Putting dirty feet on the furniture. Kicking the seat in front of you. Leaving nail clippings on the floor. Grabbing someone by the throat when they recline.
A lot of things happen on airplanes that don’t regularly occur at the mall, theater, ballpark or neighbor’s house. The thin air and high stress, plus attitudes toward airlines and their employees, seem to foment rude, even violent behavior—not to mention all the disgusting things your mother told you never to do at home.
Frequent traveler Nic Lesmeister thinks uncouth conduct happens more often on domestic flights, where travelers are more anxious, pushy and impatient.
“Planes are more crowded, seats are smaller, connecting times are shorter and amenities are growing more rare,” he says. The stress of fighting other travelers for scarce overhead bin space sets people on edge.
“Then you sit in your seat with 28-inch legroom, squeezed next to some guy who thinks your tray table is his,” says Mr. Lesmeister, a Dallas-area entrepreneur.
The International Air Transport Association, a Geneva-based airline trade association, says unruly passenger incidents are growing at a rapid clip world-wide. Airlines reported 10,854 unruly passenger incidents to IATA in 2015, up nearly 17% from the prior year. That’s about 30 incidents a day.
IATA says the majority of incidents involve verbal abuse, failure to follow crew instructions and other forms of antisocial behavior. Only 11% involved physical altercations or aircraft damage. Alcohol or drug intoxication was identified as a factor in nearly one-quarter of the incidents. “It does seem the issue is getting worse,” says Chris Goater, IATA spokesman in Geneva.
Academics have started to examine airborne behavior issues more closely. A new study published in September in the Social Science Journal found that imprudent behavior on planes relates, not surprisingly, to lack of self-control and is more likely to come from males, infrequent fliers or people who are more self-centered. The survey was given to 750 U.S. adults with a mean age of 40 who signed up for a consumer research polling service.
The survey focused on specific airplane cabin behavior such as swearing at someone who repeatedly bumps your seat back, waiting to recline your seat until leveling off at cruising altitude, washing hands after using the bathroom and even passing gas on an airplane.
Some of that behavior was chosen because it directly or indirectly has resulted in emergency landings or diversions, says study author Ryan Meldrum of Florida International University. Other questions measured attitudes on concern for other passengers, compliance and safety.
Dr. Meldrum usually studies whether personality traits can predict violent crime. When he saw a passenger on a flight slow up boarding because he insisted on getting to a bathroom before takeoff, he wondered if the same correlations he saw with criminals applied to travelers. The results confirmed his suspicions about the types of people who behave this way.
“The overall findings were consistent with more serious forms of violence,” he says. He suggests one issue that makes bad behavior more common on planes is the strains of air travel “may deplete self-control reservoirs” in people with limited self-control.
Airlines have trained crews in techniques to de-escalate confrontations and to know when to stop serving passengers alcohol, IATA’s Mr. Goater says. In many alcohol-related incidents, passengers have loaded up in airport bars or brought duty-free liquor onboard. IATA is currently trying to work with airports to better train bartenders to cut off passengers who have had too many.
Asked whether air-travel conditions—high load factors, cramped seating, baggage fees and space shortages, delays and long lines—play a role, Mr. Goater of the IATA says airlines don’t think there’s evidence.
“The vast, vast majority of people manage to rub along OK, find a way to share their armrest and not annoy each other,” he says.
IATA is pushing for countries around the world to update laws so that airlines can seek repayment for financial impact of flight diversions and countries where arrests are made can prosecute offenders. Historically the country where the flight originated had jurisdiction. The U.S., Canada and some countries in Europe have already adopted stiffer penalties for unruly passenger behavior and given themselves authority to prosecute.
Tougher penalties have reduced the number of U.S. incidents. From 1997 through 2004, there were more than 200 unruly passenger incidents in the U.S. every year, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, peaking at 310 in 2004. As of Oct. 13, there have been only 60 incidents this year, a pace that would end the year with fewer than 80.
But there have been some unbelievable episodes lately. In March, jurors found Lawrence Wells Jr., 54, of Richmond, Calif., guilty of misdemeanor assault for grabbing a woman by the neck after she reclined her seat soon after takeoff on a Southwest Airlines LUV -8.46 % flight. The San Francisco-bound plane, which had sat on the tarmac more than two hours waiting to takeoff, returned to Los Angeles International Airport and Mr. Wells was given a citation to appear in court. Mr. Wells was acquitted of a more serious felony charge of causing bodily injury and sentenced to 200 hours of community service.
His attorney, Alan Eisner, says Mr. Wells was under the stress of caring for a hospitalized sister in worsening condition and supporting a disabled brother, and takes anxiety medication when flying. During the delays on the ground he politely asked the woman in front of him to return her reclined seat upright, as FAA rules dictate, and she snapped at him verbally, Mr. Eisner says. A flight attendant told her to straighten her seat, then immediately after wheels up she moved the seat back, crunching Mr. Wells knees. “He reacted as he never had before in his life,” says Mr. Eisner. Mr. Wells had no prior record.
A 72-year-old Korean tourist who became violent on a flight from Honolulu to Tokyo pleaded guilty to interfering with a flight crew and was ordered to pay United Airlines $ 44,235 to cover the costs of turning around and going back to Hawaii. Hyong Tae Pae was also sentenced to time served in jail, which was 13 days.
Mr. Pae was doing yoga in the rear of the plane when flight attendants told him to return to his seat during meal service. Authorities said he went into a rage and two U.S. Marines onboard helped to restrain him. His attorney, J.T. Kim, says Mr. Pae “wasn’t thinking properly” after being sleep-deprived and is making monthly payments to United through a probation office in Honolulu.
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Write to Scott McCartney at firstname.lastname@example.org