My Take

Class divide – whether on planes or in offices – a source of conflict

‘Air rage’ more likely when passengers in cattle class become aware of extreme inequality in service, provocative new study finds

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 May, 2016, 11:24pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 May, 2016, 9:54am

Big airlines like to advertise the exclusivity and elitism of their business and first-class cabins.

But they are, in doing so, rubbing it in for the majority who have to travel in cattle class, whose conditions and levels of service just get worse and worse. That may not be good for profit and safety in the long run.

A new, provocative study claims that awareness of deprivations and extreme inequality in service provision among passengers, including first-class travellers, may be a great predictor of “air rage”.

Lack of leg room, long delays, bad food, inconsiderate seatmates – they may be contributors or triggers. But if the study by Katy DeCelles of the University of Toronto and Michael Norton of the Harvard Business School is right, they wouldn’t matter much if everyone is subject to similar conditions rather than having an elite few being exempted.

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“I expected there to be more support for a lack of leg room as a contributor to air rage, given the attention that leg room has had – but there wasn’t,” DeCelles, an associate professor in organisational behaviour and human resource management at the university’s Rotman School of Management, said.

Based on “air rage” data provided by an unnamed international airline over several years, “Physical and situational inequality on airplanes predicts air rage” is published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the US.

On average, air-rage incidents occur in economy class just 0.14 times per 1,000 flights when there is no first-class cabin, but 1.58 times per 1,000 flights when there is first-class service. Among first-class passengers, air-rage incidents occur 0.31 times per 1,000 flights.

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The study does not delve into the reasons behind the findings, only statistical correlation to help predict the prevalence of air rage. But DeCelles said other studies had shown how being acutely aware of your own class privilege and superiority could make you more anti-social and unsympathetic to other people’s hardships.

The study has implications in conflict resolution for places where differences in class or status are apparent – such as VIP seats in sport stadiums or workplaces where lowly employees have to walk by luxurious executive offices to get to their cubicles.

In our new gilded age, an advice for rich people – don’t rub it in.