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Unruly Passengers? It’s the Seats, Stupid

Citing a litany of recent air-rage incidents, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which claims to represent the interests of 240 of the world’s commercial airlines, is undertaking a major effort to raise awareness of the problem and pushing for a legislative solution.

In just four years, IATA has recorded over 15,000 incidents of unruly passenger behavior. More worrisome is the overall trend line. The number increased from just a few hundred in 2007 to more than 6,000 in 2011.

To cope with the rise in unruliness, which IATA says threatens both travelers’ safety and airlines’ finances, the association is recommending that the 1963 Tokyo Convention be revised to give pilots and cabin crew more legal authority to confront misbehavior while in flight.

That, IATA argues, is the definitive solution, assuring us that all other options having been exhausted: “Our members are doing everything possible to avoid unruly pax incidents and manage situations when the occur.”

Cause & Effect: Crusher Seats & Air Rage

IATA’s reassurances notwithstanding, many flyers will find the association’s analysis shallow and self-serving. Although passenger misbehavior is undoubtedly a real problem, it is a problem largely of the airlines’ own making.

Airline passengers are unruly because they’re stressed, uncomfortable, irritated. Why? In large part, because the airlines are intent on cramming more bodies into fewer, smaller seats. As the claustrophobia quotient rises, so does the tension. And as the tension increases, so do the number of outbursts.

According to a New York Times article, average coach legroom has actually decreased by 10 percent over the past 20 years, from 34 inches to between 30 and 32 inches, even as the average height, weight, and girth of flyers have all increased.

Meanwhile, the airlines are flying fuller than ever, with load factors averaging more than 80 percent even during the lowest-demand months.

So oblivious have the airlines become to the discomfort they routinely purvey that Airbus has begun chiding them for subjecting their customers to “crusher seats.”

Is it any wonder that flyers are acting out?

Real Problem, Real Solution

IATA should turn its attention to the cause of the unruly behavior, and assist members airlines in devising a plan to address the root problem rather than the symptoms.

What’s needed aren’t more legal rights for pilots. What’s needed are more customer-friendly airlines. And more comfortable coach-class seats would be a giant step in that direction.

Reader Reality Check

What do you think is the primary cause of unruly flyer behavior?

The solution?

This article originally appeared on

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