Inflight Deviant Behaviour: Appreciating the Causes

With the advancement of technology, nearly any human behaviour performed in public can be quickly and easily captured and then shared for the world to see – including incidents occurring at 30,000 feet. The combination of political tension, terrorism, mental illness, and alcohol combined with the stress of air travel means unacceptable inflight behaviour is a common problem. Flight Attendant Ground Instructor Beth Blair takes a look at the roots of such passenger deeds.

In autumn 2016 a passenger on board a Ryanair flight from Brussels to Malta used his phone to capture a video of an aggressive fistfight between several passengers. During the brawl a flight attendant and elderly passenger were included in those who were physically assaulted. Adding to the commotion, innocent bystanders feared the men would open an exit. Those of us familiar with commercial airplanes are well aware that such an event couldn’t possibly occur in a pressurised cabin, but we also recognise that laymen are not familiar with the mechanics of an aircraft’s pressurisation system and sealed doors, and are likely to panic. There is no doubt that, when such an event occurs, fears and anxiety are triggered in the flying public. The captain had no choice but to divert to Pisa. Fellow passengers (able-bodied people) jumped in to help restrain the out of control passengers.

In December 2016, an unruly passenger had to be restrained on a Korean Air flight, causing the airline to look at its procedures regarding cabin crew restraint, eventually opting to issue flight attendants with Tasers. The flight received extra attention considering 1980s singer Richard Marx was on board and intervened during the disturbance. He shared on his Facebook page: “Korean Air #480. A completely ill-prepared and untrained crew for a situation like this. Four hours of a psycho passenger attacking crew members and other passengers.”

In the United States, airlines have seen a rise in disturbances due to political-based arguments. For example, in January 2017 a woman was removed from an Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle to Baltimore-Washington during boarding. She insulted her fellow passenger for being a President Donald Trump supporter. The ending of the rant was caught on a cell phone and shared online. Conversely, there has also been a spike in verbal and physical incidents on US flights by Trump supporters who feel the current political environment validates such behaviour.

Is There a Root Cause for Passenger Disturbances?

Michael Brein, aka ‘The Travel Psychologist’ says the single most poignant factor for passengers exhibiting bad behaviour on airplanes is the loss of personal control. “When deprived of appropriate paths for dealing with increasing frustrations, by way of increasing restrictions on passengers, by airlines and flight personnel, i.e., the reduction of degrees of freedom or pathways by which passengers can express and resolve the variety of frustrations discussed above, it is reasonable that some passengers have little recourse but to ‘lash out’ or ‘lash in.’”

“When you consider that an aircraft is a constrained metallic tube in the sky with ‘no way out,’ it is no surprise that some passengers react analogously to a caged animal that is cornered,” says Brein. “With regard to interpersonal harassment on airplanes, as well as even sometimes sexual harassment lashing in’ behaviours may be because of the above factors as well as the increasing likelihood and availability of litigation these days, so the only viable outlets may be more public than private reactions and displays of bad behaviours.”

“…when you consider that an aircraft is a constrained metallic tube in the sky with ‘no way out,’ it is no surprise that some passengers react analogously to a caged animal…”

Richard Marx helping restrain a passenger on a Korean Air flight in December 2016.
Richard Marx helping restrain a passenger on a Korean Air flight in December 2016.

Other authorities agree. “Negative passenger behaviours come from their fear of being out of control on a plane. And the more controlling a person is on the ground, the more frightened they are of putting their life in someone else’s hands in the air,” says Doctor Carole Lieberman, a well-known Beverly Hills psychiatrist and expert on passenger behaviour. Doctor Lieberman created a special audio-visual programme for airlines after 9/11. The programmes are played as part of their inflight entertainment to help passengers with anxiety, fear of flying and stress, and are called The Art of Relaxation: A Spa for Your Mind. (

“One aspect is the increased security, the greater scrutiny that each traveller undergoes. Although I think we are all happy to have more security, and unfortunately are well aware of the need for it, it has come at the price of personal freedom and privacy. There is an increase in suspicion, and the traveller feels more uncomfortable and anxious than he did before,” says Doctor Michael Brein.


“My spin on the inflight deviant behaviour is that the temperament of passengers – I feel – is a result of a growing ‘Me-Me-Me’ generation… and I won’t be arrogant to say it is strictly in the lap of millennials; this spans all generations,” says Stephen Carbone, an aviation expert and author of Jet Blast.

