Air rage: clouded judgements

The average passenger is unlikely ever to witness an incident of 'plane endangerment'. So why the obsession with air rage?

Iain Murray

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The case of Jonathan Burton, whose death in the USA in August 2000 after an ‘air rage’ incident now seems to have been caused by his fellow passengers, has led to more questions about how such incidents should be handled.

The circumstances were typical of ‘air rage’ episodes: a passenger starts behaving strangely, there are hints that he is on drugs, he suddenly starts trying to force his way into the cockpit, expressing a desire to fly the plane, and the situation turns violent as he is restrained from doing so.

Such ordeals are all the more terrifying because of the very vulnerability of aeroplanes – thin, pressurised shells, all alone in the sky. But in general, is any strong reaction called for?

First of all, we should be certain what we are talking about here. The term ‘air rage’ has been applied loosely to encompass any and all raising of tempers associated with airlines. Some surveys even apply the term to people raising their voices to ground staff, angry at their flight having been cancelled without explanation. Such things are no more ‘air rage’ than getting angry at somebody who has rear-ended you is ‘road rage’. They are natural reactions to frustration, are commonplace and mundane, and require no action other than trying to avoid the frustration-causing circumstances in the first place.

More serious are incidents of ‘plane endangerment’, where the perpetrator actually forms a threat to the security of the aeroplane, putting many lives at risk. These incidents are few and far between – the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority, which tightly defines ‘air rage’ in a way the US Federal Aviation Administration does not, found only 100 such seriously disruptive passengers out of 85,000,000 in 1998 (that is about one in a million passengers). The odds are that the average passenger will never see such an incident of ‘plane endangerment’.

But what should we do about those few incidents that do occur? Because of their rarity, many courses of action that immediately suggest themselves would simply be overreactions or prohibitively expensive, or both. So we can rule out having a police officer on board every flight, or a doctor equipped with sedatives.

Even having a trained security guard on board every flight would be very expensive, and would probably push up the costs of flying so much that some people (including, inevitably, those most at risk of ‘air rage’) might be deterred from buying tickets. This would not be an attractive option for the industry, and might also lead to less serious incidents being treated in a more heavy-handed fashion – with, for example, exuberance being punished. (There is every indication that this happens already, even without Group 4 being involved.)

Instead, perhaps we should consider the rarity of these incidents in their proper context. Any reaction by the airlines to these incidents, even the increased costs of conflict-avoidance training for air crew, might then be seen as an inappropriate overreaction. In fact, any moves taken that might increase the unwieldiness or frustration involved in travelling by air might themselves generate more of the lesser ‘air rage’ incidents referred to above. Their cost, in other words, would well outweigh their benefits.

Moreover, we should also remember that outrageous behaviour happens everywhere, and has always happened. In ancient Greece, when Oedipus met his father Laius at the crossroads outside Thebes, refused to give way and killed him, was that an example of ‘road rage’ or simply egregious, unforgivable behaviour?

Taking into account factors such as the increased strength of alcohol in the air, smoking bans and authority conflicts, serious ‘air rage’ is probably no more likely than, say, ‘bus rage’ or, indeed, ‘cruise ship rage’. Wouldn’t airlines and passengers gain more peace of mind by relaxing just a little?

Iain Murray is senior research analyst with the non-profit non-partisan think-tank Statistical Assessment Service (STATS), in Washington, DC, which looks at how statistical, scientific and social research is dealt with by the media and policymakers.

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