Airline Class Segregation Increases Chance of 'Air Rage' Incidents

A new study examines how the presence of a first class cabin affects incidences of air rage. Digital Images/Getty Images

First class sections on airplanes seem to be a place of cloth napkins, attentive flight attendants and free liquor. But they also seem to trigger passenger resentment, anger and even violence. A new study finds that both the presence of a first class cabin and the physical layout of the plane can influence whether "air rage" incidences are likely to occur. And as more expensive classes of seats take up increasingly larger percentages of limited real estate inside a plane's cabin, the study's authors predict we'll see more and more air rage in years to come.

Like its ground-bound analog road rage, air rage is tough to quantify but easy to spot. The study, published today in the journal Proceedings from the National Academy of Sciences, defines it as "antisocial behavior by airplane passengers becoming abusive or unruly, antagonizing crew members and other passengers, and endangering flight safety."


"We suggest that physical and situational inequality are built into people's everyday environments," the authors write in the paper, "and that exposure to these forms of inequality can trigger antisocial behavior."

The researchers examined two types of inequality on airplanes: physical inequality, defined as the presence of a first-class section on an airplane; and situational inequality, involving passengers boarding from the front of the plane and passing through first class to reach the economy section.

A full three quarters of the incidences the scientists documented involved male passengers, and 85 percent of air rage incidents took place in economy class — which at first sounds like it's mainly the rabble that are starting to rouse, but the number's relatively proportional to the percentage of seats allocated to different classes.

The study found that an incident of air rage is 3.84 times more likely to happen in the economy section if a plane has a first-class section than if a plane has no class divide at all.

Front-boarding planes especially bothered first-class passengers, suffering the indignity of the masses bumping their way through the gilded aisles. This situational inequality increased the chances of an economy-class incident 2.18 times, but of a first-class outburst by 11.86.

So it's not just the hoi polloi engaging in hubbub and hostility. Take, for instance, famous names that have made headlines over the years, from musicians suffering medication malfunctions to actors unable to control urinary urges. Incidents in first class were most likely to involve belligerent behavior and anger, the study found, while economy class incidents tended to involve "emotional outbursts," due to feelings of entitlement and frustration, respectively.

Based on the findings of past studies, including 2012 meta-research finding that a higher social class could predict more unethical behavior, the researchers found that the class division on a plane made first-class passengers more aware of the class divide, and thus more likely to engage in unethical behavior. The fancier we feel, the more fiery we fight, it seems.