"The aircraft cabin is an unusual environment," says Robert Bor, an aviation psychologist at London Guildhall University. "The altitude, the lower air pressure, the noise all of those things can lead to hostile behavior." And the little things can make all the difference: the guy in the next seat whose broad shoulders invade your personal seat space, the subtle battles for armrests, overhead bin space and even meal choices. "You are putting people who are unfamiliar with one another in a competitive environment," says Bor, "and that creates rivalry."
To be sure, passengers may be emotionally aroused well before they enter the cabin from delays, boredom, jetlag or saying farewell to loved ones. Also, by some estimates, as many as one in five passengers has a fear of flying. And a few experts say that airlines, whose advertisements depict air travel as a relaxed, soothing realm of smiling passengers and subservient flight attendants, may themselves be partially to blame for raising travelers' expectations. It's a claim airlines flatly dismiss. "Ludicrous," says Ben Hall, a spokesman for Virgin Atlantic Airways. "We have to look at how many cases of air rage are linked to people over-indulging in alcohol. And how many are people with underlying psychological illnesses. They are more contributing factors than anything to do with advertising."
As the number of incidents spirals, regulatory bodies and airline crews' unions have swung into action, seeking consensus on how to deal with the issue. Definitions of air rage vary from country to country which leads to discrepancies in how cases are reported and complex laws can make it hard for airlines and police to prosecute offenders. Not that airlines are necessarily abreast of the problem: in a recent survey by London Guildhall University, more than a third of the 200 or so airlines questioned said staff were not trained to deal with air rage. The International Transport Workers' Federation, which represents 200,000 cabin crew worldwide, has called for governments to have mandatory training programs in place by the end of next year. The focus is likely to swing from dealing with incidents after the fact to prevention and passenger management: identifying and pacifying problem passengers before they really become a problem.
In the meantime, airlines might consider the implications of developments in modern air travel when it comes to passengers keeping their cool. Starting next month, at least two U.S. airlines are planning to launch direct flights from New York to Hong Kong. Estimated time aloft: 15 hours, 40 minutes one of the world's longest scheduled services. "What are you going to do with people for 16 hours in these conditions?" asks Bor. "There must be a threshold beyond which reasonable, compliant behavior will be challenged." Better fasten your seat belts.