2023 Became the Year of the In-Flight Meltdown. Experts Say It Will Only Get Worse – The Messenger
A flight meltdown so viral, it sparked a Halloween costume. The now-infamous video of a woman storming off an American Airlines plane, warning fellow fliers “that motherf—r back there is not real!” — was etched into America’s collective unconscious in 2023.
Tiffany Gomas later said she was so ashamed of her angry outburst that she feared leaving her house for weeks. She called the viral clip, viewed on social media millions of times, the “worst moment of my entire life.”
But the 39-year-old’s meltdown was just one of at least two dozen “air rage” incidents The Messenger chronicled this year.
Psychologists say in-flight outbursts are becoming more common due to a confluence of factors, including worsening cabin conditions, leftover pandemic stressors, and the normalization of aggressive behaviors against service workers and fellow fliers.
Just weeks ago, a passenger on a Spirit flight climbed over another flier in a rush to de-board the plane, threatening: “Touch me again and see what the f— happens.”
In November, a Frontier flight erupted into chaos after a woman clambered over the tops of seats and cried out that she was being kidnapped as flight attendants escorted her off the plane.
Days later, a flier on a different Frontier plane suddenly dropped her pants, squatted down, and threatened to pee in the middle of the aisle because a flight attendant told her she needed to wait to use the lavatory.
Those examples represent only a tiny fraction of such incidents: The Federal Aviation Administration counts 1,900 reports of unruly passengers in 2023 — and counting.
While it might be tempting to view the subjects of viral air rage videos with a sense of schadenfreude, psychologists say that in certain cases, the anger they feel is valid, even if they’re not expressing it healthily.
Although relatively few people will react to stress in such an explosive manner, most fliers can relate on some level to the powerlessness unruly passengers feel when they act out.
That doesn’t diminish the seriousness of the problem: Some 57% of flight attendants say a passenger has assaulted or harassed them in just the past year.
Air rage incidents can ruin flights for innocent passengers, leading to delays or outright cancellations. They can also feed into the underlying sense of hostility that many Americans already feel toward their fellow citizens at a time of stark political polarization.
Why do flights make us so cranky?
Angry outbursts are especially common on planes, partly due to the nature of flying itself. Unlike most settings, there’s no easy way in or out of an airplane cabin. Our typical “fight or flight” response is amplified, transforming even mild irritants into what might feel like earth-shattering headaches.
Flights are assaults on the senses: the smell of stale plane food mingling with fumes from the lavatory; the chatter from dozens of passengers layered over the hum of the airplane’s engines; and the pain that inevitably comes from being squeezed into a tight seat for hours all conspire to make flights feel frustrating.
“Being in tight quarters is inherently stressful, and if you add a lot of noise, bad smells, lack of personal space, and hunger, you honestly have a perfect storm of triggered people,” Aly Vredenburgh, a business consultant who specializes in social innovation, told The Messenger.
Vredenburgh said she felt compelled to research air rage incidents after a fellow passenger assaulted her mother during a flight several years ago. A study Vredenburgh led in 2015 found that about 37% of passengers report heightened agitation during flights.
Of the people who felt frustrated, over 60% said they acted on that anger — by confronting the passenger who was disturbing them, complaining to a flight attendant, or drinking alcohol to cope.
But the conditions for angry outbursts form even before one steps foot on a plane, Ryan Martin, an anger researcher and the dean for the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay told The Messenger.
That’s because the circumstances surrounding big trips are often inherently stressful to start with. “You’re dealing with deadlines, you’re dealing with time constraints,” Martin said.
Passengers might be afraid of flying or might feel sadness about leaving loved ones behind. They might be anticipating an important job interview or a once-in-a-lifetime vacation.
These heightened emotions prime fliers to feel rage at what in normal circumstances might amount to only minor inconveniences.
Feelings of powerlessness at the hands of relative strangers — the same thoughts that drive road rage — might also factor into moments of air rage. From delays to missing luggage, “a lot of what happens to you is rooted in the behavior of other people,” Martin said.
But Martin thinks the problem goes even deeper into the human psyche.
Airplanes are cramped dioramas where social inequalities, including racial, gender, and class politics play out on a miniature scale. Those with economy seats have to walk past first-class passengers lounging in spacious rows, for example.
Some angry passengers might feel that they’ve experienced an injustice, like being asked to move away from a seat they paid extra for.
That helps explain why they are sometimes willing to hold up an entire flight just to get their way. It’s not the seat itself but what it represents — a sense of fairness or equality — that in many cases drives someone to lose their temper.
Is the problem getting worse?
Angry airline outbursts skyrocketed during the pandemic, with the FAA noting a 492% spike in 2021. There were more air rage incidents that year than in the three decades before Covid combined, according to one recent analysis.
Masks, in particular, polarized passengers, serving as symbols of their political affiliations. Anti-maskers viewed mandates as a violation of their rights, while pro-maskers saw the absence of a mask as a sign of someone’s disregard for other passengers’ health.
Incidents involving unruly passengers waned in 2022 and again this year, but they remain well above pre-pandemic levels.
That means there are likely other factors at play, Martin said. For one, people now tend to immediately hit “record” as soon as they notice someone acting out.
In turn, when viewers observe someone having a meltdown, they might inadvertently become desensitized to that behavior and mirror it in the future.
“If it becomes normalized that this is how you respond to an injustice,” Martin said, “and we see it on social media and we see it from world leaders or celebrities, etc. — well then it starts to feel like an acceptable thing to do.”
The increased prevalence of in-flight meltdowns also likely reflects a decline in the quality of services. What used to be free or low-cost — extra seat space, carry-on luggage, and snacks — now costs a fortune.
“Coach used to look more like what first-class looks like now,” Vredenburgh said.
And disgruntled customers often have no one to turn to for help. Filing a complaint about a canceled flight, for instance, might lead to a never-ending chain of dead-end phone calls and emails.
Staying sane on an airplane
Breathing techniques and meditation can only do so much when the infrastructure of airplanes and airports is practically built to induce fury. Air rage incidents are fueled by structural issues, and without major changes in how airlines operate, the problem is likely to only get worse.
“If we really and truly as a society want to walk this back, we have to think about how customers are treated,” Martin said.
Practical things like increasing seat space might be the first step, especially because feuds involving armrests, reclining, and other seat-related issues account for about 80% of passenger conflicts, Vredenburgh’s study found.
Legislative action might be another tool: One bipartisan group of U.S. senators introduced a bill in March that would place people who assault flight crews or passengers on a special “no-fly” list.
Vredenburgh thinks airlines should give flight attendants more robust conflict resolution training, too — or better yet, hire mediators to help de-escalate incidents before they turn violent.
At the present moment, “instead of having some sort of conflict management, the airlines turn planes around and send people off the planes,” she said. Those drastic actions might inadvertently make a passenger even more confrontational and belligerent.
But until airlines do their part, the burden will likely fall on individuals to deal with anger on their own. Despite the emotional landmines that litter airplanes, Martin says there are some practical things people can do to avoid becoming the next subject of a viral air rage video themselves.
“Unlike a lot of circumstances in our lives, flying is something that we’re expecting and we’re prepared for, and we can anticipate what a lot of the problems are going to be,” Martin said.
Much of that preparation is internal. It involves being realistic about an upcoming trip without verging into pessimism.
“It is expected that there will be some delays. It is expected that there will be some poor treatment — that I will bump into people that are not very kind or people who are selfish, etc.,” Martin said.
The question is: “How will I handle that, psychologically, when it happens?”