Will The Return Of Business Travel Be ‘Herd Immunity’ Against Crazy Passenger Fights?

Bring 100 or more people together inside a cramped metal tube, place them in close proximity together, and shut the door and you’re going to get a certain amount of drama.

Everyone brings their own personal issues to the plane. Some people are having a bad day, or suffering a personal loss. And there are a variety of cultural expectations on board. The sky is no longer the province of the wealthy or expense account travelers, at least since deregulation. I genuinely think that’s a good thing. It also means, though, that travelers are less homogenous than they used to be. They’re less alike. So they may not understand each other’s styles, smells, or demeanors.

Most airline conflicts in the Before Times though involved one passenger or one party traveling together and crew. They’d usually be removed from the aircraft, sometimes by law enforcement. You wouldn’t have very many situations devolve to where multiple groups of passengers are fighting with each other – as we’ve seen happen over the past year.

Since last summer I’ve written ‘all airline passengers are Spirit Airlines passengers now’ since last summer. It’s been nearly all leisure travel. There’s always a certain amount of people on a plane who fly once a year, or less often, but those are for the most part who has been traveling during the pandemic. Not only hasn’t there been business travel, business traveling elites have been less likely to fly for leisure pre-vaccination, too, at least according to airline reports about the percentage of elite frequent flyers in the air.

The return of business travel is going to have a calming effect on the skies. When it’s passenger vs. passenger, business travelers in the mix are a kind of herd immunity. The crazy first-timer in the skies running into another first-timer in the skies becomes less likely when there’s an increasing proportion of passengers who aren’t first timers, who tend to take travel in a bit more stride.

Each time an incident starts, it runs into someone who might accelerate the incident or it doesn’t. As the proportion of “doesn’t” travelers grows, the less likely it is for the behavior to spread.

It’s not just total number of people, it’s the mix and the break for employees from newbies every single interaction. Having more people with experience who know the drill means,

  • Gate agents and cabin crew aren’t frustrated at every single interaction
  • A smaller proportion of total passengers needing help, asking for things the airline doesn’t do

To be sure, business travelers can complain. They can be entitled. They can flaunt their elite status. But they also know the drill, they’re more likely to stay focused on their work and more likely to know how to stow their carry on bags, when to board, and what they can bring on board.

And airlines may not be fully ready for the ramp up in their schedules for summer. $79 billion was appropriated across three bills on the claim that this was needed so that airlines would be ready when travel demand returned. At the very least shouldn’t pilots have been kept current, kept run through the simulators, been given their takeoffs and landings? Sure, some fleet types were retired and that meant some pilots would work different aircraft, but shouldn’t that training have already happened because we were paying $79 billion so it would?

But we shouldn’t see the same frequency of multi-passenger brawls and similar incidents once the number of people flying for business reaches a threshold of herd immunity.

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. I think you’ve missed the problem, it isn’t cheaper airfares causing the problems, it is deeper problems relating to politics that occurred over the last 4 years. Some people don’t believe rules apply to them. That will continue to occur until they change their behavior whether due to extreme legal consequences or other means.

    Your ridiculous idea of it being business vs tourist travelers is so far off the mark it is crazy. Some of the most entitled and bad behaviors I’ve seen are business travelers/FF types.

  2. Yes, I have to agree with Rich that I’ve seen some pretty nasty and arrogant people traveling business, though they usually are just rude to the Flight Attendants rather than throw a punch. Still, more people involved in their professional activities might dilute the problems a bit.

    I do disagree with Rich that it’s just recent politics, and while that certainly hasn’t helped most people seem to shy away from the topic, especially with strangers. I think there are deeper issues here, perhaps a less gentility in society as a whole that makes acting out and selfishness more acceptable. (I once heard the writer Tom Wolfe say the biggest change he’d seen in politics was the loss of a sense of shame. And an occasional substitute teacher in several “good” high schoosl I sure don’t see much of the respect or patience that used to character students in such places.) Maybe TV and computers has just worked to isolate people from personal social interactions and critical thinking, maybe not.