In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 went into effect to recognise the rights of physically or otherwise challenged passengers. However, Carbone points out that while the law recognises the rights of passengers who may require a seeing eye dog, or legitimate war veterans with post-traumatic stress and their support animals, the public is taking advantage of the law. “Now we have children and adults faking a need for a ‘comfort’ animal – nothing more than the family cat or dog – and putting paying passengers with animal allergies or other handicapped passengers at risk, not only of reactions, but in case of emergency where the animal might interfere with escape. We have pigs, Shetland ponies and turkeys being used as comfort animals; that’s not an exaggeration.” Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) are allowed to travel for free with a letter from a licensed mental health professional, and such letters can be easily ordered online. True service pets are rarely an issue on board flights due to their extensive training and exposure.

“…we have pigs, Shetland ponies and turkeys being used as comfort animals…”

Megan Peabody with Hamlet, her  pot-bellied pig and emotional support animal  (Credit: Megan Peabody)
Megan Peabody with Hamlet, her
pot-bellied pig and emotional support animal
(Credit: Megan Peabody)

Another issue is entitlement, claims Carbone: “People talking loudly on cell phones while on the ground, allowing their misbehaving children free rein to kick seats and scream, or the smaller airplane seats in coach all contribute to high anxiety and short tempers.”

Sexual harrassment on flights is now commonplace.
Sexual harrassment on flights is now commonplace.

“…‘toucherism’ happens frequently on planes…”

Frequent flyer travel blogger, Stephanie Craig of concurs: “You always run into passengers who don’t understand the world doesn’t revolve around them: the guy in front of you who slams his chair into your knees, the friends who talk so loudly they can be heard three rows back, or the people who would rather run you over than not get out of the plane before you. I get it, we’re all held like cattle in a small, sweaty metal box for hours, but I have a feeling these types are much more self-aware in their daily lives.”

Personal responsibility combined with airline business can trigger inflight distress says Doctor Michael Brein, The Travel Psychologist: “In an effort to save costs, airline seats have become smaller and closer together (and planes fly with fewer empty seats). Americans (as well as other countries) have gotten larger — so this leads to discomfort, a feeling of having your personal space violated, and makes people more edgy.” The result is sometimes air rage. Brein’s quote is on point. In the 1970’s airplane seat sizes were in the 31-inch range. Today, we’re looking at 16.5 to 18-inch wide seats. As for the bodies sitting in the seats, obesity is at an all-time high. According to World Health Organisation (WHO), worldwide obesity has more than doubled since 1980 and as of 2014 more than 1.9 billion adults (age 18+) were overweight and of that statistic over 600 million were obese.

The behaviour described above has inspired various products to help the flying public combat their fellow passengers. CREATE-A-SPACE was creatively designed for passengers to have a separate armrest or divide an armrest in half. A less amiable, win-win product is the Knee Defender. This product is used to prevent airplane seatbacks from reclining but can cause tension between passengers, as proven during a dispute between two passengers aboard a United Airlines flight between Newark to Denver. The passengers turned a battle for space into a drink slinging altercation that resulted in a diversion.

Imbibing Inflight

A fear of flying can often cause passengers to indulge a little more than they would normally said Doctor Lieverman. “Oftentimes passengers try to soothe their anxiety by drinking alcohol, which makes their behaviour worse.”

Anetra Hunting, a marketing consultant also points to spirits as a culprit, “As a well-travelled passenger I’ve noticed that alcohol often fuels ridiculous passenger behaviour. The worst I’ve experienced was about 10 years ago. I was boarding a Southwest Airlines flight when I noticed a rambunctious young male (approximately early to mid-twenties). It was obvious to me that he was intoxicated and/or high, but he was still allowed to board. We ended up sitting across from each other in aisle seats. Though a short flight, he annoyed everyone around him, but flight attendants continued to serve him alcohol in an effort to keep him quiet. By the end of the flight, he was completely inebriated and a series of inappropriate outbursts and behaviours began ending in me breaking up a shouting match between the young man and an elderly man in the aisle as we prepared to deplane. He left the plane shouting a flurry of curse words and I left to complain about the flight attendants’ poor handling of the passenger. I was informed that because the attendants aren’t bar tenders, they weren’t held to the same standards. While I do not advocate for the removal of alcohol from flights, I do think airline staff should be more responsible than to continue to serve in hopes to avoid a confrontation.”

“…the boarding of a passenger who appears to be intoxicated is a violation of Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations…”

Today, there is less leeway when it comes to intoxicated passengers. If a drunk boards a flight and is caught before pushback they will be removed. In the United States it’s law:

‘The boarding of a passenger who appears to be intoxicated is a violation of Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations’ (14 CFR).

