Less likely to fly off the handle if you fly without first class
Aeroplanes are an intense test case for social inequality. Red carpets and separate queues ensure the rich don’t have to stand, sweating, in long lines.
They are called on board first. Economy-class customers then have to walk past the reclining seats of first-class passengers, before squeezing into the cramped and upright seats at the back of the plane. They are then ignored as the pilot thanks platinum fliers for their custom.
That makes for a lot of anger. But this airborne pressure cooker also makes for great research material, especially into the topic of inequality.
This thinking led a team from the Harvard Business School and the University of Toronto to look at the thousands of documented incidents that disrupted flights on a single international airline over several years.
These ranged from passengers refusing to sit down to shouting obscenities at flight attendants.
In the research – published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week – the team said: “We posit that the modern airplane is a social microcosm of class-based society.” The layout of planes can be used to predict the chances of people losing their temper, hence the research being labelled “Physical and Situational Inequality on Airplanes Predicts Air Rage”.
What makes this research unique in the field of inequality studies is its focus on real-life examples. Most research on the topic looks at the macro structure of inequality.
By looking at how temporary exposure to an unequal situation drives antisocial behaviour, the team has created tangible proof of the dangers of a society divided by class.
On aeroplanes, this inequality is entrenched by the presence of a first-class section. Most airlines require people to board from the front and walk through that section. The researchers said this layout “highlights inequality” and “triggers antisocial behaviour on planes”.
Their main finding was that the presence of a first-class section makes incidents of antisocial behaviour four times more likely.
Factors such as drinking and limited leg room had a far lower impact on creating air rage.
Given this, they suggested that aeroplanes change the way people board and move through the plane. “The more you can use dual gates to board planes – separating the first-class cabin from the economy cabin – you’re going to have less air rage in both cabins.”
Beyond the skies, the team said their research should influence a change in the way offices are designed. Based on their findings, the practice of making workers walk past executive offices to their tiny cubicles might have to go to foster harmony.