What To Do About Air Rage

A recent news story concerned a family on a vacation charter flight from Halifax to the Dominican Republic had an altercation with flight attendants that led to an unscheduled stop in Bermuda. The parents were found guilty of abusive behavior and disobeying lawful commands. The airline stated an intention to sue the family for the $50,000 cost of the unscheduled stop. In addition to the dollar cost, other passengers lost 2 days of their vacation.

Air rage, the term given to disorderly, abusive behavior from passengers, has increased seven-fold in recent years. Reports have identified two contributing factors.

The first factor is a deteriorating quality of service. Seating is increasingly cramped (especially on holiday charters), meals—even snacks—are awful or non-existent, and security measures are intrusive. Travel plans are increasingly disrupted by overbookings or glitches in tight schedules. Airlines undermine their credibility by imposing rules—such as forbidding e-readers during take-off—that have no factual safety rationale.

Airlines have read the customer preference for low price to mean that customers will tolerate great discomfort during travel as long as doing so yields a price advantage. In some circumstances, that logic may push too far.

Flight attendants have fewer perks to make trip enjoyable or to calm an agitated passenger. Without reward power, they have to rely increasingly on their formal authority. That power is largely coercive: they can have passengers arrested for unruly behavior.

The second factor is a diminished threshold for customers to behave badly. That threshold may be lowered by alcohol or other drugs. Or it may not be very high to begin with.

Abusive behavior from customers is a regular feature of retail work. The situation intensifies on airplanes in that there is no escape for the duration of the flight. It is also intensified in that flight attendants have a lot more authority than do waitresses. The physical danger posed by flying through the air coupled with the terrorist concerns in the 21st century combine to intensify any confrontation.

The collision of passengers’ righteous grievances with strong flight attendants’ sense of authority can be severe. The confrontation becomes emotionally charged, quickly escalating as each party makes a move.

What is needed from both parties is a capacity to deflate charged situations. Airlines could help by reversing the tightening, giving flight attendants more options in their responses to difficult situations. Unfortunately, airlines appear to be committed to decreasing the quality of their service, as in Air Canada’s recent move.

For passengers, they can deflate confrontation by developing their capacity to remain serene in discomfort. Secondly, it helps to see the flight attendant as a person who is under pressure to perform with limited resources. You may gain some sympathy.

How’s it going for you?



  1. Dear Dr. Leiter:

    Even if I cannot travel so often, as a passenger I’ve always seen fligth attendance as an easy job until one group of them presented a paper in a congress talking about the problem of managing physical and psychological pressure at the same time they try to make feel passengers comfortable. This situation is similar for those who work in other tourism services like Hotels and Restaurants. Sometimes we, as customers forget that we are paying for a service, not for an specific interaction. Even when the service is paid, the interaction is under construction, and it implies civility from both parts.

    Best Regards


  2. Heriberto
    You make an excellent point that expectations are a defining quality of these encounters. And it takes an effort to appreciate a relationship from the other person’s point of view.

  3. This post really caught my attention, Michael, as it discusses something I’ve become more and more aware of recently.

    I had the pleasure to spend a week in NYC (from London) last week. I was flying Delta business class. There was a lovely flight attendant who came through the cabin before take off, introducing himself and asking what he wanted to eat. Some like me just thanked him but said we’d be sleeping. But others, including one man who sat next to me, were SO rude and disparaging. I felt so sorry for the flight attendant. He was, after all, only doing his job.

    On the ground too I see this kind of behaviour. Before I moved out of London, the waiting staff in my favourite restaurant in Wimbledon used to confide in me about how abusive some of the clients could be. For example, asking for things not on the menu (pizza in a burger joint) and demanding they find a way to get it when told “sorry”.

    I make up the story that these people have developed an inflated opinion of themselves and/or that their lives have become difficult and so they must infect others with similar difficulty…

  4. Christine
    Thanks so much for sharing your experience. It is remarkable how pervasive the problem has become. Air travel is a focus point but the problem is much broader.
    It’s difficult to figure out motive, but behaving badly towards service personnel does not speak well to a person’s integrity or self management.
    Excessive entitlement is certainly a dimension. Also, people readily put themselves in an us v. them framework that they then use to justify bad behavior. Clearly the makings of another blog post here.
    Happy flying!

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