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Unruly Passengers? It’s the Seats, Stupid

Unruly Passengers? It’s the Seats, Stupid

Citing a litany of recent air-rage incidents, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which claims to represent the interests of 240 of the world’s commercial airlines, is undertaking a major effort to raise awareness of the problem and pushing for a legislative solution.

In just four years, IATA has recorded over 15,000 incidents of unruly passenger behavior. More worrisome is the overall trend line. The number increased from just a few hundred in 2007 to more than 6,000 in 2011.

To cope with the rise in unruliness, which IATA says threatens both travelers’ safety and airlines’ finances, the association is recommending that the 1963 Tokyo Convention be revised to give pilots and cabin crew more legal authority to confront misbehavior while in flight.

That, IATA argues, is the definitive solution, assuring us that all other options having been exhausted: “Our members are doing everything possible to avoid unruly pax incidents and manage situations when the occur.”

Cause & Effect: Crusher Seats & Air Rage

IATA’s reassurances notwithstanding, many flyers will find the association’s analysis shallow and self-serving. Although passenger misbehavior is undoubtedly a real problem, it is a problem largely of the airlines’ own making.

Airline passengers are unruly because they’re stressed, uncomfortable, irritated. Why? In large part, because the airlines are intent on cramming more bodies into fewer, smaller seats. As the claustrophobia quotient rises, so does the tension. And as the tension increases, so do the number of outbursts.

According to a New York Times article, average coach legroom has actually decreased by 10 percent over the past 20 years, from 34 inches to between 30 and 32 inches, even as the average height, weight, and girth of flyers have all increased.

Meanwhile, the airlines are flying fuller than ever, with load factors averaging more than 80 percent even during the lowest-demand months.

So oblivious have the airlines become to the discomfort they routinely purvey that Airbus has begun chiding them for subjecting their customers to “crusher seats.”

Is it any wonder that flyers are acting out?

Real Problem, Real Solution

IATA should turn its attention to the cause of the unruly behavior, and assist members airlines in devising a plan to address the root problem rather than the symptoms.

What’s needed aren’t more legal rights for pilots. What’s needed are more customer-friendly airlines. And more comfortable coach-class seats would be a giant step in that direction.

Reader Reality Check

What do you think is the primary cause of unruly flyer behavior?

The solution?

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  • CA1900

    After the miserable flight I just had in one of American’s new A319 interiors, I’m starting to understand the rage. Never in my life have I been so uncomfortable in an airline seat. AA’s response to my complaint was that the seats are thinner, so I haven’t lost any space. That is a LIE. The seat in front of me was so close that it hit my shins, and I couldn’t even put my legs under the seat in front of me.

  • peterknight

    As long as the flying public act as sheeps nothing is going to change. They (airlines) keep saying the public is demanding cheaper seats. Yet the fares are increasing (extra fees anyone?) and they still keep flying. And then they say compared to 1970’s dollar it is cheap. Why are we considering yesteryears dollar value. We live in the present, no?

  • Madd Maxx

    I’ve been MANY places where people were packed in like sardines, and not ONCE was there a whimper, an argument, or an irritation. It’s not the seats. It’s people’s attitudes.

  • Eric Westby

    Remember, airfares aren’t the only thing that’s gone up roughly 4x since the 1970s; everything else has too, including salaries. To compare fares now to fares then, it’s necessary to include a correction for inflation precisely because, as you put it, “we live in the present.” Economics 101.

  • Jasper2

    When you buy an Airline ticket, you are not only buying a service with a choice of amenities (schedule, number of stops, priority seating, included checked baggage, etc.), you are also renting a space on the airliner. Space is a limited commodity. If you need or want a larger seat, they are available at a premium price. As long as you have a choice (dictated by supply and demand) of a larger seat at a higher price, what’s the beef? Smaller persons may be quite comfortable in a smaller seat. Why should they pay for more space than they want or require? Also, why should a 285 lb 6 1/2 feet tall individual get free space and free fuel? If you are talking inanimate freight, you expect to pay more to ship a larger package, do you not?

