More people are flying this summer than ever, and they’re being squeezed into tighter and tighter spots.
Does that mean that videos and other reports of dysfunctional and occasionally violent behavior will keep social media busy?
You bet, fight fans.
Airlines for America, the industry’s lobby, expects a record 234.1 million people will be flying this summer, up an estimated 4 percent compared to last year. Meanwhile, the airlines continue cramming more seats onto their aircraft. It seems intuitive that the more passengers airlines cram into an aircraft, the more aggressive those passengers become. But there’s also some science to back this up.
Daniel Stokols, a professor of psychology and social behavior at University of California at Irvine who has conducted research on the effects of crowding, said airlines may be contributing to the psychological conditions that aggravate people’s stress.
“People are like cattle being squished together, to get as many people on that plane,” Stokols said. “And so tempers can flare. It’s a situation where people feel vulnerable.”
Density itself is not a bad thing for us. Think of a rock concert or a party, Stokols said.
“You want a party to have high density,” Stokols said. “The more people who show up, the rowdier and more exciting the party, that makes it a desirable event. The same thing with an athletic event.”
So although animals can become undone by physical proximity to each other, for people, the number of bodies doesn’t necessarily translate into what Stokols calls “crowding stress.” People can not only tolerate intense crowding, they might like it in certain circumstances. Other factors need to be part of the mix for people to wig out, and those happen to be in good supply aboard a commercial airline flight.
On flights, people do not find themselves surrounded by friends or fellow Bruce Springsteen fans. They’re surrounded by strangers who want to recline their seats or put the tray table down. They’re cramped. They can feel vulnerable to contracting diseases or infections from the sniffling and coughing passengers around them. They’re forced to form a line near a tiny lavatory that’s teeming with microbes. The people sitting in the aisle seats near that line feel hemmed in even more.
“It’s a much more fraught situation,” Stokols said. “When you feel like the airlines are against you and you feel they’re trying to exploit your comfort for their profit, and others on the plane are in your way and you don’t know them, the situation is more ripe for conflict.”
Research has also shown that certain variables can amp up stress further, such as competition. Think of that next time you’re in a race to find an empty overhead bin.
What to do?
“One approach would be to relax the Almighty profit-margin ideal, and trade some of that off to really go out of their way to provide good service,” Stokols said.