Inequality created by having two or more travel classes on flights could be triggering air rage, researchers claim.
Travellers in economy seats were almost four times more likely to cause disruption if they were on a flight with a first-class cabin, a study published in a US journal found.
This was equivalent to the same level of irritation that passengers would face from a nine-and-a-half-hour delay.
Katherine A DeCelles, associate professor of organisational behaviour at the University of Toronto, said that research suggested “when people feel a sense of deprivation and inequality, they are more likely to act out”.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, analysed several years of flight records from an unnamed international airline, the Times reported.
It controlled for conventional sources of air rage such as lack of legroom, delays and flight distance to discover the other factors that drove passengers to violent outbursts.
The existence of a first-class cabin increased the chances of air rage by 3.84 times compared with a single-class flight, the research found.
It revealed that travellers were 2.18 times more likely to lash out if they were forced to walk through the first-class section to board, instead of entering directly into economy through the middle of the aircraft.
First-class travellers also appeared to be angered by the presence of economy passengers. The study found that there was a 12-fold rise in air rage incidents among top-paying customers when all passengers boarded via the first-class section.
Professor DeCelles, who carried out the study alongside Michael Norton, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, said: “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.”
Civil Aviation Authority figures show that 156 air rage incidents were logged by UK airlines in the first eight months of last year. This compared with 114 cases in the whole of 2014 and 39 in 2011.
The increase in incidents has prompted calls for restrictions on the sale of alcohol in airports to prevent drunken passengers boarding flights.
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