Airplane Design Brings Out the Class Warfare in Us All

Air rage is often blamed on overcrowded flights and postage stamp-size seats, but researchers Michael Norton and Katherine A. DeCelles find another culprit: resentment toward passengers in first class.
  • 20 Jul 2016
  • By Dina Gerdeman

This scenario may sound familiar, unfortunately: Your flight begins with poking and prodding by the TSA agent, all to wait for the inevitable delayed departure. Boarding extends the indignities: more waiting while your section is called, followed by a squeeze down the narrow cabin aisle and a lift and jerk of your carry-on up to the overhead. An inelegant flop into the middle seat completes the journey—until the passenger in front shoves her seat back, removing your kneecaps.

But new research shows that—in addition to these indignities—what irks us when we fly is the demeaning march through the socioeconomic strata as we are herded through the pampered world of first and business class to our humble place in coach. It’s difficult to look past the wide and plush seats filled with passengers given privileged access to board early and sip complimentary champagne.

“People are exquisitely sensitive to hierarchy, and research shows that feeling low status can make people feel stressed and angry”

“People are exquisitely sensitive to hierarchy, and research shows that feeling low status can make people feel stressed and angry,” says Michael I. Norton, the Harold M. Brierley Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. “The psychology is powerful. That feeling of being in first or last place affects our thoughts, emotions, and behavior.”

Although the research focuses on aircraft design, its findings could be relevant to the design of any space—an office, a football stadium, a cruise ship—where people are segmented by rank of some sort.

Norton co-authored the study, Physical and Situational Inequality on Airplanes Predicts Air Rage, with Katherine A. DeCelles, an associate professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School. Their findings were published in the May 17, 2016, issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A TEMPORARY STATE OF INEQUALITY

Research on inequality usually measures a relatively fixed socioeconomic status based on education, income, and geographic location. Studies have shown that social class can be a significant factor in determining people’s health, well-being, emotions, and behavior.

Norton and DeCelles took that research to the air, exploring how a seating arrangement that puts passengers in a temporary state of inequality breeds the kind of resentment that boils over into bad behavior.

The leading causes of passenger disruptions on airplane flights. (Source: Research
Report: Physical and Situational Inequality on Airplanes Predicts Air Rage.) Source: Micaela Brody

They pored through a private database of all air rage incidents from a large international airline collected over several years, examining millions of flights.

Rage incidents are well known and especially well publicized thanks to social media. Flight attendants often suffer the brunt of hostile, sometimes abusive behavior from passengers, which can include drunken outbursts, refusing to sit down and buckle up, and general rule-breaking, like smoking in the bathroom.

Popular explanations for bad behavior include crowded conditions, long delays, and shrinking seats. The researchers also evaluated other possible rage-inducing factors, including legroom, flight delay length, and cabin space, as well as flight distance, number of seats, and whether the flight was international.

Positing that “the modern airplane is a social microcosm of class-based society,” the researchers show that a “physical design that highlights inequality can trigger antisocial behavior” when people are plopped in different sections for the duration of a flight.

The chances passengers will become unruly were 3.84 times higher when they experienced “physical inequality” by the mere presence of a first-class cabin compared with planes that didn’t have first class.

Meanwhile, the odds of an outburst were 2.18 times greater in coach when passengers were subject to “situational inequality” by boarding from the front—where they walk through first class and are reminded of their “relatively disadvantaged status”—versus boarding from the middle, where passengers head directly to their respective sections.

“Where you board matters,” Norton says. “When you don’t see the inequality, you’re still aware of it, but it’s less immediately salient. But when you see the blankets and champagne, it brings it home in a more visceral way. You likely can’t help but reflect on what they have versus what you have.”

FIRST CLASS BEHAVING BADLY

And here’s the kicker: The obnoxious behavior was found not only in economy, it was rampant in first class, too. Front boarding of planes predicted 11.86 greater odds of an air rage incident in first class than boarding from the middle. The findings align with previous research showing that inequality affects the psyche of both haves and have-nots.

For those with lower status, perceptions of their socioeconomic standing can have a strong impact. If they can see what others have, it becomes obvious that they are missing out, and it can make them feel worse. In fact, previous research shows health outcomes are poorer in impoverished neighborhoods that border wealthier areas.

In terms of the haves, people aware of their higher status tend to be more selfish, entitled, and scornful, creating a psychological mindset that can set the stage for antisocial behavior. “It may seem as though it is always great to have high status, but it can lead to negative feelings of entitlement,” Norton says.

The study included other findings about unruly passengers:

  • The majority of disruptive passengers, 72.49 percent, were men.
  • The bulk of total incidents, 83.98 percent, took place in the economy section.
  • Intoxication was listed as the most common incident type at 31.75 percent, belligerent behavior came next at 29 percent, and noncompliance with crew instructions ranked third at 18.67 percent.
  • First-class incidents were more likely to involve belligerent behavior, such as a passenger expressing strong anger (36.3 percent of incidents in first class versus 27.8 percent in economy).
  • Economy incidents were more likely to involve emotional outbursts (6.2 percent of incidents in economy versus 2.2 percent in first class).

Norton hopes the research will spur airlines to think differently about the design of their planes, especially as first-class cabins continue to add space and amenities. He would like to work with airlines to conduct experiments to determine, for instance, if passengers are affected when the curtain between classes is kept open or closed.

He points out that cruise lines use two different passenger models. In one, passengers pay for an expensive cabin boarding that separates them from the view of lower-fare passengers the entire trip. The second allows lower-fare passengers to witness “the rich people having this amazing experience,” Norton says.

“If people witness the luxury, they might want to upgrade, benefiting the cruise line,” he adds. “But it might also lead lower-fare customers to be more disgruntled and unhappy with their current experience. For an airline or cruise line, it’s a complicated decision about what to hide and what to reveal.”

The study results also have broader implications, providing important insight into what sparks antisocial behavior that a variety of businesses can consider when they embark on designing everything from stadium seating to office layouts.

Norton is trying to obtain data from sports teams to assess whether fan incidence of belligerence is more likely to occur on the boundaries between higher-price and lower-price sections. He is also seeking out companies willing to collaborate on a study of the effect of office space layouts that emphasize hierarchy. For example, is it better to have a flat floor plan with the CEO sitting in the middle of staff, or should the CEO have an office on a separate floor?

“We don’t have the data yet, but my hunch is that these decisions affect employee morale,” Norton says. “Anecdotally, people can become incensed about office allocation. We hear stories about people fighting for years because someone’s office has half a window more. Can we redesign offices to make them better for both employees and managers?”

We’ll see. But one thing appears clear. Layout designs that specifically favor one group over another with more amenities or privileges are making the not-so-privileged stressed and angry—hardly the friendly skies.

NOTE TO READERS: Would your company like to participate in Norton’s study of office space layouts? If so, please contact him at mnorton@hbs.edu.

About the Author

Dina Gerdeman is a senior writer for Harvard Business School Working Knowledge

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