Forget passenger shaming. Let’s try airline shaming

passenger shaming

Ever seen pictures online of airline passengers misbehaving? It’s called passenger shaming.

It’s hard to unsee the images of barefoot passengers propping their feet on their TV screens or seat in front of them. Or of the gross items people put in the seatback pockets. Or of the babies getting a diaper change on an open tray table.

But just in case you missed them, you’ve probably experienced something like it on a flight – and wished you could shame these inconsiderate air travelers into stopping this behavior.

Why we want to shame passengers

A plane is an enormous pressure cooker of human frustration. Occasionally, people misbehave. So it was only a matter of time before the passenger shaming movement took off.

But Christopher Ferguson, a professor of psychology specializing in media violence at Florida’s Stetson University, says shaming doesn’t work.

“Shame mainly fosters resentment and can linger for the target for days after the flight,” he says. “It’s more of a retributive and revenge strategy than one that is particularly helpful for the specific situation.”

There’s no evidence that passenger shaming has made air travel better or more civil. Experts say there are far more effective ways to handle troublesome passengers than holding them up to ridicule. And, in fact, the passenger shaming movement says more about the sad state of air travel than it does about the people who fly.

In-flight incidents on the rise

There’s no evidence that any kind of shaming – whether it’s in real-time or later, online – is having any effect on passenger behavior. The number of in-flight incidents has risen 35% to one incident per 1,035 flights in 2017, according to the International Air Transport Association, a trade group.

Of course, there could be a lot of factors in play, but if passenger shaming worked, you’d expect to see that number falling. It hasn’t.

A better way to handle difficult passengers

Dean McKay, a professor specializing in anxiety research at New York’s Fordham University, says there are better ways to defuse an in-flight conflict.

On a recent flight, he watched as a dispute between a flight attendant and a passenger was resolved without the need for any public shaming.

“The flight attendant was polite and handled the situation as well as would be expected,” he recalls.

Flight attendants are trained to resolve the most common conflicts and normally, these procedures to de-escalate a conflict work. Taking photos and posting them to Instagram, or holding the passengers up to public ridicule, isn’t part of their education.

However, McKay says while passenger shaming doesn’t work, gentle peer pressure can.

“The passenger in the row behind him made a point of apologizing to the flight attendant, and stated loudly that some people are just lacking in manners,” he recalls. “Did it achieve the desired result? Yes, the man later apologized profusely to the flight attendant.”

What passenger shaming is really about

Part of it is for the amusement of disgruntled crewmembers and frequent air travelers, who post these images online as a way to cope with rising incivility on aircraft. But have you ever asked yourself why people who behave well on the ground turn into animals on a plane?

What’s different? A plane is a small, confined space. And lately, if you fly in economy class, it feels smaller than ever. Airlines seem to move their seats closer together or to delete an amenity that used to be included in your ticket price. Maybe the reason passengers are acting up is that when they fly, they’re being treated like something less than human.

Airlines have cut their product so that it’s unrecognizable from what it once was – the gold standard for customer service in the travel industry. Airlines don’t respect their customers, sometimes denying them basic necessities like food, drink and a civilized amount of space. No wonder passengers are crossing the line.

Passengers shouldn’t be shamed. But maybe airlines should.

How to avoid getting passenger-shamed

Always follow crew instructions

Remember, the flight attendants are there for your safety. When they ask you to sit down and fasten your seat belts, it’s for a good reason. They’re trying to protect you.

Imagine you’re at a dinner party

Set your plane etiquette at “formal dinner party” level and keep it there for the duration of the flight. That means no bare feet, no invading other people’s personal space, and for the love of all that is good and holy, keep all of your clothes on.

Take a hint

If you have any doubts about your in-flight behavior, ask a fellow passenger. Is it OK to recline my seat back? Do you mind if I leave the light on during an overnight flight? And don’t worry, if you do something unapproved, your seatmate will let you know. Be alert for the throat-clearing or the tap on the shoulder. And heed it.

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Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. He’s the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, and the Washington Post. If you have a consumer problem you can’t solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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