Air Rage: Why Does Flying Make People So Crazy?

Leah Ginsberg
·Lead Editor

Seeing red because of air travel? You’re not alone. (Photo: Getty Images)

This story is part of a new Yahoo Travel series, #StressFreeTravel, dedicated to making travel better in every way possible.

Is air rage the new road rage? It would seem so. We’ve seen flights diverted due to passengers’ fighting over reclining seats. Then there was the passenger on a Qantas Airlines flight who was arrested for repeatedly punching a sleeping fellow passenger, as well as the traveler arrested for beating up a United Airlines employee at La Guardia airport who asked to see the man’s baggage-claim ticket.

So what’s behind the rash of air travel belligerence and even violence? The short answer is that flying pretty much blows, and it makes people upset. But you know that.

For a more in-depth answer, Yahoo Travel talked to several psychologists to find out what really leads to air rage.

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Airline security is crazy-making. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Trigger 1: Strangely, all that air travel security makes people feel vulnerable, so they act out.

“Places that limit people’s personal freedoms — like an airport or plane with a lot of security, for example — make people feel vulnerable,” explains Dr. Jonathan Bricker, a psychologist and professor at the University of Washington and an expert on air travel anxiety. “It’s a paradox. The airport and the airlines are trying to make you feel safe, but they’re doing it with all these restrictions — you have to take off your shoes to go through security, you have to stay in your seat with your seatbelt fastened. People can be very sensitive to being controlled. And when that happens, they can become afraid or they can become angry. It’s a toxic combination, and the more you tighten the noose on people, the more they react.”

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Don’t expect much leg room in coach — you’ll be sorely disappointed. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Trigger 2: People like their space — and there is none on airplanes, so they fight for it.

“Particularly in American culture, we typically prefer to have about three feet of personal space,” says Bricker. That’s not possible on a plane: Coach seats are often less than 1.5 feet wide (about 16.5 inches, down from 18.5 inches in the 1990s). This means that on a plane, we’re all essentially invading each other’s space. “On a plane, you have to redefine your boundaries,” says Dr. Scott Wetzler, a psychologist and behavioral sciences professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine Montefiore Medical Center. “More space is our norm,” adds Bricker. “When you’re on an airplane, you’re being pushed against that.” Pushing boundaries is a good way to get people upset.

Related: Watch: Are Reclining Seats a Right or a Privilege?

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We’re just not good at multitasking. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Trigger 3: Too much to think about stresses us out, which leads to a short fuse.

A recent study by NPR and the Harvard School of Public Health found that one of the top causes of stress is having too many responsibilities to deal with at once. According to Dr. Frank Farley, a psychologist and professor at Temple University, this is exactly what happens at the airport. “You go to the airport, and there are too many things to worry about: what to do with your luggage, are you going to pay extra money for a better seat, do you need to get food to bring on the plane, are they going to stop you while you go through security,” explains Farley.

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A midflight cocktail isn’t always a good idea. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Trigger 4: When people fly, there’s often drinking or pill taking involved, so they can be more impulsive.

People tend to think of having a drink or taking a Valium on a plane as a way to relax, but that’s not all it does. “Alcohol and medications can disinhibit — or lower inhibitions,” says Wetzler, which may make people behave in an inappropriate way they wouldn’t otherwise.

Related: Confessions of a Fed-Up Flight Attendant: Attack of the Ambien Zombies

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It’s easy to snap! (Photo: Thinkstock)

Trigger 5: Lots of people are anxious about flying, so they’re already on edge.

“A lot of people have a lot of anxiety about flying,” says Bricker. “And when we’re anxious, we’re more prone to lash out at each other.” Think of a taut rubber band: The tighter it is to start with, the more likely it is that a little extra pressure will make it snap.

Related: Confessions of a Pilot: Debunking the Biggest Air Travel Myths

Trigger 6: Others are belligerent and in a bad mood — and it’s contagious.

For all the reasons already mentioned, people can be grouchy — or worse — when they travel. And that affects everyone. “There’s something called emotional contagion: Someone starts something and everyone piles on,” explains Farley. “So we had one or two air rage incidents, and now it’s become almost an epidemic.”

WATCH: Are Reclining Seats a Right or a Privilege?

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