Fighting, groping, mask rebellions...what's going on?

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Despite worries about the Delta variant, people have been grabbing the chance to travel by air to visit family or have the summer vacation they missed out on in 2020. But the increase in airline passengers hasn't been without controversy.

On August 10, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) confirmed that a total of 3,810 aggressive or unruly passengers have been reported to the agency so far this year. And 2,786 of those involved passengers who refused to comply with the federal mask mandate. The FAA put a "zero tolerance" policy in place, but that hasn't stopped people from yelling, kicking seats, and in some cases getting into physical fights 30,000 feet up in the air.

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Credit: Getty Images

In a July survey of 5,000 flight attendants across 30 airlines, 85% said that they dealt with unruly passengers in 2021. More than half said they endured five or more incidents of bad behavior, and 17% said that the incidents escalated and became physical, according to the survey by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA union.

Skyrocketing rates of what's been dubbed "air rage" began making headlines earlier in the new year. But things really ramped up in May and June, after many cities and states loosened COVID restrictions and the busy summer travel season began. That month, an "unruly passenger" was escorted off a Southwest Airlines flight after refusing to wear a mask. In July, a group of high school students staged a "mask rebellion" that lasted several hours, resulting in a delay that left American Airlines passengers stranded overnight at Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina.

Incidents have only gotten worse. In mid-July, a female passenger had her hands and feet restrained with duct tape when she allegedly tried to open the passenger door in the middle of an American Airlines flight to Charlotte. Duct tape was brought out again on August 1, when a 22-year-old flying Frontier Airlines to Miami allegedly groped the breasts of two flight attendants and punched a third. Last week, an 11-year-old boy who allegedly became physical with his mother on a flight from Maui to Los Angeles was restrained with flex cuffs by flight attendants, and pilots were forced to make an emergency landing in Honolulu, according to news reports.

The occasional unruly jerk on a plane is not uncommon. But the sharp increase in attacks and abuse this year have people wondering, what's driving the bad behavior? Experts say it isn't entirely unexpected considering the lockdowns millions of people have abided by, and it's not limited to airplanes. "There's a readjustment period when it comes to engaging with others, not just within travel, but with individuals acting out at sporting events and larger social gatherings," Southern California–based therapist Jason Woodrum, ACSW, tells Health.

Woodrum believes that accepting the new reality of traveling by plane, like mask mandates, versus what flying was pre-pandemic can be challenging for some people. Other experts point to more specific reasons for so many disruptive passengers. Here's what we learned.

People haven't flown since the pandemic began, and they're relearning the rules

After so many months of not being able to book a flight, it's almost as if some people have forgotten the etiquette of air travel, Rashmi Parmar, MD, a psychiatrist with Community Psychiatry + MindPath Care Centers in Newark, California, tells Health.

"Many people seem to be struggling to relearn the rules and adjust to the 'new normal' in the wake of the pandemic," Dr. Parmar says. And then there's the fear and uncertainty in the back of our minds, which may always be there to some extent when it comes to air travel but has been amplified by the pandemic.

One etiquette rule some people seem to have forgotten has to do with minimizing drinking alcohol in flight. In the Association of Flight Attendants survey that came out in July, many respondents reported that alcohol consumption was a factor verbal attacks and physical abuse they've personally dealt with.

COVID is still here, and we're all still on edge

Dr. Parmar believes a major contribution to in-flight altercations is that many people have been on edge for the past 18 months due to the threat of COVID-19 on our health and well-being. Now with the Delta variant, news of breakthrough infections, and a renewal of social distancing and mask-wearing in some locations, our anxiety is still ramped up high.

"It's similar to a fight, flight, or fright response generated by our brain to an alarming trigger," she tells Health. "In such cases, the rational or logical part of the brain often takes a backseat while the emotional side drives the immediate response."

Everyone has their different way of responding to stressful scenarios. While some will choose to walk away, ignore, or downplay the situation, others might be more likely to react to these triggers with agitation or irritability. In some cases, it might lead to aggressive or violent behavior.

"With the fear, social isolation, uncertainty, and anxiety instilled by the pandemic over the past year, people have reached their tipping points of dealing with stress," Dr. Parmar says.

Of course, it's difficult to predict how a person will react to a certain situation or a trigger. "Someone with a history of prior aggressive behavior or violence is obviously at high risk," she explains. "It generally depends on a person's overall level of stress, general coping style, resilience level, and available support."

