People Behaving Badly On Aircraft – A Psychological Issue?

by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne in Montreal

All bad behavior is really a request for love, attention, or validation. ― Kimberly Giles, Choosing Clarity: The Path to Fearlessness

The term “unruly passengers” refers to passengers who fail to respect the rules of conduct on board aircraft or to follow the instructions of crew members and thereby disturb the good order and discipline on board aircraft.

 There has been a spike in the incidence of unruly passengers during the pandemic. Earlier this month CNBC reported that there were more than 5,700 reports of air rage on U.S. airlines in 2021 compared with the average recorded in a typical year of about 100 to 150 cases.  The Guardian reported that “the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) had more than 4,600 incident reports between January and early October 2021, of which 72 per cent related to a refusal to comply with the federal mandate to wear a mask. Some 849 of these reports have been investigated versus a yearly average of 142 over the last decade”.

An earlier report published in September 2021 of CNBC says: “Airlines have banned hundreds of passengers for unruly behavior since the start of the pandemic. Delta Airlines wants carriers to share those lists. The Atlanta-based carrier has asked other airlines to share their ‘no fly’ list to further protect airline employees across the industry. Kristen Manion Taylor, Delta’s senior vice president of in-flight service, who wrote to flight attendants is reported to have said:  “A list of banned customers doesn’t work as well if that customer can fly with another airline.” The report continued: “Delta said it has 1,600 passengers on its list. It declined to comment further on a shared no-fly list of banned travelers. Flight attendant and pilot labor unions have raised alarms about unruly passenger behavior that’s surged during the coronavirus pandemic.  Reports have included incidents of shouting, verbal abuse of crews and, in rare cases, physical assault”.

In late January 2022 a United Airlines flight carrying 123 passengers from Newark, New Jersey to Tel Aviv, Israel turned back after two riders self-upgraded to business class. The Israeli nationals had caused a 'riot' after flight crew requested to see their tickets. Officials had been waiting for the disruptive duo when the plane returned to Newark. The flight was cancelled and affected passengers were given meal vouchers and hotel accommodations. It was the second time in a week that poor passenger behavior caused an international flight to return to the US.  Roughly 75% of the unruly-passenger reports since Jan. 1 2021 in the United States had started with people who didn’t want to wear their masks and escalated from there into profanity, shouting matches, even physical violence.

The increase of incidents of unruly behavior during the pandemic is a global issue.  The Guardian reported: “Airlines have complained about rising cases of unruly passengers and non-compliance with COVID-19 safety protocols; therefore, they are demanding stiffer sanctions from the authorities. The airlines observed that the global phenomenon has doubled in 2021 with more travelling public uncomfortable with basic safety rules. Recently, Arik Air deplaned an Asaba-bound passenger in Lagos, who allegedly refused entreaties on face mask and hand sanitizer use onboard”.

To many, air travel proves to be an apprehensive business where trepidation and anxiety mixed with the fear of travel in an aircraft is an unhinging experience.  Add a pandemic to this profound discomfort and the fear of flying could be aggravated by what Author Naomi Klein calls the shock doctrine in her book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Knopf: Canada, 2007). This doctrine is based on the premise that people who are devastated by a disaster and are profoundly disoriented desperately seek to get back to the status quo ante. One can imagine the terror in a person who already has a fear of flying, which is increasingly becoming a unique human factors issue, and has many facets, not all of which apply directly to flying itself. Some of these are: heights; enclosed spaces; crowded conditions; sitting in hot, stale air; being required to wait passively; not understanding the reasons for all the strange actions sounds and sensations occurring around; worrying about the dangers of turbulence; being dependent on an unknown pilot’s or mechanic’s judgment; not feeling in control. In addition to all this misery, put a mask on the passenger’s face and constrain his breathing and the free flow of oxygen while cramped in a steel tube for hours and the result could be disastrous.

Thierry Steimer, PhD, writing in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience says: “[A]nxiety is a psychological, physiological, and behavioral state induced in animals and humans by a threat to well-being or survival, either actual or potential. It is characterized by increased arousal, expectancy, autonomic and neuroendocrine activation, and specific behavior patterns. The function of these changes is to facilitate coping with an adverse or unexpected situation”.

Passenger hostility is a symptom of a blend of emotions and fear of flying is one of them. Other common symptoms are the threat of losing control, fatigue, and personal and environmental stress. This could lead to self-protection—in demanding alcohol, a particular seat or the right to smoke in the cabin.

In the early days of flying, the role of the cabin crew was to alleviate passenger concerns by explaining the rules of aerodynamics, cloud formations and meteorology. They also acted as tour guides, particularly when the aircraft flew at low altitudes since large windows offered spectacular views that could alleviate fear. Fear of flying does not always result in air rage or criminal conduct on the part of the person concerned. However, the fact that fear of flying has the potential to make a normally calm and law-abiding person turn into an offender is real. The biology of fear- and anxiety-related behaviors

In an article published in the Journal of Transportation Security I wrote: “Situations that would evoke fear are flight preparation (getting ready to leave, packing bags), pre-flight procedures (getting the boarding pass, clearing security). The air traveler could also be intimidated by the aviation environment, be it airport design, signage and announcements over the public address system. Take for instance the use of the words “terminal building”; “final call for boarding”; and “final destination”. These could be ominous to the person who is apprehensive about crossing the boundaries of his evolution. Separation from loved ones and friends at the terminal building and entry into the sterile area could also facilitate anxiety and the feeling of being alone in a foreign environment. It could even be worse inside the aircraft. Each time the aircraft door closes the fuselage becomes a veritable prison. Cabin crew, who are not immune from the fear of flying themselves, would then be facing a group of 50 to 60% of people who share a fear of flying. Some of them could be under medication and some could have a history of violence. All of them would have experienced stress in the checking in and boarding process. The passengers could well be an eclectic mix of perverts, pickpockets, priests, doctors, people harboring strong discriminatory views against women, gays and people from minority groups, people who are addicted to drinking and smoking, people with poor personal hygiene, and the list continues. These are people who are travelling on business, leisure, to attend a wedding or funeral, to immigrate to an unknown country, or even just to escape. Explaining the security procedures (including how to use an inflatable life jacket) to such a group of people would in itself be sufficient to cause a crew member some anxiety”

All this goes to show that this is yet another area for a  well thought-through study by the regulators and the aviation industry.

Dr. Abeyratne, a published author of 36 books and over 450 law journal articles on aviation, is a former senior official of the International Civil Aviation Organization.  He teaches aviation law and policy at McGill University and is a Senior Associate at Aviation Strategies International.