Is air rage really increasing?

Recent stories about angry disputes over reclining economy seats and crimped personal space are often accompanied by assertions that episodes of air rage are increasing. But are they really?

No, at least not in Australia. In 2013 there were 383 reported events of disruptive persons on board aircraft in Australia (domestic flights and incoming or outgoing international flights) notified to the Office of Transport Security (OTS). This was down 2 per cent on 390 reported incidents in 2012 and down 18 per cent from 465 in 2011, according to OTS figures.

And not in the US either. In fact, they are on the decline, according to data from the Federal Aviation Administration. Last year, when airlines carried 826 million passengers in the country, there were 167 reports of unruly passengers, the agency says. That is down from 211 the previous year, and 330 in 2004. This year, the rate is tracking even lower, with 59 such reports as of June 30, the agency says.

"You hear stupid things about passengers behaving badly," said Temple Grandin, a professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University who travels frequently as an expert on the livestock industry and author and speaker on the subject of overcoming autism. "I don't agree. For the most part, people are really well behaved on airplanes."

Planes are ever more crowded, and space for coach seats is tighter than ever. So cramped conditions in the back of a plane can severely test passenger equanimity, as we have seen in recent episodes in which pilots have made emergency landings when a few passengers have fought over seat-reclining.

Grandin, an industry expert on matters like humane and stress-reducing treatment of livestock in transportation, has had her own unhappy experiences as a human.

"Usually, I have enough status to not have to go in the back of the plane where you're really jammed in tight, but I've flown back there plenty of times," she said from Vermont the other day, where she was traveling for a speaking engagement.

"It's just awfully uncomfortable to be jammed in there so tight, and then someone reclines the seat back into your knees and you get your laptop suddenly shoved closed and you can't work. I do not like that."

I will not risk drawing too fine an analogy over the actual cattle car for livestock versus the metaphorical cattle car for humans. Nevertheless, I found it interesting to browse some of the literature in the cattle car genre. For example, the Animal Transportation Association, citing international regulations on flying livestock, says, Animals "need space to travel comfortably." Another excerpt indicates, "On a long journey, the animal must be able to stretch, turn round, drink and groom itself."


As for disputes between passengers, isn't it an overreaction when aircrews divert flights and seriously inconvenience other passengers for what are little more than onboard spats, even if they do involve tossing a beverage at another passenger? Are airlines too quick to blame passengers for conditions that they themselves create?

Angst over seat reclining is just the latest hot topic in an area of air travel that should be filed under social etiquette, says Jacqueline Whitmore, an author and speaker on business etiquette who says that she likes to recline, but courteously. "I'm aware that there's somebody behind me, so whenever you do recline, you should look back and make sure that person doesn't have his head on his tray table," said Whitmore, who was once a flight attendant - "for a year," she says - at Northwest Airlines.

Greeley Koch, the executive director of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives, agrees that most travellers are well mannered, though he suggests that stressful conditions like cramped seats and jam-packed overhead bins can bring out instincts that are nothing less than "feral."

He laments that flight attendants are forced to act as referees in some disputes and says passengers involved in such quarrels ought to be arrested.

"Sooner or later, there is going to be an industry wide consensus on reclining seats in crowded planes," he said. "In the meantime, passengers are going to have to calm down and learn to compromise" on sharing limited space.

But he also questions airlines' readiness to divert flights. That is a cost to an airline, he said, but such a move is also a burden to innocent travellers. What about the costs incurred by the other passengers? The missed connections? The scheduled airport pickups that were canceled?

One reader, Steven Katz, said: "I am surprised some airline hasn't simply removed all its seats and replaced them with church pews with seatbelts. That should make the flight as uncomfortable as possible."

Let us pray that nobody in the industry thinks of that, Mr. Katz.

The New York Times