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Christopher Muther

How 2017 became the official year of the airplane brawl

(Illustration by LUCI GUTIERREZ)

On the first day of 2017, a cantankerous passenger on a flight from Australia to Los Angeles snapped.

Sitting in the middle seat between a bickering couple, the surly passenger berated a flight attendant over his seat assignment, demanded alcohol — as one does in such situations — and when he didn’t get a new seat or a tumbler of hootch, he began making threats and hurling insults. Forty minutes later the plane landed and he was unceremoniously booted off.

That New Year’s Day kerfuffle set the tone for what was to come in 2017: A nonstop parade of punching, dragging, stroller-slamming, leggings-banning, birthday cake-denying, airport rioting craziness. Passenger videos have captured it all for our viral displeasure. It seems we can’t make it through a week without another bruising and accompanying YouTube clip.

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Dr. David Dao, who was yanked and dragged from his seat on an overbooked United Airlines flight, became an overnight social media celebrity and the face of aviation bloodshed. Dao’s story and accompanying video was the most dramatic and viral (so far), but incidents of bad behavior in the skies have begun to rival a police blotter on St. Patrick’s Day.

What in the name of Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger III is going on?

“I don’t think people realize it, but this has been brewing a long time,” said Charles Leocha, the chairman and founder of Travelers United and the author of “Travel Rights.” “As airlines keep pushing people closer and closer together, their fuses get shorter. In an atom bomb you keep squeezing the elements together until the particles start to hit each other, and that creates the explosion. That’s what’s happening now with airline passengers.”

Leocha puts the blame for all this bad behavior on both the airlines and the government. The airlines, he said, are chasing profits while the government is ignoring what these changes mean for the health and well-being of passengers.

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Shortly after Dao was bloodied on United, the airline was called to testify before a House committee and address its poor customer service. Joining United representatives were the top brass from American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and Alaska Airlines. There were a lot of mea culpas as maligned United CEO Oscar Munoz pledged to do better.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman Bill Shuster scolded the airlines and threatened government intervention, but no action was taken.

The next day American Airlines announced it would shrink seat space by 2 inches. Clearly more than a scolding is needed.

“It’s only going to get worse until somebody in the government takes a courageous stand and says ‘Hey, let’s study this more in terms of seat size and pitch.’ Meanwhile we have the airlines making boneheaded decisions in the name of chasing a profit margin.”

And if you think the first part of 2017 has been bad, brace yourselves for summer, when those already busting-at-the-bolts planes get fuller. William McGee, the aviation consultant for the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, said concurrent trends such as more fees, higher passenger loads, and murkier contracts of carriage will lead to more simmering tempers.

“These contracts are one-sided binding documents written by the airlines and for the airlines that, in recent years, have become intentionally vague on what rights customers can expect when faced with lengthy delays, flight cancellations, mishandled baggage, and involuntary bumping.”

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The air rage increase is not just anecdotal. The most recent figures from the International Air Transport Association found a 16.5 percent increase in air rage from 2014 to 2015.

But what has been striking about air rage in 2017 is that it is no longer just passenger-on-passenger violence. Airlines have been handing out apologies like Halloween candy as crew members are accused of mishandling passengers, whether it’s dragging a doctor off a flight, giving incorrect information to a family trying to fly with toddlers, or an altercation with a stroller that turned violent.

Even a birthday cake became news when a family had a heated exchange with a flight attendant after they were banned from storing their beloved pastry in an overhead bin.

Heather Poole, a flight attendant and author of the book “Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet,” has a very different take on why 2017 has become the poster child for air rage.

“Most of the stories in the news leave out a big piece of the puzzle,” she said. “Take the cake story for instance. Most publications forgot to mention that the overhead bin the passenger wanted to use for the cake was the one that houses the safety equipment. I didn’t see one publication mention why you can’t store your cake there. In case I need a fire extinguisher, I don’t want to be fumbling around with a cake.”

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But when the public sees a headline such as “JetBlue hates cakes,” she said a story generates more clicks. Readers wouldn’t respond as veraciously to a story with a full explanation.

“The more we see these half-stories, the angrier the flying public gets,” Poole said. “They’re angry before they even get on board. This is why passengers are looking for problems. They’re looking for a fight.”

Poole, who has been a flight attendant for 21 years, said social media is the primary furnace for the endless reports of airplane violence.

“It makes me sick when I see passengers grabbing their phones to take a video of something instead of offering help,” she said. “It happens all the time now. A passenger falls down, and instead of helping, they take out their phone.”

It’s not just the changing technology that may be fueling troubles in the skies. Frank Farley, a professor of psychological studies at Temple University, speculated that increasingly hostile social mores could be fueling bad behavior.

“We live in an age of disinhibition, where we seem to be increasingly willing to let it all hang out,” Farley said. “We fire off extreme negative comments about online material we don’t like to shame others, to criticize and take down others in unsocial media, and engage in significant incivility to others.”

In nonclinical terms, we’ve turned into a bunch of jerks.

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The true answer of how 2017 became the year of the airplane brawl is a complicated recipe that includes a pinch of this, a punch of that, a smartphone, a hurtful insult, bad communication, stressed passengers, industry greed, lack of government oversight, too many bottles of in-flight beer, and a collective loss of patience.

None of these ingredients are poised to change in the immediate future. However you, dear passenger, can help change it all. Breathe deeply at the airport, don’t shove and push while waiting in lines, don’t yell at the flight attendant when he’s out of ginger ale or tells you not to put a cake next to the fire extinguisher, and, most importantly, when a fellow passenger needs your help, keep your cellphone in your pocket and lend a hand.


Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther and on Instagram @Chris_Muther.