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?