A flight attendant who asked to remain anonymous says not to assume that flight attendants over-serve intoxicated passengers. Cabin crews are aware that cutting passengers off cold turkey can cause further problems or inflight disturbances. “We have ways of keeping a liquor-drinking passenger thinking they are being served when in reality the drink is simply Coke and a drizzle of Jack Daniels (or their liquor of choice) on top for the scent.” In other words, the passenger is tricked into thinking they’re drinking a cocktail.

Misbehaviour and The Mile High Club

In October 2016 a Los Angeles-based woman flying in the United States live-tweeted a sexual assault by a man who was inappropriately touching her and trying to kiss another woman. The flight crew was informed and had law enforcement meet the plane but the ending was lacklustre. Due to the various police jurisdictions in the US, combined with the incident happening in the air, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) would be required to step in and the ladies would have to fly from their homes to Austin, Texas (the destination city) to press charges. Thus, the man was set free without any repercussions.

Cabin crews can attest that ‘toucherism’ happens frequently on planes as female (and sometimes male) flight attendants walk down the aisle or work in the galley, while passengers are also often the victims of molestation, frotteurism and even attempted rape, such as during a flight from Honolulu to Japan in 2014. Dark cabins, blankets and crowed seats spur offenders to act, whether stimulated by alcohol, drugs or mental illness. According to news reports in the US, the FBI says sexual assaults are rising and often there are very few eye witnesses since most occurrences happen on late night, long haul flights when most passengers are sleeping.

Risqué inflight behaviour with consenting individuals is associated with thrill seeking. Much like riding rollercoasters, skydiving, and swimming with sharks, sexual encounters surrounded by people on a plane can trigger an adrenaline rush. Some scientists say Dopamine is to blame for such dares. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centres. The fact that sex is a natural human urge only intensifies such scenarios, not to mention the popularity of ‘bucket lists’ (lists of activities that an individual would like to do before they die or ‘kick the bucket’).

Michael Brein calls it the perfect storm, “Mix in one part of reduced inhibition with one part of dare, and ergo: the Mile High Club!”

Stress Hormones are Doing their Job – Sometimes Too Well

Captain Tom Bunn LCSW, President of SOAR, Inc., a company that helps customers overcome their fear of flying, delves deeper into the root cause as he explains how and why stress hormones are behind problem behaviour: “When stress levels are high enough, our high level thinking – called ‘Executive Function’ – falters and may shut down, leaving us to behave based on our primitive genetic programming: to fight or to flee,” he says. “Thoughts of danger trigger the amygdala to release stress hormones which grab our attention. In addition to thoughts, movements and noises of the plane trigger the release of stress hormones directly without thought. The first case is ‘top-down’ (thoughts cause stress hormones that cause arousal that leads to feeling fear, etc.), and the second case is ‘bottom-up’ (physical movements and sounds cause stress hormones that cause arousal that leads to feeling fear, etc.).”

Bunn explains that a person with a healthy childhood development automatically attenuates feelings of alarm when stress hormones are released. “It is like your phone. When it rings, you answer it, and it stops ringing so you can have a conversation. When the amygdala reacts to a possible threat, it causes a sense of alarm.”

“This is automatically attenuated by circuits developed early in life where there is secure attachment. With the alarm attenuated, the inner CEO can do its job. If an alarm is not attenuated, it can’t [do its job] and the person goes into claustrophobia, fear, or panic,” he explains. “If a person does not have good automatic alarm/arousal attenuation, the stress hormones can build up – in particular during turbulence as there is one drop after another, each releasing stress hormones – and cause increased heart rate, breathing rate, and perspiration. They also trigger a strong, and primitive, urge to escape (our second-most primitive defence strategy; freeze is the most primitive). On the plane, since escape is impossible, blockage of the urge to escape causes feelings of fear, anxiety, claustrophobia, and possibly panic.”

“As you can see, the problem is tightly connected to stress hormones. And, the answer to the problem is better regulation of the stress hormones, so that feelings don’t get out of control. SOAR (using video and counselling by phone) offers step-by-step help through the process that establishes regulation that holds up well, even when flying.”

In conclusion, the digital era may seem to have made inflight incidents available to the public. However, there is one thing that hasn’t changed and that is human nature. The aviation industry must remain diligent at preparing cabin and flight crews for all possible scenarios to keep our passengers, crews and planes safe.

Beth Blair started her flight attendant career in 1998. She is an award-winning airline and aviation journalist and currently works as a flight attendant ground instructor in Minneapolis, Minnesota.