This holiday travel season is unusual because of a combination of simultaneous factors, said Dr. Erin Bowen, an aviation psychology researcher and A. Dale Thompson endowed professor of leadership at the University of Texas at Arlington. Inclement weather is likely to occur, and the aviation system is under strain because of a lack of personnel.
Plus, a massive influx of passengers who haven’t traveled much over the past two years could help to create a perfect stress storm, she said.
“You’re going to end up seeing more frustration, more difficulties and more confusion, really,” Bowen said.
The airline industry took a major hit last year, but travel this Thanksgiving is expected to make a near-full return to pre-pandemic rates, according to Vox. Millions of Americans are gearing up to fly as restrictions have been lifted from international flights.
Over the past few months, airlines have made headlines over vaccine requirements and mask mandates. Travelers have also ramped up mid-flight assaults, with the number of unruly passenger investigations skyrocketing over the past year.
But Bowen believes that with the right preparation, infrequent fliers can again learn good airplane etiquette.
When it comes to flying, many travelers have simply gotten out of practice, Bowen said. It’s sort of like driving in the city after spending months in the country: It’s jarring and disconcerting at first and takes a while to get back into the groove. Airline employees are also readjusting to a larger volume of passengers.
"You’re going to end up seeing more frustration, more difficulties and more confusion, really." – Dr. Erin Bowen, aviation psychology researcher
At the same time, Bowen added, airport assaults are occurring at a much higher frequency and with a greater level of intensity and violence.
“The degree to which things are escalating to physical altercations, which five years ago would have been practically unheard of, is now almost just another day,” she said. “And that’s really not an acceptable occurrence.”
These attacks are just an example of "road rage transferred into an airplane,” said Dr. James M. Honeycutt, a lecturer in organizational behavior, coaching, and consulting in the Naveen Jindal School of Management at the University of Texas at Dallas.
“I think that as we have started to open up more, people are unleashing a repressed anxiety — this reflects anxiety,” he told the Observer earlier this month.
While some may be tempted to record a passenger who's behaving badly, Bowen said it'll likely just make things worse. When the aggressor realizes that they have an audience, they can get even more defensive instead of calming down. Let the trained professionals deescalate the situation, she said.
Bowen advises anxious travelers to focus on things that are under their control. A positive travel experience starts from recognizing that you can't change things like bad weather, federal air regulations or other passengers’ poor behavior.
It’s wise to arrive extra early and have a backup plan in case your flight gets canceled, Bowen said, especially given the busy holiday season. She also recommends having customer service numbers saved and airline apps installed ahead of liftoff.
Be sure to read the travel rules before heading to the airport, she said. Just as no one should be surprised that there are limits on liquids in carry-ons, they also shouldn’t be shocked that masks are required.
And don't give airline workers a hard time, Bowen added; they're not the ones who created the federal aviation regulations, after all.
“Their job is to enforce them or they can get in trouble,” she said. “They just want to get where they’re going, just like us."