Air travel has become worse than ever —  and the iPhone is to blame

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

  • Smartphones and social media make it easier for stories of disruptive airline passengers to spread.
  • While it might seem like air travellers have become more volatile, much of that perception may result from how easy it is to film and share videos of extreme incidents on social media.
  • But by increasing the number of seats in their aircraft and making them smaller, airlines aren’t helping to make flights less stressful.

It seems a day can’t pass without a story about a disruptive airline passenger going viral.

Often, the stories are accompanied by videos filmed by other passengers. Together, they create the impression that air travel has become a circus. If your flight isn’t interrupted by a passenger climbing onto a plane’s wing or trying to open a cabin door in mid-air, you’re lucky, it seems.

But it’s difficult to tell if air travellers are acting out more, of if social media makes the most extreme examples of misbehavior easier to share. The answer probably involves both.

Social media makes it easier to record disruptive behaviour

“I don’t think the problem is increasing. I think that awareness of the problem is increasing,” Airways senior business analyst Vinay Bhaskara told Business Insider.

“I think the key difference in today’s world is that information if something goes wrong spreads in a way that it didn’t previously,” he said.

Before, a disruptive passenger “was going to be, at most, local news,” Bhaskara said. Today, that passenger becomes national news if the outburst has enough shock value.

Airlines have limited control over their customers’ behaviour, but, by increasing the number of seats on their aircraft and shrinking their size, they aren’t helping matters, according to SmarterTravel senior editor Sarah Schlichter.

“There is more stress with the travel experience these days,” she told Business Insider.

“You have less personal space. Everybody’s kind of in each other’s face. And so I wouldn’t be surprised if that sort of environment is leading a little bit more to people acting out.”

Stories of extreme incidents might make travellers more stressed

Schlichter thinks that the frequency with which disruptive behaviour is documented and shared might change air travellers’ expectations before they get to the airport. If a passenger’s impression of air travel is formed by depictions of extreme behaviour, that passenger might expect the worst and be more likely to act out of character if something goes wrong. That may not result in the kind of incident that inspires other passengers to pull out their smartphones, but it could make the idea of being rude to airline employees seem more acceptable.

“I think people sometimes go in expecting the worst, and that might predispose you to more stress and more incidents,” Schlichter said.

While the increased visibility of misbehavior may be out of airlines’ control, they can take steps to decrease the odds of a passenger’s frustration turning into front-page news. Bhaskara thinks airlines should focus on positive incentives rather than negative ones. That means giving passengers perks like gift cards or free drinks to resolve potential conflicts rather than punishing them for misbehavior.

“You’re going to catch more flies with honey than you are with a baseball bat,” he said.

But he cautioned that airlines can’t be too generous when they sense a passenger might become a liability. If they’re too quick to pay off potentially troublesome passengers, they might create the impression that they reward misbehavior, which could lead to more of it.

There’s no clear solution for airlines

No matter how airlines approach customer service in the social media age, there’s a drawback. If they do nothing, they’re criticised for being callous or ignorant. But if they design new training programs for employees or update their customer service policies, it might not have any impact on their reputations.

“The good flights are never going to make headlines. So even if you improve service and more people are happy, does that help you in the court of public opinion? I don’t know,” Schlichter said.

“I don’t know what the answer is.”

Neither do airlines, who live under the constant threat of having to start damage control on a moment’s notice when a passenger or employee’s misbehavior goes viral. For them, the question isn’t if they will be at the center of a scandal, but when.