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The Consequences of Airplane Classism

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