    I am not tiny–I’m 6 feet tall and weigh 180 lb. I have found a smaller seat on short flights is not a big deal for me, so I opt for the smaller seat and save $35 on a flight. If I’m flying on an international flight, I might opt for a premium seat, or even business class. I have that choice, but it isn’t a necessity. If I were 285 lb and 6 1/2 feet tall, a larger seat might be my best option, but it IS an option.

    If you think that because you chose to fly on a smaller seat than you find comfortable, does that give you the right to be rude and unruly?

    With all due respect, it is the lack of civility in our society that is the root explanation for rudeness. If you think you have a “right” to free stuff, then someone else is compelled to pay for your so called free stuff. Is that right?

  • Elenor

    But even if you can AFFORD the larger seat — they offer … what? 20 of them on a flight of several hundred pax? Because I am large, I choose to fly biz class — which cuts down on how often I fly — but prevents discomfort and possible DVT! I also almost always have the option of making my reservations months in advance — so I usually CAN get the larger seat for larger pax for a larger price… But when you cram lots and lots of people into a tiny cramped, uncomfortable, space with lower pressure and drier air — seats smaller than is the average for Americans — and then ‘lock’ them in for an hour or longer — you WILL get people who lose their composure!

    Lack of civility? Certainly that exists: Do you also apply that ‘lack’ to the purveyer of tight seats that recline back into one’s face and prevent one from holding even a paperback book in reading position? If you *must* travel transcon, say, within a reasonable amount of time — then, in fact, you do NOT have a choice about how to get there. And if the airlines would offer — at REASONABLE prices — (a large enough number of) larger seats for larger people, they would no doubt get them happily paying for them! But they offer very FEW larger seats at exhorbitant prices — and then are baffled by people getting testy at being locked for hours in a cage lose composure. (And oh yeah — how about dropping the booze from flying — what’s the point of that?!) (Oh, more profit, right…)

  • Jasper2

    So airlines have been filing for bankruptcy for years because they were so profitable? Perhaps we need to have airlines run by the government. They do web sites so well.

    It is evident you didn’t read my post. You are in error about the premium seats on airliners. They are ALWAYS the last ones to sell.

    If you can’t afford to fly, don’t expect me to subsidize your fare!

  • Elenor

    I didn’t say they were profitable. I wouldn’t say that. I also didn’t say anything about the first or last to sell. Because the airlines are starved for money, it makes sense they’d offer “free” seats as a last resort — if they can get someone to pay money for a premium seat, they’d be crazy not to! However, I have yet to find a biz/1st class seat selling for a mere “$40 per leg” more than an cattle-class seat!

    I don’t expect you to subsidize my fare. How am I asking you to do that? By using miles to get a biz-class seat? By asking the airlines to make bigger (you know: HUMAN-sized) seats? Lovely for you to fit well into a tiny seat and not be inconvenienced by a full-recliner in front of you. The vast majority of folks do not.

    I can’t/won’t dispute your numbers — except to say I have not even seen a biz/1st-class section with 50 seats! I have see a 20, maybe 30, seats at *max* on a transcon — but not 50. (Maybe that’s on int’l flights?) Seven rows of four seats is 28; not 30% of your 150 pax (including first class)…. Not sure you can do that in statistic: add the seats you’re singling out into the total to determine the percentage of seats you’re singling out… But I can only go by what I have seen.

    I also do not dispute that rude and uncivil behavior is … less-than-optimal — but force any large group of animals into too-tight quarters and lock them down there and you’re likely to lose any ‘civility’ they might normally possess.

  • Jasper2


    Again, you did not read my post. I did not state that business/first class seats are available at $40 over main cabin. I said there were premium seats (are not business/first class seats “premium?”) available at that price and that there are far more than 20 such seats available on most flights. You can verify that, but I assure you that it is correct.

