Flying has increasingly become a world of the haves and have-nots, starting with purchasing a ticket and continuing as passengers are sorted by status to board.
Once on the plane, passengers can see where they fit in the hierarchy, with the seats getting smaller and thinner and legroom tighter with each passing row. Then, there’s the scramble to secure space in the overhead bins.
“By the time you walk down the jet bridge, you are a bundle of nerves,” said Henry Harteveldt, founder of Atmosphere Research Group, a travel analysis firm in San Francisco.
Now, some researchers are arguing that the stresses of flying — and they say income inequality is among them — contribute to an increase in unruly behavior on planes.
“Airplanes are the physical embodiment of a status hierarchy,” said Keith Payne, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of “The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live and Die.” “They are a social ladder made of aluminum and upholstery in which the rungs are represented by rows of boarding groups and seating classes.
A study, published in 2016, found that multiple classes on an aircraft increased the likelihood of misbehavior. The study, “Physical and Situational Inequality on Airplanes Predicts Air Rage,” by Katherine A. DeCelles, now at the University of Toronto, and Michael I. Norton, at Harvard Business School, was published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences.
The authors found that the presence of a first-class cabin, in addition to an economy-class cabin, was associated with more frequent air rage incidents. And boarding through the first-class cabin rather than the midsection of a plane increased those incidents.