More passengers are losing it on airplanes. Here's what we know about why

Hardly a week passes without another ‘passenger shaming’ video being posted on social media of a mid-flight meltdown

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Major airlines are once again reporting a rise in emotional meltdowns and people otherwise losing it on airplanes, the combined effect, studies suggest, of several problems, from pre-boarding booze-ups and delayed flights to shrinking personal space.

Dutch carrier KLM has seen a 100 per cent increase in unruly passenger numbers compared to 2019, the world’s oldest airline reported last week. This week, Air New Zealand reported a “concerning trend” in disorderly and abusive passenger conduct, with nearly 200 reports per month, up from 572 reported incidents for the whole of 2019.

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In June, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) reported a global increase in unruly passenger incident reports, from one incident per 835 flights in 2021, to one in 568 flights in 2022. Other regulators — the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, and the European Aviation Safety Agency — are reporting similar trends. The FAA logged 2,455 unruly passenger reports in 2022, down from a record high of just under 6,000 in 2021, when thousands of flights were cancelled during Omicron’s spread, but up from 554 in 2017.

“While it’s true that only a tiny minority of the 4.3 billion passengers that travel by air each year (pre-COVID-19 pandemic) become unruly, they have a disproportionate impact” on the safety of other passengers and crew, the IATA said. Dutch airlines are considering sharing no-fly lists.

Hardly a week passes without another “passenger shaming” video being posted on social media of a mid-flight meltdown: A packed, Toronto-bound flight from London’s Heathrow airport was diverted to Montreal as a “safety precaution” after a passenger, kicking and screaming, had to be restrained in his seat by flight attendants for over an hour. A woman in a hurry to deboard exposed herself and shouted expletives on a Frontier Airlines flight from Orlando to Philadelphia. In another chaotic Frontier flight, this one from Houston to Denver, a passenger claiming she was being kidnapped wrestled with airline employees before frantically climbing over rows of seats. In June, a Delta Airlines flight from Paris to Detroit was diverted to Stephenville, N.L., after an intoxicated passenger became violent and had to be restrained by other passengers until the plane could land. Earlier this year, an American Airlines passenger allegedly tried to breach the cockpit after she couldn’t get a drink.

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Compared to 2022, the WestJet Group said it has experienced “marginally” fewer reports of unruly behaviour in 2023. “This year, trends in unruly behaviour include verbal abuse and non-compliance mostly consisting of cabin baggage issues, smoking onboard and passengers consuming their own alcohol,” WestJet spokesperson Julia Kaiser said in an email.

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Smoking on board is a serious fire risk. It’s also a safety risk if a drunk passenger can’t follow instructions or exit the aircraft in an emergency evacuation.

All incidents of unruly behaviour are reviewed “to determine if sanctions or suspensions are warranted,” WestJet’s Kaiser said.

Air Canada did not respond to a request for an interview before deadline. Transport Canada said it was still working on a request for the latest figures for recorded incidents involving disruptive passengers.

Earlier this year, however, Transport Canada said it has seen a rise in the number of passengers who are unruly, violent even, towards security screening officers. Unruly passengers who continue to behave badly after clearing security “can lead to serious safety and security incidents elsewhere in the airport or on board an aircraft,” Transport Canada said, when it sought public input into its efforts to add regulations that would fine and ban unruly people who interfere with CATSA’s — Canadian Air Transport Security Authority — screening checkpoints.

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Examples of unacceptable behaviour — and screening officers said it has become a daily occurrence — include racist and/or offensive language, bullying, verbal and physical harassment or damaging screening equipment. “I’ll never forget years ago when the liquids thing first became a thing and a full bottle of wine was thrown at a screening officer’s head and the passenger still got on the plane that day,” one commentator wrote.

Another commented that “if you treat people like animals, they will behave like animals,” that air travel has become “too crowded, too stressful,” factors that researchers have said are contributing mightily to air rage.

One study, “Flying the not-so-friendly skies,” by a University of Texas at Dallas team published in July in the journal Deviant Behaviour — a review of more than 915 unruly incidents reported over a 21-year span — found offences ranged from minor arguments to physical assault. (The authors purposely excluded reports during the early COVID years because most of the increase then was related to mask wearing, and that would have skewed the data, they said.)

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Physical misconduct included punching, hitting, slapping, grabbing, pushing; verbal misbehaviour included name calling, yelling, swearing, threatening. Flight attendants, most of whom are women, bear the brunt.

Other delinquency included failing to follow crew members’ commands (be seated, turn off personal electronic device, stow luggage, keep pets in their carrier, and no smoking in the lavatory or drinking personal alcohol).

In fact, alcohol has long been the leading “precipitating factor” for unruly actions, and, consequently, aircraft diversions, the authors reported, “largely because of its accessibility both within airports and on airplanes.”

It can be difficult for gate agents to quickly assess for signs of intoxication during the boarding process, and, “paradoxically,” airlines often offer customers alcohol to “calm anxious, angry and disruptive passengers.”

While some flight attendants have fought for policies to limit or restrict in-flight booze service, “existing practices have largely remained unchanged.”

Mass flight cancellations, like the travel chaos that saw hundreds of flights cancelled and passengers stranded last December because of bad weather, are also a “particularly strong trigger” for air rage, the authors wrote. Passengers last year described sitting on the tarmac for hours on end, with little information about their flight’s status. The Canadian Press reported this week that the Canadian Transportation Agency faced a record backlog of 61,000 complaints against carriers as of Dec. 5.

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Other factors fuelling passenger misconduct include the loss of personal space, the U of Texas researchers said. Leg room has decreased, with the average seat pitch (the distance between a seat and the one in front) in economy class shrinking since the 1980s.

Tempers can fray and emotions run high in squeezed spaces. In cramped cabins, personal space becomes highly valuable, the authors said, and “thus opens the door to conflict between passengers.”

Other researchers have described the modern airplane as a “social microcosm of class-based society.” One study found that chances of an onboard air rage incident in economy are nearly four times higher if the plane has a first-class cabin.

Boarding from the front, which requires people to walk through first class, versus boarding from the middle of the plane also increased the odds of air rage, they reported.

In Canada, unruly passengers can face fines of up to $100,000, imprisonment for up to five years or both.

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