    The other issue is that on airliners people are treated poorly. Not just the seats or the disappearing food, or the nonsense about bringing a drink, but the whole experience. First the airlines do nothing to educate people on their environment and while you can certainly learn about it (I’ve several certificates and ratings from the FAA but even a cursory reading will teach a lot) most people don’t know where to begin. So the experience can be overwhelming, intimidating and for those who don’t like flying scary. Throw in the chamber of horrors the TSA happily puts most people through and you have a really nasty start to a stressful environment.

    And of course Covid makes everything much worse. Could the airlines do things to reduce pressure? Sure, and they’ve done a little here and there. But it’s a deeper systemic problem which in part magnifies some of the issues in our society. We can do better but as is typical of Americans we treat the effects (cops) rather than the problem (psychologists looking at the environment) so it is not changing for the better.

  3. @Gene. Lol.

    Business travel is coming back. Strong.

    Now that the CDC dropped all restrictions – our company alone is getting people back on the road.
    Just booked our guys to a Europe conference in Q3.

    Plan for us is to be back in planes, hard, as soon as possible now.
    We have a lot of ground to make up.

    Actually expecting business travel to expand way beyond 2019 levels. Imagine by 2022, it will be beyond.

    Our company is going to make up for lost time, by hitting travel harder than ever – starting very shortly now.

    Zoom sucks, everyone knows it. It’s not a way to build a relationship with a true customer.

  4. @George – I think you may be correct for some business travel, not all.

    The type that involves meeting people outside your company – may well come back to close to prior levels.

    But meetings within a company, where there is no networking or sales going on – I think that will stay for below pre-Covid levels.

  5. I’ll grant you that Zoom totally sucks. People show their ass on a plane which is reflective of society. Obesity, people who look like they belong at the bus terminal-are now on flights. I wouldn’t want to be a FA for anything in our times.

  6. Animals belong in cages, not in airports or on airplanes. When are people going to wise up and understand that no punishment for doing bad things just leads to these ignoramuses doing worse things? God forbid we should protect the rights of normal humans against aggressive, violent low-lifes. Tie them all to lightpoles outside and leave them there for a few days.

  7. I blame The Real Housewives as well as other similar shows for the downfall in American behavior.

  8. Never thought of business travelers–especially the male ones–as positive. Normally I associate them with manspreading (including with elbows) and talking loudly on cell phones. Many are male and don’t care about those around them. But yes, there are others now who will make them look good by comparison.

  9. Ditto. Never thought of work flyers as a positive.
    All I can think of is the numerous DYKWIAs one runs into.

    The lowly $40K a year corporate drones who spend their sundays flying for work to please their corporate master are usually the ones who compensate because they have a shiny “elite” card

  10. I’ve been out of the industry for a while and this may be a stupid question, but where are all of the Sky Marshals? You’d think by now someone would have acted up on a flight with one on board.

    Or aren’t stopping these stupid fights part of their duties?

  11. What happened to the well known federal regs, policies, and laws covering “interfering with the flight crew or operation?” That s/b prominently posted at gate check-in with a photo of a convict in chains breaking rocks.

    Now that we are finally getting rid of the zoo literally on-board, the obvious contributing factors that c/b quickly remedied if the airline had seasoned operational management vs. finance types includes:
    -overtly obese travelers s/b required to purchase 2 seats to avoid their blubbery elbows hogging the armrests. If necessary, weight them at check-in and measure their girth.
    -restrict dress code to no tank tops or clogs, as so view of these bus-type flyers are from “Bay Watch.”
    -prevent carry-ons that obviously should be in the hold; charge for that baggage-by the piece.
    -require the FAA to set-up and do its job by regulating size of seats and toilet. Yes, I am a free market believer and I do fly FC/BC, but I have had the misfortune of flying AA Y and suffered.

    It’s like being in a third dimension with the upgraded buses better than flying and Amtrak.

  12. You have to wonder what flight would be like if Lufthansa brought back the topless stewardesses from their inter-German flight..?

  13. If your are an Arse you are going to act like one. Can not make an weed look like a pretty flower. Can not make a bad flyer a good flyer.

  14. Disruptive people need to be permanently banned fro flying for even minor transgressions. It’s the only punishment they understand.

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