medicate.

“To cope with fear of flying and other anxieties, many passengers try to calm or anesthetize themselves with alcohol,” she says. “Alcohol encourages bad behavior.”

But wait, you say. Hasn’t this been a problem since the beginning? Yes, says Bob Ross, the National President of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants.

“But today, planes are more crowded, which provides more opportunity for conflict,” he says. “Overhead bin space is limited, it takes longer to board and deplane, and passengers are often cramped.”

Passengers are much more stressed out, adds Michael Brein, a psychologist who specializes in travel issues.

“It’s all the restrictions, caveats, and pressures due to safety, control, and reduced personal space,” he says. “God only knows how all these factors combine to produce psychological exploding points.”

So that means the tight space, the extra fees and limitations — things an airline has direct control over — are the spark in this proverbial tank of jet fuel.

The recent epidemic of in-flight incidents, big and small, is the reason why creating minimum legroom standards is so important, explains Margaret King, director of The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis, a Philadelphia think tank.

“It’s a bad idea for airline engineers to think of passengers as sacks of mail with no personal space needs,” she says.

Minimum personal space standards is an idea the airline industry is fighting, having recently fended off a Congressional effort to mandate seat space. Same goes for the “gotcha” fees air travelers face at the airport, which carriers say is their right in an unregulated industry.

Experts like King are surprised there aren’t more violent or disruptive passenger incidents. But that’s just the thing. No one actually knows how many of these in-flight incidents happen in the skies. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) doesn’t require flight attendants to report them; it’s up to the crew to say something if they want. And they don’t. For the first half of the year, the FAA reported a paltry 31 inflight incidents.

31! As if to say, “What problem?”

That’s why the IATA numbers were so encouraging. They said: “That problem.”

So go ahead, airlines. Pour another drink for that intoxicated passenger. Add another ridiculous fee into the small print. Move your seats closer together and make us squirm.

Maybe this has to get worse before it can get better.

How to avoid air rage altogether

  • Fly early. Experts say alcohol and drugs are a major factor of in-flight incidents (it was cited in 23% of cases in the IATA report). So book an early morning flight to avoid heavily intoxicated passengers.
  • Avoid tight quarters. Use a site like Routehappy that finds flights based on amenities and comfort. Hipmunk rates its flights based on “agony” — a score determined based on price, number of stops, and duration.
  • And choose the right seat. A bulkhead row, exit row or seat near the galley might be less likely to be the scene of a mid-air disturbance. Either these seats tend to get more attention from the flight crew or because regulations restrict the types of passengers who can sit there (specifically, the exit seats).

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