Anger and Alcohol in the Air

Anger and alcohol have never been a fun combo. Take a large metal tube, cram it to bursting with angry people, add alcohol, shake it violently and unpredictably while launching it 30,000′ feet in the air? Someone’s getting punched in the face. It’s just kind of funny that face masks are what finally brought about that inevitable outcome.

As CNBC’s Leslie Josephs reports, Southwest and American Airlines’ will continue to fly booze-free for the time being. According to her story:

The Federal Aviation Administration said it has received approximately 2,500 reports of unruly passenger behavior this year, approximately 1,900 of those cases involving travelers who refused to follow the federal mask mandate during air travel.

The story includes the following quote from American Airlines’ Brady Baynes:

“We recognize that alcohol can contribute to atypical behavior from customers onboard and we owe it to our crew not to potentially exacerbate what can already be a new and stressful situation for our customers.”

(Note how the word “stressful” is cleverly tucked away behind the word “new”)

In a separate CNBC interview, the head of the Association of Flight Attendants put it more bluntly:

“It’s completely nuts…a constant combative attitude”

The decision makes sense. Anger + alcohol = trouble. Removing alcohol from the equation is an obvious remedy and, after a Southwest attendant lost two teeth to the fist of an inebriated passenger, probably a smart move.

A passenger is shown punching a flight attendant
An ugly scene on Southwest flight 700

But let’s not put all the blame on booze. What about the anger part of the equation?

Yeah, mask mandates angry up the blood for some folks. But airplanes aren’t the only public places that still require them. Nor are they the only places that serve alcohol. Wait, how do you drink without violating the mask rules? Hmm. In any case, you don’t hear many stories about masks and Miller Lite causing riots at Chuck-e-Cheeses (yeah, they do sell beer at Chuck-E-Cheese, what a time to be alive). That tells us that something specific to flying is at play here. Shocking revelation, I know.

[Quick Aside: I should clarify that I’m talking almost exclusively about flying in the U.S. on flights operated by U.S. companies here. I’ve flown with enough European, Australian, Indian, African, and, dear God, Asian airlines to know that flying is a uniquely miserable experience here in the birthplace of aviation. Raising a fuss over wearing masks also seems to be a delightfully American quirk.]

I’m not saying people are getting drunk and throwing hands over seat reservation fees, lack of legroom, paying $250 to change their flight time or the 63 hours they spent on hold trying to do so. But there’s a cumulative effect there. Include the hassle of getting to the airport, navigating the latest breakthroughs in security theater, add a touch of inebriation and kapow! You’ve got people flying off the handle over seemingly trivial things. Like masks.

We academics sometimes invoke “affective events theory” to account for these death-by-a-thousand-cuts scenarios. When a normal, if slightly soused, person responds to a small affront with a big batch of stupid, a couple things are probably going on:

  • That small affront was the latest in a string of aggravations attributable to a given entity (say, an airline), at least in that person’s mind.
  • The person on the receiving end is perceived to be a representative of that same entity (an airline employee, perhaps).

The scene in Meet the Parents where Ben Stiller’s character is hauled off a plane captures this perfectly. From the airline’s perspective, he’s a hot-head. Too self-important to check his bag. From his perspective, he’s a victim of a comically long string of misfortunes. All of which were put into motion by that same airline losing his checked bag several days earlier.

Back to the point, anger + alcohol = bad. So it makes sense to remove alcohol from a situation where these snowballing emotions are so common. But I wonder if the airlines realize that they’re treating the symptoms of a problem, not the problem itself. We can’t allow alcohol and masks to be used as scapegoats. Again, those two things peacefully co-exist everywhere else.

But airlines are different. Their financial model is based on squeezing the very last cent a passenger is willing to pay in return for the lowest level of service they will accept. That approach makes tense airplane cabins almost inevitable. Yeah, keeping booze out of them will help keep the peace but it’s not the only option. Nor is it the best option. Just the easiest. As Frank wrote a while back, re-imagining customer service as a goal to achieve rather than a cost to be minimized could go a long way too.

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