5 Reasons Despite Fewer Passengers There’s More Conflict On Airlines Than Ever

TSA security checkpoint data shows that on a given day only a quarter to one third last year’s number of passengers are traveling by air. There are up to 75% fewer people in the skies, but there have been no shortage of conflicts from brawls on the jetway to brawls on the plane.

It seems like that shouldn’t be happening. On many routes airline load factors are lower – there are still empty planes. With more personal space to spread out we shouldn’t be getting in each other’s business. And the mere fact there are fewer people means that statistically there should be fewer incidents of conflict (if those incidents have the same likelihood of happening as before).

Everything isn’t equal though. The flying experience is different, and so are the people that have been flying this summer.

People are being kicked off for profanities printed on their masks and getting kicked off for refusing to wear one. Fights have started on the plane and continued into the terminal. Passengers are still sticking their feet on things. And they have even attacked gate agents over a brief delay.

It seems like there are 5 potential drivers of frequency of conflict in air travel right now.

  1. There’s a greater proportion of first time flyers. There is almost no business travel right now, and a smaller proportion of travelers are members of airline frequent flyer programs too.

  2. Tensions are running especially high during the pandemic, with protests over racial injustice, in an election year while everything – even mask wearing – has become political. I wonder if this is less of a factor, because conflict isn’t unique to the U.S., it’s happening in Europe too.

  3. Flying during a pandemic is a new experience for everyone, it takes time to get used to mask requirements and less on board service.

  4. Fewer flights mean delays and misconnections are a greater inconvenience than ever and by the way more time in airports means more time indoors being exposed to other people.

  5. This is speculative, but people likely to fly during the global pandemic may be less risk averse, they’re willing to put themselves in harms way in the world – and in the faces of airline employees and other passengers.

Bottom-line: We’re all stuck in a metal tube together, and that metal tube is more of a powder keg than ever before – and the passengers themselves are less used to it. All the airlines are Spirit now.

Which of these factors seem they best explain what we’ve been seeing?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Why not come right out and say it, Gary. That the leadership of this nation legitimizes conflict and stokes anger. At a time when a leader needs to soothe the soul of a country that is teeming with desperation, he encourages divisiveness and hatred. The buck stops where?

    And no, you are not correct, after spending the majority of the summer in Europe I can tell you it’s not the same there. The stress and tension here is palpable. People in the EU are united for the most part and blissfully peaceful in comparison. Life feels relatively normal. Here, not so much.

  2. I doubt that the conflicts are being driven by “a greater proportion of first time flyers” when it’s probably the case that the vast majority of adults flying in the US nowadays are people who have flown before.

    Are you really sure that first-time adult flyers aren’t a smaller proportion of American flyers nowadays than at this time last year?

  3. That “a smaller proportion of travelers [in the US] are members of airline frequent flyer programs” doesn’t mean a whole lot under the current circumstances.

  4. Where even the comment section of VFTW can’t go 3 seconds without a political argument between random strangers on the internet.

  5. Gary, I enjoyed these possible explanations and I remain happy to not have to fly. Now if I could just the insane asylum known as the State of Florida.

    It is sad that someone always wants to bring in politics in the Comment section of each article.

  6. @Florida & John man said it all. A person is responsible for thier own behavior. Not somebody else.

  7. because they all have trump derangement syndrome. The US problems,in. their small conflicted minds, have only existed since 2016 and a stolen election… yawn.

  8. @Gary – You say that there’s around 25% of previous fliers flying currently. Any idea what proportion of flights are operating? If it’s 50% – unlikely IMO – then there should be gobs of extra space in most cases compared to prior years; if its more like 1/3, not so much.

  9. Of course Stuart would try and bring politics into the equation as he does on every post. I have also been abroad and these problems exist elsewhere. They are NOT unique to the US just reported more due to the main stream media’s fascination for reporting anything negative.

  10. The Left blaming Trump for their vigilante violence is like an abusive husband telling his wife ‘look, you made me hit you!’

    Let’s not coexist.

