Does First-Class Inequality Lead to Air-Rage Incidents?

Photo: Swell Media/Getty Images

Air travel is becoming more and more degrading. Seats are shrinking, overhead compartments are overflowing, and hot meals have gotten cold — when there are meals at all, that is. The adversarial atmosphere in economy class is enough to make you want to give up and deploy the evacuation slide.

So it’s perhaps no surprise that air rage — instances in which passengers become unruly — appears to be on the rise The logic is straightforward: When people are strapped to their seats with no escape for hours on end, when they’re hungry and tired and they lack control over their surroundings, that’s when they’re most likely to snap.

Except new research suggests that the explanations most commonly offered for passenger outbursts don’t actually explain what’s going on. Losing some legroom or even waiting a few extra hours at the terminal makes little difference compared with two factors you may never have considered: the existence of a first-class cabin on a given flight, and boarding from the front of the plane instead of the middle so that everyone walks through first class. It turns out that what really upsets us in the sky is palpable inequality.

Inequality permeates society, of course, but in most cases class divisions are kept out of sight. The rich and the poor occupy different neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces, and when they do interact they follow social scripts, playing the role of, say, customer and waitstaff. On an airplane, however, stuffed into a metal tube and partitioned by a little curtain into first and economy “class,” we’re almost prodded into class warfare.

For the new study, published today in Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, Katherine DeCelles of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and Michael Norton of Harvard Business School obtained several years of flight records from a large international airline. They catalogued thousands of reported disruptive passenger incidents and crunched the numbers to see what other variables on a given flight, if any, influenced the likelihood of an onboard freak-out.

First, the mere existence of a first-class cabin increased the chance of air rage in economy class by a factor of nearly four — the same irritability increase you’d get from a nine-and-a-half-hour delay. Second, boarding from the front versus the middle of the plane — making everyone walk past first-class passengers — more than doubled the rate of incidents among economy passengers. Third, boarding from the front also increased outbursts in first-class passengers — by a factor of nearly 12.

DeCelles and Norton arrived at these stats after controlling for seemingly obvious causes of air rage, including legroom, seat width, flight delay, and flight distance. Not that it mattered much; these factors (at least within the range of variation on this airline) had very little impact on air rage compared with that of visible inequality.

It’s easy to see why economy passengers might become frustrated with their predicament. “I don’t think economy passengers expect there to not be inequality,” DeCelles says. But they are paying hundreds or thousands of dollars and do want to be treated decently. Flying alongside first class highlights the indignities of economy travel — just a few yards away are a bunch of people enjoying much more humane conditions — and, for many, no amount of cost savings makes this seem fair.

So anger from the back of the plane might be expected. “What’s probably more surprising is that first-class passengers showed a similar pattern,” says Robb Willer, a sociologist at Stanford who has studied inequality. “One might reasonably expect that upper-class passengers would feel humbled or guilty on flights where their privileged position is more visible to less privileged people. Instead DeCelles and Norton found the opposite.” They’re angry too. But presumably for a different reason.

First-class frustration after confronting economy passengers fits in with some work by Willer and colleagues. They reported last year that when wealthy Americans were made to perceive more inequality in their home state, they became less generous. Willer believes that’s because they felt more entitled. Another group of researchers reported last year that, in a social-networking game, revealing to wealthy players the inequality in their local network reduced their cooperation (and eventually the overall population’s wealth). Another team reported last year that, after participants directly compared themselves to someone lower in socioeconomic status, they become more selfish. And according to the researcher Aaron Sell’s work on anger, people who feel entitled are not only more selfish but more likely to show anger and pick fights.

Translating these examples to the plane findings, it appears that when first-class passengers see everyone else shuffle past them into Champagne-less economy, their own privilege becomes salient, they psychologically justify that privilege by feeling superior, and as a result they become more demanding of others. That’s the theory, at least.

All this fits into a much broader literature on the behavioral effects of inequality. Inequality in life is unavoidable, of course, and often desirable — envy is motivating, and hierarchies can enable coordination. But social comparison and competition can also lead to dirty behavior, and inequality leads to social problems such as mental illness, crime, drug use, and lack of trust. One noteworthy aspect of the air-rage study, DeCelles wrote me in an email, is that “mere exposure to situational inequality in a matter of minutes (boarding) or hours (first class on a plane) is related to significantly greater aggressive crime (air rage).” So it might be worth airlines’ efforts to reduce feelings of inequality.

Besides boarding passengers from the middle, DeCelles suggests not closing the curtain between cabins, and not repeatedly telling economy passengers not to use the bathroom in the forward cabin. Flight attendants might also use humor to create a positive atmosphere, as they do on Southwest flights (though DeCelles doesn’t have the data to compare airlines).

As for fliers, you might avoid being duct-taped to your seat by fellow passengers by finding a bright screen to play with. “At least anecdotally,” DeCelles says with a laugh, “the flight attendants I’ve talked to say once we got our digital pacifiers — now that we can use our cell phones for the whole flight — misbehavior has gone way down.”

Does First-Class Inequality Lead to Air Rage?