Air Rage: It’s not just about the mask

Mask disputes fuel spike in air rage incidents - ABC News

In 2020, the planes were fairly empty, at Sky Harbor in Phoenix and Washington National, getting through security was less than a 10 minutes ordeal. Every one wore a mask. When an airline attendant asked a passenger to pull the mask up over their nose, I don’t remember anyone getting salty.

Currently, airline passengers are attacking airline staff, and each other. Some passengers are blatantly smoking in their seats, others are deliberately delaying the flight.

For nearly six months, I agonized about taking a business flight to Texas. I considered buying a car as car rentals were more than twice the cost of my airline ticket. Paying a premium for a used car just to avoid, a flight didn’t make sense.

CityFella Rage

My flight from Sacramento to Dallas was seamless. However, my flight from Dallas to Denver wasn’t. A young lady across the aisle from me was ignoring the crews instructions to turn off her tablet. I noticed,a twinkle in her eye ,as she alone was controlling the fate of 150 passengers. I became angry, and leaned over and told her ” if she didn’t turn of her tablet off, I was going to fling it away from her, because we all have places to go”.

Anyone who knows me, that is not my personality, but she complied and the man behind her sitting next to window screamed Yeah!!!! and a few people clapped, I had scared the woman, who didn’t turn on her tablet during the entire flight. I felt bad and embarrassed myself, I wanted to say I’m sorry, but I think she would have jumped from the plane. After we landed, I looked back and a few people mouthed thank you and this young kid gave me a thumbs up. I regret not apologizing.

Last week the FAA showed there were 4,941 reports of unruly passengers this year to October 26. Of those, 3,580 were mask-related incidents and the FAA has launched 923 investigations and 216 enforcement cases.

Interfering with the duties of a crew member of a plane violates federal law. As part of the Federal Aviation Authority’s (FAA) 2018 Re-authorization Bill, fines of up to $37,000 can be proposed per violation for unruly passenger cases. One incident can result in multiple violations.

Air Rage

Air rage is, of course, far from a new phenomenon. In fact, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), a trade group that represents 290 global airlines, was concerned about this back in 2017. Yet the triggers seem to have changed since then. 

In the past, incidents of passengers behaving badly often involved quarrels over mixed-up seats, smoking in the toilet or fliers not getting the kind of service they expected, says Robert Bor, a director at the UK-based Center for Aviation Psychology. Now, they’re mostly about masks.

The Mask

The FAA says that, of the 3,100 unruly passenger reports so far this year, 2,350 involve people refusing to comply with the federal mask mandate. Part of the issue is that US planes are now carrying more passengers than earlier in the pandemic. Numbers more than doubled between January and June from around 700,000 daily travelers to around 2 million (pre-pandemic, figures were between 2 and 2.5 million per day).  

Air travel seems to have several ingredients that make it problematic for a society rapidly emerging from a pandemic. For starters, most customers are cramped into tight spaces with complete strangers, where they have little control over what’s happening to them. Experts say this can lead to nervousness, negative feelings and the kind of outbursts that are now well-documented online. Political polarization and mask mandates seem to have heightened tensions too. But even deeper than that lie prickly issues of the pandemic’s mental-health legacy, and how it’s emerging in the unfriendly skies. 

“People who were recently cooped up are now freed and asserting themselves, creating a kind of battleground for infection-control wisdom,” says Bor. “Most people are pretty neutral on whether they have Coke or Pepsi, but they will have very strong feelings when it comes to issues relating to health, human rights, access to air and so on; it triggers people to behave in slightly more militant ways.” 

Post-pandemic ‘survival instincts’ 

Another reason, however, could be people’s responses to the stressors of re-entry into the world after more than a year of pandemic isolation. 

“We saw something similar after 9/11, where you get back on an airplane for the first or second time, and you look at people, particularly as close as they are to you, and you don’t see them just as a fellow traveler, but also a threat to your physical health and safety,” says Andrew Thomas, an associate professor of international business at the University of Akron, US, who also runs the incident-tracking website

The pandemic has actually triggered some of our very evolutionary behaviors – Sanam Hafeez

Sanam Hafeez, a New York-based neuropsychologist, believes the pandemic has made us hyper vigilant to the point where the tiniest slight can be taken as an act of aggression. 

“The pandemic has actually triggered some of our very evolutionary behaviors that we didn’t even realize we had,” she explains. “So, we respond by pouncing almost like we were designed to.” For those who’ve been really isolated – or endured the brunt of the pandemic – “it’s very possible that, while you didn’t really lose your social skills, they were taken over by your survival instincts”. 

Air rage, she adds, is often a reaction to an acute stressors that has nothing to do with the flight itself. If you’ve recently been fired, lost a loved one, broken up with a partner or suffered from a medical issue, “you are carrying all of that onto a plane, and because everyone there is a stranger, and you are in this very cramped space with masks on, that might be all the trigger some folks need to snap,” she explains. 

Some analysts believe the current uptick in air rage may also have to do with the deterioration of the economy class experience overall. Once viewed as rather luxurious, many now see air travel as more of a nuisance with cramped seating, pared down service and minimal amenities. Moreover, increased fees for checked bags in recent years have meant more travelers now carry everything onto the plane, creating bottlenecks and friction.

“The flight experience used to be a [US luxury department store] Nordstrom experience and we are approaching a Walmart experience,” says Thomas, who has been documenting air rage incidents since 2001, when he first wrote a book on the subject. “The fundamental problem that causes [air rage] – taking away the mask issue – is just being packed into economy class.” 

Drinks – and showmanship 

Alcohol is another element mixed into the air-rage cocktail. “It’s what we would call a co-factor, in that it may make somebody who is susceptible [to air rage] to be a little bit less able to manage their feelings and behaviors,” explains Bor. 

“People don’t always understand or appreciate the effects of alcohol at altitude because we know that consuming onboard an aircraft is going to have a different effect to having alcohol on the ground,” he adds, noting that the rule of thumb is that it’s actually twice the effect.

Harsh Penalties for Bad Behavior

The FAA says that, of the 3,100 unruly passenger reports so far this year, 2,350 involve people refusing to comply with the federal mask mandate. Part of the issue is that US planes are now carrying more passengers than earlier in the pandemic. Numbers more than doubled between January

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said, that blacklisting violent airplane passengers should be considered. Buttigieg was asked on CNN for his take on the reported attack of an American Airlines attendant during a flight from New York City to Orange County, California.The passenger punched the flight crew member who had been moving through the first-class cabin, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants said.

“There is absolutely no excuse for this kind of treatment of flight crews in the air or any of the essential workers—from bus drivers to aircrews who get people to where they need to be,” Buttigieg said there were “some really harsh penalties and fines being proposed” for violence on board. “We will continue to look at all options to make sure the flight crews and passengers are safe.”

Most airlines ban passengers who misbehave on their airlines for a year. The industry is considering blacklisting passengers. In the near future, a misbehaving passenger could be banned from all domestic carriers for a year or more.

Enlight of resent news reports, mask requirements wont be going away soon.


Sources: Newsweek

BBC Workspace