​6 scientific reasons why people are a$$h*les on airplanes


Ever since the days of scantily clad stewardesses and cigar-smoking passengers gave way to “flight attendants” and smoke detectors in the toilets, flying has gotten progressively less posh. People suck, planes are cramped, and you suffer dozens of indignities before even reaching your tiny seat.

But lately, seeing as plane after plane's been diverted by belligerent passengers and Knee Defenders, we wondered what exactly about flying brings out the worst in humans -- aside from the food, of course. So we asked experts -- two psychologists, and a veteran pilot -- to find out.

flickr/dan paluska

1. People hate not being in control

Flying stresses -- long lines, security scrutinizing you and your belongings, being told to take off shoes and fasten seat belts -- make people feel like they lack control, which leads to fear, anxiety, and ultimately acting out.

“Few things can leave you feeling less in control than flying -- someone else is driving, you can only get up when you have permission, there’s a lot of noise, you’re often left in the dark", clinical psychologist Dr. Ramani Durvasula told Thrillist. "When we feel out of control, our emotions get out of control too, and anger and frustration are going to lead the fray. It's a recipe for rage".


2. Primal instincts kick in

Protecting the armrest is the airspace equivalent of protecting the nest.

“There rarely is anything more holy to us than our boundaries”, said Michael Brein, a PhD who calls himself the Travel Psychologist. “When these are infringed upon, then all hell can break loose".

Brein explains that tight quarters and no escape route exacerbate the issues.

“You’re forced into unwanted intimacy and forced to adapt. You try to withdraw as much as you can, but in an aircraft and with the frustrations and anxiety that accompany flight, all the stress and pent up anxiety and frustration on top of having your personal space infringed upon leads to rage”.

flickr/philip capper

3. Being horrible is contagious

“Monkey see, monkey do”, Brein said. While we may not consciously emulate others, seeing people act out, both in real life and in the news, may encourage similar behavior -- a riot mentality, if you will. Humans naturally mimic their surroundings to fit in.

Plus, if everyone around you is a grumpy a-hole, chances are you'll experience emotional feces runoff.

foam party

4. More awful humans are flying today

Obviously, some people have always sucked, but the degree of suckage is worsening.

Patrick Smith, who’s been a commercial airline pilot since 1990 and blogs for askthepilot.com, says that although air rage is trendy in the media now, it's been an issue for airlines for years. Smith claims that lower airfares have led to the possible increase in the number of airline incidents, because cheaper prices have resulted in a change in demographics.

“In previous decades, when flying was a lot more expensive and exclusive, you didn't have gangs of inebriated college kids flying off to Cancun for the weekend”, he explains, adding that flying has also become a less dignified experience than it once was, and, “right or wrong, passengers don't feel an obligation to behave as politely as they once did”.


5. Alcohol acts as a catalyst

Captain Smith says alcohol is involved in a very high percentage of air rage incidents, and Brein agrees that alcohol and meds at high altitudes cause passengers to become less inhibited, and discard self-control.

“Booze and airplanes are not a good idea. It's like having a bar where there isn't quite enough oxygen; the effects of alcohol tend to be potentiated at altitude”, Dr. Durvasula explains.

In laymen's terms: Drinking while you're crammed into a skybound container and battling for leg room isn't doing you any good.

Paramount Pictures/Planes, Trains and Automobiles ?

6. Airline profitability drives misery

Airlines are businesses. Perhaps not well-managed businesses, in some cases, but all have one thing in mind: to make as much money as possible. That means shoving as many people into their winged sardine cans as they can, charging for extra bags, and maybe not giving you peanuts.


”Just like people have road rage, and lose control, I think the loss of personal control on planes causes rage. Airlines are violating personal space. Grossly", Brein says. "They are overstepping it and it’s becoming dangerous. It’s almost a crime”.

While no magic bullet exists to cure what ails the airline industry, the next time you fly, at least consider all that's going on around you -- if only so you don't end up fighting over the armrest, moaning about legroom, or, kicked off and in cuffs.

Sophie-Claire Hoeller is Thrillist's associate travel editor, and the only thing that gives her air rage is screaming children. Follow her @Sohostyle.