The Fascinating Correlation Between First Class And Air Rage

Filed Under: Media

I’ve always assumed that there’s a high correlation between low cost carriers and air rage. The logic is simply that low cost carriers make travel more affordable and accessible, and I generally assume that air rage is at least somewhat correlated to infrequent travelers who get disproportionately stressed on planes. There are of course exceptions, but in general someone less familiar with something is more likely to overreact.

That was my assumption, at least. Well, a new study is out, which suggests an interesting correlation between air rage and the existence of a first class cabin.

This CNN article has the results of the study which was conducted by the University of Toronto, including that passengers in economy are 3.84x more likely to have an air rage incident if there’s also a first class cabin, and are 2.14x more likely to have an air rage incident if they had to walk through the first class cabin during boarding.

Here’s the logic for that:

“Psychology (research) tells us that when people feel a sense of deprivation and inequality, they are more likely to act out,” said Katherine A. DeCelles, associate professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto.

Passengers are probably not even consciously aware of the deprivation and inequality, and how much it is stressing them out, DeCelles said.


There’s more. Passengers in first class are 12x more likely to have an air rage incident if all passengers boarded through first class, rather than there being separate jet bridges for first class and economy class passengers.

Here’s the logic for that:

“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,” DeCelles said.

American-767-Business-Class - 3

Subconsciously I can certainly see why the above is the case, though the study doesn’t reveal which airline’s data was used for the study, making me wonder whether there’s more to this. I imagine there are other possible triggers, especially since reports of air rage often go unreported.

It sort of reminds me of this clip from “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” where Larry goes to economy to use the bathroom there, where he gets into a confrontation with an economy passenger over “class:”

Either way, I thought the study was interesting, since it made me consider air rage in a different light. I can certainly see why subconsciously the existence of a first class cabin may factor into air rage, both from economy and first class passengers.

What do you make of this study?

  1. Except that the study is badly designed and doesn’t at all show what it purports to show. They went looking to make a point about inequality and they found it, without accounting for more likely explanatory factors than the existence of a first class cabin or passengers boarding through first class.

    Sadly I had to pay $10 to read the research underlying the article to learn this!

  2. This got me thinking…. The airlines are happy to board using the front door for general boarding as a way to advertise their premium product.

  3. Perhaps Emirates and Etihad knew this and hence why they kept economy in the lower deck and business/first in upper deck?
    On that note, would be interesting if a similar air rage occurs for business class passengers who pass by the first class cabin? 😉

  4. As a bit of a statistics wonk myself, this stinks. We’ve gotta look for correlations before assuming causation. For example, maybe the kinds of aircraft on which economy passengers walk through the first class cabin are domestic narrow-bodies, whereas on long-haul wide-bodies there tend to be separate jet-bridges. In which case, maybe the decline in domestic first class service standards could be to blame for the higher incidence of first class air rage. Or maybe there’s a difference in the passenger pool — an attitude of entitlement from the upgraded elites who dominate domestic first class. Or maybe people are just more stressed-out on domestic flights than on international long-hauls.

    To draw a conclusion such as “people from higher social class backgrounds are more antisocial when they are more aware of their higher status”, you’d need to run similar aircraft on similar routes with similar crews and similar passenger demographics, and board half of the aircraft through one jet-bridge and the other half through two jet-bridges. Then you could start parsing differences. But drawing causal inferences from a data set like this stinks.

  5. Nope. Their findings are not only coincidental but also opportunistic to their own conclusions.

    Where’s the hypotheses surrounding legacy carriers, which also happen to have first class cabins, being apathetic and beuracratic and thus create more frustrations for passengers? First, coach, frequent and infrequent travellers alike.

    You can apply the same question to the single jet bridge finding. And also ask how many non North American carriers have a proportional use of multi jet bridge boarding vs North American based carriers. I’m sure it’s significant.

    People get upset because many NA Carriers are careless and beuracratic. Not because they happen to have 2 classes of service.

  6. Good first class generally tends to be in long haul flights, which themselves are more likely to cause air rage due to longer periods in uncomfortable cabins. This study is BS, as I’ve yet to hear of air rage against first class specifically, and is usually between the rude / disrespectful coach passengers who annoy one another.