    On most 737-800’s there are 8 first class and 0 business class seats. Typically they sell for twice the least expensive seats but include more than just larger seats and more leg and hip room. On that same aircraft there are 7 rows of premium/exit seat rows of 6 seats.. That is 42 more seats. Are you disputing that the first class/business class PLUS the 42 additional premium seats are the last to sell? If you buy a seat on the day of the flight (I frequently do) then you know that there are nearly always first class/business class seats (at least until all the “upgrade seats” are sold just before boarding) and even more often there are premium seats in the main cabin vacated by the upgraded passengers going to first/business class.

    If you fly frequently, you most likely you are a premium award flier. In that case you get complimentary seating in premium seats with priority over non-premium award members who must pay.

    I fly to Costa Rica frequently, usually on a 737-800 from MSP to MIA, and a 757-200ER from MIA to SJO. That 757 is outfitted by American with 22 business cabin seats, and 4 exit row seats plus 7 additional rows of premium upgrade seats in the main cabin. The plane is configured with 162 seats of which there are (count ’em) 42 premium plus 22 additional exit seats (one row near an entrance has only 4 seats) in the main cabin. That is 64 seats in the main cabin, plus the aforementioned 22 in business class for a total of 86 large seats available at upgrade seat or cabin premiums. That is more than HALF of the seats on the plane with only 76 standard seats left.

    I am booked on such a flight later this month, and virtually ALL the standard seats are sold (maybe one or two singleton seats left). Yet the vast majority of the $41-$49 upgrade seats remain unsold! Doesn’t that suggest that most people would rather “tolerate” being squeezed like a sardine for a 3-1/2 hour flight MIA to SJO than pay $41 to be comfortable? Only half of the exit row seats are available as well, and in many cases, these are free!

    There is a trade off between seat price and seat size. What more fair way is their to allocate space on an airliner? If you count exit seats as an upgrade (they actually cost nothing additional at boarding) and have more leg room only) plus other premium main cabin seats, and front cabin seats as a third category of size, that would seem to be sufficient.

    Airlines are constantly fine tuning their pricing to make sure that all seats are occupied. It is a fact in todays market you have to have at least 80% occupancy to break even!

    You DID take a swipe at airlines for selling alcohol on their flights (“for additional PROFITS”). Would you prefer they either not serve alcohol, thereby putting price pressure on all of the seats, including non-imbibers, or offering free alcohol to anyone over 21 (also putting price pressure on all of the seats!)?

    No one is “forced” to fly in a seat that is too small for his/her dimensions. Every one certainly has an option to upgrade their seating at not much more than the cost of checked baggage (yes, they charge for this in most is additional service at additional cost!)

    You seem to be of a mindset that suggests the airlines should somehow be required to provide certain levels of service, I think that notion is wrong headed. What is wrong with having a choice? I can eat at McDonalds for $10, (if I am desperate) or eat in a real restaurant at twice the price. Do you think McDonalds should be “required” to serve delicious and nutritious food for $20 rather than offer a choice to their customers who are free to go elsewhere–including preparing a nutricious meal at home for less?

    In a free economy, people make economic choices in everything they do and everything they buy. Why should airline tickets be different? Would you prefer that we Obamatize airline tickets ala Obamacare, where you MUST purchase something because the government says it is good for you?

    I, for one, vote NO!

  • Jon

    OK, Jasper, I’m 6’5″ and only 170 lbs. Why am I subsidizing your extra 10 pounds and your fat head? Sit in front of me and try to recline your seat and let’s see you turn into one of those unruly passengers who feels THEIR rights are being violated because I refuse to move my knees in MY space to suit their desires. I’ve never said a peep or opened my mouth but it’s amazing how many people in front of me go ballistic. I’ve no problem with the captain throwing them off the plane.

  • Jasper2

    Are you serious?

    If so, i do think you are in serious need of professional help. In what way, in your wildest imaginary world, are you subsidizing my “extra” 10 pounds? By the way, have you looked into anger management?

    I’ve been flying commercial for over 50 years and have never once had an altercation with even the nastiest person on board any aircraft I was seated in. If you sit in a seat too small for you I guess that’s your business. I don’t look for trouble, and oddly, trouble doesn’t find me.

