New age of airline rage: Why everyone on board is on edge

A United Airlines passenger is dragged off a jet in April after he refused to give up his seat so a flight crew could get to their next assignment. (Jase Anspach/Twitter/MGN)
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SEATTLE (CNNMoney) - A doctor dragged down the aisle of a plane; a brawl in a cabin; a fight in the jetway; a sobbing mother; an irate flight attendant; a dead rabbit -- in each case, onlookers were convinced they witnessed an injustice.

We've been consumed lately with one flying incident after another, and watched as social and mainstream media amplified them.

Some wonder whether such incidents are happening with greater frequency. What little data there is, however, suggests good behavior on planes is improving.

The number of unruly passengers has been on a steady decline since they peaked in 2004. The Federal Aviation Administration's data shows only 92 passengers were cited last year for interfering with the duties of a crew member, down from 310 reported 13 years ago.

The Department of Transportation tracks the customer complaints it receives. The number of those is dropped by more than 11 percent from 2015 to 2016.

The data is far from complete. A passenger asked to leave a plane, for any reason, may not be reported at all if law enforcement wasn't involved. Still, airline leaders and staff say this latest spate of incidents forced them to take a hard look at their policies.

Airlines hold a mirror up to American life

So why do we care so much more now than before?

Fliers bring the stress of their lives onto the plane. They are working too hard or not enough. They are worried about money, politics, health care or their family. The outside world is a factor, experts say. It's baggage that they can't check at the ticket counter or the gate.

Nearly 16 years after the terrorists' attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, most fliers still run TSA gauntlets: Shoes and belt off, laptop out of the bag, no water bottles.

Once on board, personal space has shrunk. People can't help but feel territorial.

Passengers are divided into categories for boarding. They compete for places to store their carry-on bags, to save time or avoid fees. Airlines have shifted their business model away from fares that included checked baggage or a meal.

Flying is more affordable and accessible than ever but comfort and speed are commodities that airlines, and even the TSA, sell — creating the haves and have-nots on airplanes.

"There are few places in modern life where the recent emergence of economic class and status differentials are clearer," said Steven Livingston, a professor at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs. "Some people go on American air carriers angry from the start."

Livingston notes "status" is literally a sought-after perk on the airlines.

From the security line to an overcrowded terminal to a cramped seat, "the reduction in personal space results in more anger, frustration and dislike of flying," said Robert Sommer, author of "Personal Space, The Behavioral Basis of Design." "It's one thing after another, and they're all additive."

Everyone has a camera

Any single incident, recorded on a smartphone camera and shared a million times on YouTube, Facebook or Twitter, has an explosive global multiplier effect.

"What has changed is the ability to record and share evidence of all of these events and people's awareness of a problem," Livingston said.

Nearly 80 percent of Americans now own a smartphone, and half have a tablet, according to the Pew Research Center. Livingston estimates about 7 billion connected devices are in the world, each with the ability to record and upload whatever they record.

"If social media gives you an outlet to fight back against the man, then people take the outlet," said one senior airline executive. "It's a sign of a greater feeling of helplessness that people are feeling" about the world around them.

Angst circulates among airline staff, who worry viral videos of confrontations sometimes miss all the facts and can be misleading to the public.

"Flight attendants must deal with this situation every day," said Livingston. "They are on edge, too, no doubt" as customers with cameras at the ready watch them do their jobs.

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