Why there are so many unruly passengers on planes

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The FAA usually sees 100 – 150 cases of bad inflight behaviour filed with them each year. Already this year there have been 2500, 1900 of which have to deal with refusal to wear a mask. Most inflight disturbances do not make it to the FAA.

We have seen a real increase in inflight conflicts, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. There are generally five reasons why we are heading towards a new peak.

  1. More passengers = more incidents. Air travel is recovering, there are more people in the sky than there have been since before the pandemic. Sheer numbers make it more likely we will see more disturbances as passenger volumes stretch towards 1.9 million per day in the U.S.
  2. Fewer business travellers mean a greater percentage of passengers likely to have issues There are fewer experienced passengers on board who are dead-end against drama, the person sitting next to a first-time flyer is more likely than ever to be a first-time flyer.
  3. Distrust of elites and experts. The same broader social issues that manifest themselves in electoral polarization get brought on board the plane. Experts have largely failed us in the pandemic, and their advice has been inconsistent. We were told not to wear masks before being told to wear them. Somehow taking off the mask has become a symbol of standing up for oneself against the tyranny of rule by experts who are increasingly seen as flawed.
  4. Increased vaccination rates. More and more people see themselves as no longer needing to wear a mask since evidence suggests strongly that recipients of mRNA vaccines are both unlikely to get or spread the virus (and for those who have not been vaccinated yet, that’s largely a decision they’re making for themselves and shouldn’t impose costs on others for it). This is doubly the case now that the CDC even says vaccinated people do not need to wear masks indoors in crowded bars, yet rules for masking during travel remain in place. This also reinforces scepticism about ‘experts’ and whether rules rely on science.
  5. The politicization of masks in the wrong direction. Masks should have been the conservative alternative to big government lockdowns. Instead, they became a political flashpoint of government ‘control’. People who feel powerless lash out in whatever way they can.

With more leisure travellers than ever, and a greater proportion of first-time travellers, and requirement that they were not used to, at the end of a long frustrating pause from travelling we inevitably see conflict.

As people continue to get vaccinated, as virus caseloads and hospitalizations continue to fall, more and more people will see less and less reason to mask up in the face of requirements to do so that seems to no longer be backed by the science or at least consistent with other health authorities’ requirements. And masks have become an outlet for political protest. So, we may experience more mask incidents on planes until the requirement is finally lifted.

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