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Interview with Leon James

IBD Story on Air Rage  Nancy Gondo  August 2001

 

It seems that we've been hearing about more and more air rage incidents lately. Why do you think they are on the rise?

The reason for more rage generally in our society is that there is taking place a coarsening of social relations in public. People no longer value civility and this neglect has unleashed rage in public places. George Washington wrote that civility is the glue that holds the nation together. With civility weakening, the quality of public life deteriorates. Since we have achieved so much freedom in society there is a greater need for more civility, not less, especially if you combine a hurried, time conscious society with greater congestion, longer lines, and more frequent emergencies. The incidence of air rage can be expected to increase if the current negative social atmosphere in public places continues on its worsening course.

If you're a passenger and the person next to you or near you starts acting up, what can you do if anything to try to prevent the situation from escalating?

It's important to be prepared in advance. Before they get to the airport passengers can rehearse to themselves or their fellow travelers various scenarios that can happen and what they are prepared to do about it. Preparation should also include planning how to interact with the passenger who will be sitting next to you on the airplane. The environment of an airplane has several areas or zones, when viewed socially. The area immediately around you is made up by the passengers sitting on either side of you. Next the area around your row, then the toilet nearest you with the steward's station, next the entire airplane areas that you can access, and finally the cockpit which is not accessible. Passengers need to relate differently to each of these areas.

 

With respect to the immediate area around you, it makes a big difference if you treat the passenger next to you as a stranger off the street or as a temporary neighbor. By introducing yourself and having a brief exchange, you are taking charge of the social situation. You are weakening the negative power of anonymity and you are strengthening the positive power of being connected and having a channel of communication open. Of course you need to be firm but very polite if you want silence periods. It helps if you tell the person you want to take a rest for awhile, or read, or do whatever.

 

Now of the person next to you starts to act up you are in a better position to take care of the situation. Of course it's rare to have anyone suddenly go berserk and violent, in which case there is little you can do but take cover and get help from the people around you. More likely the person is going to show signs, then a series of escalations. During this phase you can talk to the person and do whatever you can to reassure and calm the individual. This will be much more effective if you've opened a channel of communication beforehand.

What should you do if you're stuck in your seat and someone has already erupted in a full-on rage?

I would not want to sit next to this person. This is another reason why airlines should leave a few unoccupied emergency seats to allow for separation of problem passengers.

What is the airline's role in trying to either prevent or resolve the incident?

Prevention of air rage, as with road rage or aggressive driving prevention, both education and enforcement must be used to contain the problem successfully. The airlines and airport authorities can enforce existing and new laws but these measures alone will not reduce the increase of air rage incidents. They need to restore a more compassionate, more user-friendly social environment at airports and in airplanes. This is something they have the capacity to do. They have not made the decision to do so.

 

As social psychologists we have identified several methods airlines can use to manage passengers more humanely and effectively. We call the approach Compassionate Crowd Management Techniques. Much research in social psychology has uncovered the social dynamic forces that operate on people in public places. A lot of this knowledge has filtered down to the industrial social setting and this has resulted in a more active focus on Social Customer Relations and "user-friendly" appliances and information systems. The airlines industry appears to have lost this focus, lost the knowledge of its importance in managing masses of people. When they wake up to it again, they will be able to alter the social atmosphere and take charge of it. The social atmosphere at airports and airlines is as important as the air transportation service itself. Crowds must be managed appropriately or else the system breaks down. The airlines need to re-acquire this basic truth about the public.

 

Specific details on compassionate crowd management techniques can be found

on DrDriving's Air Rage Page -- see Compassionate Crowd Management methods for air line passengers.

and in our new book on road rage
available online and in bookstores:
 
Leon James, Ph.D. and Diane Nahl, Ph.D.
Road Rage and Aggressive Driving: Steering Clear of Highway Warfare

(Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2000)

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