New in-flight regulations make people feel threatened

Christina Jeffrey, LMHC, clinical supervisor at Humantold, a mental health practice in New York City, suspects that much of the behavior is born from a combination of factors, including feeling threatened by outside forces. "Many of the stories we've heard on this topic involved people who expressed outrage at what they felt was a direct infringement upon their bodily autonomy by others," she tells Health. "Essentially, these people feel threatened, and often when people feel a sense of threat, they become aggressive; it's a defensive posture that they hope will defend them against the perceived source of the threat."

And when it comes to dealing with what—or who—is seen as a threat, it's common for displacement to occur. This is a psychological defense mechanism, Jeffrey explains, where a person unconsciously transfers an intense feeling away from the original source and onto another one. For instance, in the videos and reports of in-flight disputes, people who express outrage at the new standards and laws direct all their negative energy to the first person who challenges their opposition.

"Obviously, we all know that flight attendants are not the ones establishing the in-flight safety protocol and rules for airplane behavior—that is the job of the FAA," says Jeffrey. "But for people who engage in the specific type of behavior we are discussing, a flight attendant becomes the target of their displaced anger, frustration, and sense of violation."

They don't think any rules apply to them

Many people are eager to comply with airline safety rules if it makes the trip smoother overall. Why get upset and argue, the thinking goes, when all you really want is to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible? But others might not be on the same page. Some cases of disruptive or hostile behavior may stem from a voluntary disregard for rules or perhaps a sense of entitlement—a person wanting to do things their own way, whether that's right or wrong.

"You may encounter some who are in outright denial of the gravity or even existence of the pandemic and thereby may challenge the need to impose safety rules," Dr. Parmar explains.

Jeffrey agrees that an element of privilege often comes into play. "Basically, if someone hasn't told you 'no' in a long time—or ever—or you've never had your bodily autonomy infringed upon, you won't possess the skills to navigate that world while managing the feelings that arise in response to these things," she says. The ability to self-soothe and self-regulate in the face of a perceived threat or sense of violation is a learned skill, she adds, and some of us had to develop it earlier and more thoroughly than the pandemic era.

COVID guidelines keep changing, and people are legit confused—and angry

Another consideration is what Dr. Parmar calls the snowball effect, when a series of wrong events lead up to the eventual explosion. "The ever-changing guidelines about mask mandates and policies further complicates the picture by creating chaos and confusion," she explains.

Woodrum believes that after months of hopes and expectations, some people can become less able to accept inconvenience. That's especially true when some airlines have had to cancel hundreds of flights without advance warning due to weather and crew issues. "While some people in certain situations are able to compartmentalize and process this difference between an experience and their expectations, others react from a place of anger and resentment instead," he explains.

How to keep calm and not overreact mid-flight

If any of these reasons strike a chord with you, the best thing you can do when you're mid-flight and something sets you off is give yourself a time out. "Take a moment or two away from the situation and agree with yourself that you won't react to the triggering person or event for 20 minutes," Woodrum advises. This period is your opportunity to reflect on things that are going well, or the support you're getting in that moment (or will get at the end of the trip). "Remind yourself that there are appropriate avenues to file a grievance," he adds.

In some cases, an underlying mental illness like depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder may interfere with someone's ability to cope with such siutations. "If you are unable to identify or control your thoughts and often end up blowing up disproportionately in situations, you may need to seek professional help," says Dr. Parmar.

When will people behave on airplanes again?

It's hard to predict whether this type of behavior will stop as we move out of pandemic times. And that could take some time—Dr. Parmar believes the negative effects of the pandemic will continue for several years.

"I expect incidents related to differences over wearing a mask or social distancing guidelines to significantly reduce, but other common triggers will persist," she says. "What we need to understand is that when we use public transport like airplanes, we may have to put our personal beliefs and frustration aside in view of the greater good, which in this case is ensuring the safety of oneself and other passengers."

Change is hard, and the past year and a half has forced us to adapt in ways none of us ever anticipated. "As we grow more accustomed to the new normal, as we move out of hot zone territory with the rates of infection, I think people will find they are feeling less on edge, less threatened, and more able to adapt to the requests being made of them," Jeffrey adds.

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