Scholars prove First Class seats are THE reason for Air Rage… really?

air rage
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Air Rage

You may not have seen the academic paper declaring that airlines MUST remove First Class seating as the best, maybe even only, method of stopping air rage! (see the below link) If you have, it is likely that senior management has ordered you to retrofit your company’s aircraft to a single class and remove those violence-inducing luxurious F suites.

air rage


Before refuting these scholars’ thesis, in an effort to be fair, here is a brief presentation of their rationale:

Here is the full article link. The article is also available at Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences for $10.00.

As a poor substitute here is a precis from the below article:

“The familiar truism that “good people perform good deeds” has come under robust attack in the social sciences in the last few decades.

The best predictor of how a person will act is not character but, rather, the situation in which he or she finds him or herself. Like water seeking its path to the sea, human action is governed by landscape. The best way to be faithful is to keep yourself out of the way of temptation. And the best way to make a society of socially minded, considerate people is to create, or design, the conditions most conducive to that outcome. (For a great book on this, see John Doris’s Lack of Character.)

air rage

A study published online last week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences came to this same conclusion. It looked at the factors predicting air rage — that is, outbursts of anger and other strong emotions by airplane passengers. The study, conducted by Katherine A. DeCelles of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and Michael I. Norton of Harvard Business School, looked at data from millions of reported incidents from a major international airline and found that passengers in economy were almost four times as likely to lash out at a flight attendant or another passenger if there was a first class section on the flight. In addition, passengers were two times as likely to have an air rage incident if they boarded the craft at the front and were made to walk past the luxury seating on their way to their own more limited accommodation in economy.

The implication would seem to be clear: inequality causes injury. Being made, very literally, to confront one’s inferior class position may cause one to freak out. Indeed, the study finds that the physical presence of first class on board is the psychological equivalent of a delay of more than nine hours!”

[emphasis added]

That scientific analysis probably explains why, there are frequent reports of the same attacks on the privileged—

  • Fights break out at theaters after the people in the back see the orchestra seats

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  • Class wars erupt during halftime at AT&T, a/k/a Jerry Jones’ Cowboys Stadium after seeing the suites there

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  • Charge of untenured, junior professors at the bastions of academic aristocracy, the offices of the endowed chair faculty members’ offices

air rage


  • Attacks of suburban houses after the working class ride by on a bus

air rage

Rather than rely of qualitative, episodic reductio ad absurdum argument, there is a brilliant contradictory exposition published by Andrew Gelman in Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science. He says:

“A psychology researcher sent me an email with subject line, “There’s a hell of a paper coming out in PPNAS today.” He sent me a copy of the paper, “Physical and situational inequality on airplanes predicts air rage,” by Katherine DeCelles and Michael Norton, edited by Susan Fiske, and it did not disappoint. By which I mean it exhibited the mix of forking paths and open-ended storytelling characteristic of these sorts of PPNAS or Psychological Science papers on himmicanes, power pose, ovulation and clothing, and all the rest.

There’s so much to love (by which I mean, hate) here, I hardly know where to start.

– Coefficient estimate and standard errors such as “1.0031** (0.0014)” (yes, that’s statistically significantly different from the baseline value of 1.0000).

– Another coefficient of “11.8594” (dig that precision) with a standard error of “11.8367” which is still declared statistically significant at the 5% level. Whoops!

– The ridiculous hyper-precision of “Flights with first class present are ∼46.1% of the population of flights” (good thing they assured us that it wasn’t exactly 46.1%).

– The interpretation of zillions of regression coefficients, each one controlling for all the others. For example, “As predicted, front boarding of planes predicted 2.18-times greater odds of an economy cabin incident than middle boarding (P = 0.005; model 2), an effect equivalent to an additional 5-h and 58-min flight delay (0.7772 front boarding/0.1305 delay hours).” What does it all mean? Who cares!

– No raw data. Sorry, proprietary restrictions so nobody can reproduce this analysis! (Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with researchers learning from proprietary information, I do it all the time. What the National Academy of Sciences is doing publishing this sort of thing, I have no idea. Or, yes, I do have an idea, but I don’t like it.)

Story time: “We argue that exposure to both physical and situational inequality can result in antisocial behavior. . . . even temporary exposure to physical inequality—being literally placed in one’s “class” (economy class) for the duration of a flight—relates to antisocial behavior . . .”

– A charming reference in the abstract to testing of predictions, even though no predictions were supplied before the data were analyzed.

– Dovetailing!

The data

The authors don’t share any of their data, but they do say that there were between 1,500 and 4,500 incidents in their database, out of between 1 and 5 million flights. So that’s about 1 incident per thousand flights.

They report a rate of incidents of 1.58 per thousand flights in economy seats on flights with first class, .14 per thousand flights in economy seats with no first class, and .31 per thousand flights in first class.

It seems like these numbers are per flight, not per passenger, but that can’t be right: lots more people are in economy class than in first class, and flights with first class seats tend to be in bigger planes than flights with no first class seats. This isn’t as bad as the himmicanes analysis but it displays a similar incoherence.

There’s no reason we should take this sort of tea-leaf-reading exercise seriously. Or, to put it another way—and I’m talking to you, journalists—just pretend this was published in some obscure outlet such as the Journal of Airline Safety. Subtract the hype, subtract the claims of general relevance, just treat it as data (which we don’t get to see).

I should perhaps clarify that I can only assume these researchers were trying their best. They were playing by the rules. Not their fault that the rules were wrong. Statistics is hard, like basketball or knitting. As I wrote a few months ago, I think we have to accept statistical incompetence not as an aberration but as the norm. Doing poor statistical analysis doesn’t make Katherine DeCelles and Michael Norton bad people, any more than I’m a bad person just cos I can’t sink a layup.

[emphasis added]

Thank you, Dr. Gelman for setting the record straight!

Seriously, some day someone may find a correlation between air rage and some other factors. Nice try DeCelles and Norton; Dr. Gelman did not give a good peer review to your Tasseography.

air rage


ARTICLE: The Airplane As A Microcosm Of Class Divisions

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