Although you probably don't want to admit it, commercial air travel doesn't bring out the best in you. The inevitable combination of pre-boarding gate lurkers, overhead bin space hogs, seat kickers, shoulder-sleepers, and other inconsiderate asshats can leave you shaking with anger by the time you reach cruising altitude. But it turns out there's a much subtler trigger behind the unruly outbursts, fistfights, and incidents of "air rage" you hear about on the news: the first class cabin.
A recent study by researchers at the University of Toronto and Harvard Business School claims that the physical class system -- separate first class and coach cabins -- on planes often creates inequality among passengers and causes some of them exhibit "antisocial behavior," or what's been dubbed as "air rage." In fact, the study finds that such incidents are more likely to occur on flights with a first class cabin, and that passengers in both classes are more likely to experience outbursts when economy passengers have to walk through first class while boarding the plane, according to a report by TIME. The researchers looked a data on incident reports from millions of flights.
Basically, having to take the sad walk through the first class cabin -- usually while the passengers already seated there are being served beverages -- rubs what the researchers describe as your “relatively disadvantaged status" in your stupid plebe face, which doesn't make you feel very great now, does it? On the flip side, first class passengers were more likely be frustrated and aggressive when other passengers boarded through their cabin instead of via a separate entrance (and when the hell does that happen?).
"Psychology (research) tells us that when people feel a sense of deprivation and inequality, they are more likely to act out," Katherine DeCelles, associate professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto, told CNN. Conversely, she explained, "When people from higher social class backgrounds are more aware of their higher status, they are more likely to be antisocial, to have entitled attitudes and to be less compassionate."
Worse yet, the study's author fear that the perceived inequality -- and "air rage" incidents -- will likely only get worse as airlines continue to cut back on economy cabin legroom while making first glass bigger and fancier. It's worth noting, however, that "air rage" is still extremely rare -- with only 1.58 incidents in economy and 0.31 incidents in first class for every 1,000 flights with first class sections, per the CNN report. You know what's not rare at all, though? Restraining your "air rage" every time you fly.
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Tony Merevick is Cities News Editor at Thrillist and can usually spot a flight's first class passengers before we even board. Send news tips to firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @tonymerevick.