  7. Are you all reading the same article/research that I am? Where are these “conclusions” that you keep talking about (though you seem to have no problem coming up with your own)? They are stating their findings but where are they stating that first class CAUSES air rage?

  8. IV. Advertising has nothing to do with boarding door. Very few models actually have a boarding door aft of the front boarding door so it’s out of necessity that those are loaded up from the front.

  9. Josh, the psychology behind “people from higher social class backgrounds are more antisocial when they are more aware of their higher status”, while mentioned in this is NOT evident of this study. That is a widely known psychological trait in all humans.

    Some of you are really taking your own conclusions way too far. Why are you so defensive???

  10. I think there might be something to this. I kinda get stressed if I have to fly economy (even if it’s just a 2 hour flight). But when I fly business class, after relaxing in the quiet lounge and then being shown a nice seat on the plane…I’m happy. People who have short fuses, might lose it in economy. It seems like I watch more crazy passenger viral videos that are recorded in Y than J.

  11. “It seems like I watch more crazy passenger viral videos that are recorded in Y than J.”

    Could that be because there are more people who fly in Y than in J, Sherlock?

  12. As Josh has mentioned above, rule #1 about statistics is that correlation does not equal causation.

  13. @ Michael – The statement about higher status leading to antisocial attitudes was made by the lead author of the study, Katherine DeCelles, to explain the higher rate of air rage among first-class passengers on flights where all passengers boarded through the first-class section. So, yes, it was a conclusion of this study. But good on you for trying!

  14. On the ever more rare occasion that I sit in business class these days I try to avoid eye contact with the throngs who pass by me clutching their neck pillows. Call it guilt or whatever. Actually for me the best take away from this article and TV clip was Larry David’s point about shoelaces – yes, they are making them longer these days, and someone in the shoe business should really take a look at that!

  15. @Josh. That’s exactly it. There is NO conclusion made anywhere in the study. You can’t have conclusion without correlation but you can certainly have correlation without conclusion (or causation). The only conclusions of causation I’ve seen regarding this article are in the comments. I’m not trying at anything, these are points of view and we are discussing them.

  16. As someone who hasn’t flown economy in many years, I have to say that the dirty looks given by quite a few people on the way back do not go unnoticed. There is a healthy (in some cases un-healthy) resentment from people who fly in the back, especially when they too have elite tags hanging from their carry-ons. The sense of entitlement from elites is almost as bad as the jealousy of those who rarely fly and have probably never sat in the front of the plane. This is just logical.

  17. @ Michael – The reason studies get published is to present conclusions. In this case, the study’s stated in its very first line: “We suggest that physical and situational inequality are built into people’s everyday environments—such as the modern airplane—and that exposure to these forms of inequality can trigger antisocial behavior.”

    That is a causal claim. Either grow a brain, or stop trolling.

  18. @ Josh Thank you but I grow my brain every day as I seek to learn in every instance. Conversation is not trolling. Commenting on an article just to be defensive and augmentative is. Troll along now.

  19. The study seems silly but I can definitely see the changes in air travel in recent years. Does F (now) represent a degree of economic and social stratification that seem to be growing over time and for which the airlines are glad to exploit with their “red carpet” walks into the jetway, etc? Does the widening income inequality and wealth gap in America stoke this stuff? The divide between F and Y is growing bigger all the time and the way it is marketed is somewhat “in your face” as opposed to subtle. I don’t know if this causes air rage but I’m sure there is growing resentment. I feel it when I board first. And having migrated to premium cabins in recent years from the back of the plane, I understand.

  20. I think this air rage thing is pretty much made up by the press and social media. Take any random group of people and you get 10% idiots and 1% who are completely nuts. They just tend to freak out, be it on the plane, in their car, or their living room (think domestic violence).

  21. Once I was flying from Shanghai to Vancouver in Air Canada business class, and unfortunately Air Canada only opened one business class lavatory before the plane is airborne. So I went back to use an economy lavatory, and people looked at me outrageously, wondering “where is this guy from, age of 14?”

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