‘Air rage’ is complicating travel in North America and Europe – but not so much in Asia
The videos light up social media and dominate news headlines.
From verbal confrontations to all-out brawls, scenes of airplane passengers behaving badly have become increasingly familiar in Covid-era travel.
While "air rage" may seem to be another inevitability of living through a pandemic, some parts of the world are seeing fewer frustrations unleashed in the skies.
Where 'air rage' is high
Before the pandemic, there were between 100 to 150 reports of unruly passengers in a typical year on U.S. airlines.
In 2021, there were nearly 6,000, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, with some 72% related to mask disputes.
"The issue is mostly a U.S. problem," said Shem Malmquist, a visiting instructor at Florida Institute of Technology's College of Aeronautics. "Part of this is absolutely related to the politicization of the pandemic in U.S. politics. That aside, U.S. passengers are considered to be more generally problematic by most cabin crew."
Europe is also grappling with its share of disruptive passengers. High-profile incidents have been reported on flights departing from Spain, Scotland, Amsterdam and Glasgow.
Australia's major airlines launched a joint campaign in 2021, following an increase in abusive behavior among flyers. Videos and airport signage have been put up to remind travelers to bring masks and respectful attitudes on board.
Last year, Canadian authorities reported that nearly 1,600 hundred people refused to comply with mask rules during flights. Others were denied boarding or deplaned before take-off, according to Transport Canada, the country's transportation department.
Different cultural norms?
In Asia, news of unruly flyers remains scarce.
"I have not heard of any incidents — zip, none," said Jeffrey C. Lowe, CEO of the Hong-Kong-based aviation services company Asian Sky Group.
"Airline schedules are still greatly reduced," he said of travel within Asia. Plus, there is "the pre-existing acceptance for masks in Asia before the pandemic … and, last but not least, a different perception here in Asia as to what infringes on our personal freedoms."
Mask-wearing is an accepted practice in many Asian countries to prevent spreading or getting an illness. In an CNBC Travel story about Japan's Shibuya Crossing, a 360-degree image shows at least eight people wearing masks near Tokyo's famous intersection — long before the pandemic began.
Malmquist agrees that the issue is "certainly a large part cultural." However, he said, "we cannot rule out that the flying is still so restricted in Asia that those who are flying are heavily supervised, with the ratio of cabin crew to passengers quite high."
Plus, there have been fewer leisure travelers in Asia, he said, noting flyers there have been "almost exclusively business" travelers.
Airlines 'don't have major issues'
Korean Airlines indicated mask acceptance is helping to quell in-flight meltdowns.
An airline representative initially told CNBC: "We haven't observed any outstanding increases or changes of in-flight unruly passengers since Covid-19 partially due to a social background where people wear a facial mask voluntarily."
Later, the source issued a second statement, stating that the airline has experienced mask-related issues, "but those cases haven't significantly increased the total number of unruly incidents."
Similarly, Doha-based Qatar Airways told CNBC: "We don't have major issues … Most of our passengers comply to the rules, and there are a small number of them who might be difficult. … The crew tell them nicely to put on a mask and most obliged to it."
People in the U.S.A. were fighting about wearing masks on a plane, and people in India were fighting for masks to protect themselves.Trish Riswicksocial engagement specialist at Hootsuite
Others airlines aren't talking.
Thai Airways, EVA Air, Philippines Airlines and Cathay Pacific didn't respond to CNBC's questions about unruly passengers on their flights. Without providing additional details, Singapore Airlines said "passengers are largely supportive" of its mask policy.
A Japan Airlines spokesperson said, "Unfortunately, we do not share in-cabin matters with media." Online media reports show several Japanese airlines have had in-flight dustups over masks.
In 2020, the Japanese budget carrier Peach Aviation made an unplanned domestic stop to boot a passenger from the plane, according to the non-profit website Nippon.com. The man, labeled "Japan's no-mask crusader," was arrested several times for refusing to wear a mask when flying and while in public places, according to local reports.
What social media data says
While many airlines may be reluctant to talk, fellow travelers often aren't. Many in-flight incidents are posted on social media by witnesses, where they can be viewed by millions and picked up by media outlets.
Globally, Twitter users mentioned "air rage" and unruly passenger incidents more than 117,000 times during the pandemic, according to the social media management company Hootsuite.
Yet only 1,860 — fewer than 2% — came from users in Asia, according to the data.
Additionally, many posts in Asia pertained to passenger incidents that occurred outside of the region, said Trish Riswick, a social engagement specialist at Hootsuite.
Regarding users in Asia, she said: "There appears to be a lot of conversation about American or European airlines or passengers being unruly or refusing to wear masks."
Riswick said her research picked up several conversations about rule-breaking incidents from flights departing from Japan and India.
However, most conversations about problematic flyers during the pandemic came from the United States (56,000+ mentions), followed by Canada and the United Kingdom, according to Hootsuite. The data showed that the most mentions in Asia came from users in India, Japan and Indonesia.
In conducting the research, the word "fight" was problematic, said Riswick, because the way the term was used varied from continent to continent.
"People in the U.S.A. were fighting about wearing masks on a plane, and people in India were fighting for masks to protect themselves," she said.
One limitation of Hootsuite's data is language; this research picked up conversations in English only, she said.
Still, Asia-based Twitter discussions about problematic flyers fell by 55% during the pandemic, while globally these conversations more than tripled, according to the data.
After concluding the research, Riswick said what she finds most surprising is how outrageous some of the incidents are — especially those that involve flight crews.
"My heart goes out to those who are just trying to do their jobs," she said.