Zastolskiy Victor/Shutterstock.com

The mere presence of a first-class cabin can  “trigger antisocial behavior” in passengers, a new study finds.

At the airport and in flight, a first class passenger and I might occupy the same spaces, but we experience completely different universes. While I’m crouched on an ugly, stained carpet at the boarding gate waiting to pounce on an open outlet to charge my phone, my first class counterpart, I imagine, reclines on a plush, canopy bed in a palatial lounge, surrounded by champagne fountains, cornucopias of fine foods, and smiling attendants. (I’m actually not too far off from reality on this one.) I trudge past them on my way to the back of the plane, a dark place that smells like cobwebs and crushed dreams.

Airplane inequality is enough to make anyone a little grumpy. But according to a new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it can also predict “air rage”—instances when passengers act out aggressively, become abusive to staff or fellow passengers, or endanger flight safety. According to the study’s authors, Katherine DeCelles of the University of Toronto and Michael Norton of Harvard University, such instances take place usually in the economy section, and are are far more common on flights with a first class than without. They are also much more likely, both among economy and first class passengers, if everyone boards the plane from the front as opposed to the middle. Here is how the researchers put it in the paper:

Although virtually no empirical research examines the antecedents of this hazardous and increasingly common phenomenon, popular explanations for air rage include crowded planes, frustrating delays, and shrinking seats. We advance an alternative view: The modern airplane reflects a social microcosm of class-based society, making inequality salient to passengers through both the physical design of the plane (the presence of a first class cabin) and, more subtly, the boarding procedure (whether economy passengers must pass through the first class cabin).

For this paper, the researchers analyzed outbursts that occurred since 2010 on at least a million flights of one large, international airline.* After controlling for other possible explanations for these incidents (such as lack of leg room, delays, and flight distance) they found that economy passengers were almost four times more likely to act out if the flight had a first class, compared to if it didn’t. And if passengers boarded through this cabin, the odds of such incidents occurring in the economy section were around twice as likely than if the passengers skipped witnessing the unattainable comfort of their first class peers.

Interestingly, while economy passengers were more likely to display more outbursts than first class passengers overall, first class passengers tended to be more belligerent when they did become unruly. This observation suggests that “the visibility of inequality may induce different types of antisocial behavior among the relatively advantaged and disadvantaged,” the researchers conclude.

First class passengers are a relatively small group compared to the others, but they pay a pretty penny for their tickets, and thus make up a sizable chunk of any airline’s revenue. That’s why airlines are trying to one-up each other in their attempt to appeal to clients with the fattest wallets. All that’s to say that first class cabins are probably not going anywhere, and neither is the resentment of the disgruntled have-nots. But the implications of the study go beyond an airplane setting. DeCelles, who co-authored the study’s report, explains to CityLab via email:

While most research on inequality looks at more stable forms of it, like income inequality and its effects on crime, here we see [how] a temporary environment—from a few minutes (boarding) to a few hours (seeing first class on your flight)—relates to criminal-level antisocial behavior. In addition, physical settings such as airplanes make it much more apparent that we live in a class-based society: There are also likely other settings that can make inequality more apparent, too—from cruise ships to sports stadiums and concert venues to office buildings.

Top image: Zastolskiy Victor/Shutterstock.com

*CORRECTION: This post has been updated to clarify the number of flights considered in the study.

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