  11. @William Y. More like two abusive spouses battling it out and throwing punches in therapy and the therapist says, “Yeah, beat each other up…you’ll feel better!”

  12. @Cmorgan. I believe I used the term, “In comparison.” If you honestly think that Europe is imploding as we are than I seriously doubt if you have been there this summer. Or else you are completely oblivious.

    And yes, I will continue to make it political. And if you can’t see why I fear for you and your understanding of the pain and suffering that many are enduring. And that this current leader is mocking and stoking the flames.

    Your entitlement does not shut the door in my face of fighting back. And I will.

  13. I’m amused to see @CMorgan accuse @Stuart of introducing politics into the discussion. @CMorgan has been guilty of that very thing many times over the last few months.

  14. Another garbage post by bloggers and their professional commenters none of whom have been on a plane in God knows how long. Normally, Gary at least has the decency to backup his clickbait headlines with data but he didn’t in this case because it really doesn’t support the narrative.


    Yeah, the FAA publishes a database of Unruly Passenger cases reported. It’s here -> https://www.faa.gov/data_research/passengers_cargo/unruly_passengers/

    How many reports this year thru August 14? 50. BFD.

    How many in calendar year 2019 – 137
    How many in 2018 – 159

    Clearly, it’s out of control this year! Oy. :rolleyes: Even if we normalize for reduced traffic due to covid I’m pretty sure we are near the moving average.

    Oh, but sure, let’s come up with content based on what CNN and MSNBC say.

    Orange man bad!

  15. Just say it. The cheap fares airlines are offering just to fill their seats are bringing out the trash.

  16. @Willy – most of the issues we’re talking about don’t fall under these reports but the data you’re pointing to udnerscores my point, travel is down far more than unruly passenger incidents, on a per-enplanment basis these incidents are up markedly

  17. This has nothing to do with our leadership. People make their own choices… Unfortunately due to the current times people are finding excuses to act inappropriately because of all the fear that is being instilled by media.

  18. You really think it’s trump’s problem that these animals are behaving like they are. Yes they are 1st time travelers because the fares are so low and as a result this is the type of passenger that you get.
    Black lives matter has made this country a h*** on Earth to live in

  19. I found the whole flying experience stressful even before the Pandemic. This Covid situation has pushed me over the edge as I will never get on a plane again. The wife can travel alone for all I care.

  20. People need to get on the plane and shut up. Very simple. No one wants to hear political or social views

  21. Just because the fares are low that doesn’t equal first time flyers. My wife and i fly at least twice a month and haven’t really ran into any problems. One occasion with an unruly entitled person but the plane returned to the gate and the passenger was removed. Donald Trump isn’t the biggest problem it’s the people who support him knowing that their moral compass is being shifted. Anyone who believes that the BLM is the problem hasn’t really looked into the mirror of this nation. Everyone doesn’t need to completely understand each other but we all need to be sympathetic to each other’s struggle. Facts don’t lie and the pulse of this nation is written in the history books for all too see and not just what’s being taught in the feel good surface. We all are human beings that have to coexist on this blue planet we call earth .

  22. @Matthew Collins – No, it’s not ONLY first time flyers but the data airlines have pointed to suggest far more infrequent flyers and far fewer frequent ones or even loyalty program members

  23. @gary – your failure to provide any real data to underscore your point doesn’t lend credence to your point of view. And I have no idea what incidents you could possibly be talking about that are somehow quantifiable. Is there some other reliable database of first time flyer incidents or are you just pulling that out of your butt?

    The FAA data is purely a proxy for any argument to support your hypothesis.

  24. I am amused to hear Charlie’s comments regarding my prior posts. I have only responded to other posts which blatantly and falsely accuse the POTUS of being responsible for the uncivil actions of others. And Stuart why don’t you go on line and look at all of the recent partying going on in Germany, Italy and France and then tell me they are being responsible. The left always makes things political because they have no original thought or plan of their own and thrive on the culture of criticism and sarcasm. Sad state of affairs. I cringe to think that I was once a member of the Democratic Party.

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