    P.S: Both you and I know your height and weight can’t be verified.

  • Yo! Mama!

    I live in the Middle East and frequently fly back and forth to Los Angeles, primarily on Delta/KLM. I have come to feel that flying economy class on such flights is just plain torture–there are no kick-up plates to elevate your feet on 12-hour flights, almost no seat or leg room for a tall person, and the flights are generally completely full, so it’s a contest to find a place to stow a carryon. Obviously having medallion status helps with finding storage space as you can board first, but how can a person sit in one tiny seat elbow to elbow with strangers and without leg space for that many hours without becoming irritable and highly stressed? The last time I flew economy on this flight, we were not allowed to stand or stretch near the galleys due to “security” issues. Not only is this situation unhealthy physically, it’s a recipe for acting out. Even the airline employees are stressed–who can blame them? The airlines are concerned only with their shareholders–not with their customers, and THAT is where the source of customer frustration begins, because that’s where more butts in seats and more seats in smaller spaces begins.

  • Marisa Garcia

    Tim, I think your point about the seat-comfort factor is well taken. Certainly, increased cabin comfort improves the passenger experience. A direct correlation to the mood and behaviour of passengers can be inferred from that. I believe that careful consideration to the cabin, ensuring passenger comfort, customer-focus of cabin crew, and also reliability of service can make great strides towards improving the experience for all passengers and reducing the frequency of these incidents.

    There are other factors, however, which come into play. In some cases, it is also a reflection of a wider tendency towards uncivil behaviour in other facets of life. We are perhaps not as kind, gentle, and courteous as we once were.

    That said, the IATA statistics you’ve listed above reflect an alarming increase in incidents since 2007 and that cannot be attributed merely to a cultural shift. Something is wrong with the aviation service model if there can be such a spike in the numbers. These figures must be taken seriously by the aviation industry as a whole.

    I have to disagree with you on the matter of rights for cabin crew. We need to remember that for pilots and flight attendants this is their work place, and hostile work place environments require that the rights of the employees be considered. Neither flight attendants nor pilots make the decisions on cabin design discussed here, and they should not bear the brunt for the result, even if we can prove a direct-correlation between the two. They should be allowed to intervene and to take necessary action to contain a situation, before it puts the safety of all passengers on an aircraft at risk.

  • roadrunner

    I’ll keep saying it until Congress or the FAA listens….we need to regulate the width of seats (no less than 21″) and seat pitch (no less than 34-35″). We regulate lots of other things in our world — the width of parking places in parking garages, the size of buildings. People deserve some sort of basic comfort. And yes, it may cost the airlines a few $s more, but they’re now making money hand over fist. People traveling in coach deserve a basic minimum comfort!

  • MSa

    Some of us just can’t afford to fly business or first class or our work rules don’t allow us to buy business class seats. I would pay more for a larger seat without the business class amenities, but that is almost never an option.

  • rdrago43

    While airlines cramming as many people as they can on a plane certainly adds to passenger’s stress, there are other factors as well:

    – People in general have a “it’s all about me” attitude
    – With lower airfares, you have many more *inexperienced* flyers

    However, in my own experience over the last few years, the airline personnel are partly responsible for this as well:

    Every airline has created an Economy Plus (or something similar) section separate from the Economy section.

    I cannot tell you how many times the airline gate/ticket agents will give out Economy Plus seats to people who did not pay for Economy Plus or have Silver/Gold/Platinum/etc. status EVEN though there were available seats in Economy.

    So, you have experienced flyers or people that have paid for better seating, sitting with someone who is probably an inexperienced flyer with an “it’s all about me” attitude…

  • DeWhit

    The right to travel is guaranteed in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights !
    Oh…never mind.
    My great great great gramps said he always tried to sit up front with the stage coach drivers when he traveled a lot as a regional manager for a pick ax company long ago.
    He said bugs in your teeth and tree limbs were the big problems then.
    They gave him free whiskey when he took a arrow thru the shoulder.