Philosophy Of Unfriendly Skies


Since the late 1990s, instances of sky rage are on upswing.

Definition of sky rage: Abusive or violent behavior exhibited by airline passengers, often as a manifestation of impatience or stress.

And another one: Anger and frustration—more commonly seen in economy class than in upper class—which occurs before, during or after a commercial airline flight, generally while the passenger(s) is still aboard, related to prolonged sitting in an uncomfortable position, aggravating seat mates, low quality food, and other factors which set the stage for a rage reaction that may lead to physical or verbal assault on crew members or other passengers.самолет5

Airlines, for PR reasons, don’t report the vast majority of incidents, unless there’s an extreme case requiring legal action. The airlines’ unstated policy is to minimize damage  by removing disruptive passengers the hell out of the aircraft — and then let it go.

The 2003 invention of 6’3-tall American Ira Goldman, the Knee Defender, is a small pair of plastic clips that attach to your lowered seat-back table, locking the chair in front of you in place so the passenger can’t recline. “I was tired of being bumped in the knees by reclining seats,” says Goldman.knee defender

This invention has brought to the fore the usual comments on plane etiquette. Some say such devices infringe on passenger rights. Simply put, if an airline offers a reclining mechanism — and some low-cost carriers don’t — then tough luck for the fellow behind you. More controversy ensued, sky rage incidents increased in number.

So what’s really going on between you and your neighbor, when he (or you) press the button in the armrest and carry the weight on your back? In the public space people find themselves in a special mode of interaction, as if pretending to be behind a transparent wall. Sociologist Irving Goffman defines such state as the state of “polite inattention.” You meet the stranger’s eye and drop your stare to break the contact, thereby demonstrating the non-interference in the privacy of the stranger, no matter how dense is the crowd.

Anthropology Professor of the St. Petersburg European University Ilya Utekhin explains why reclined backrest on the plane is not just a banal rudeness (call it abusive or violent behavior or anger and frustration) but a complex social phenomenon, and as such — a philosophical issue.


Professor Utekhin uses such terminology as personal space and proxemics to elevate the phenomenon of sky rage to the level of philosophical subject.

Personal space is the region surrounding a person which they regard as psychologically theirs. Most people value their personal space and feel discomfort, anger, or anxiety when their personal space is encroached. (Wikipedia)


Proxemics can be defined as “the interrelated observations and theories of man’s use of space as a specialized elaboration of culture”.

In the middle of XX century, American cultural anthropologist Edward Hall turned to the study of spatial patterns of behavior of people in different cultures. He called this area of research proxemics, as yet another way of nonverbal communication. In the context of proxemics, such devise as knee defender is akin to a statement that forcibly imposes your will on other person thus limiting their actions.


Humans share proxemics mechanisms with animals — territorial instinct, aggression as means of defending their territory from invaders — and then add some “cultural software” to this inherent programming — different societies developed different notions of “comfortable distance.” According to Hall, these differences in defining the borders of comfort zones explain why American,  comfortable to converse maintaining approximately three feet distance from the other person, might feel that his personal space is invaded by his Arabic interlocutor, whose comfort zone is noticeably smaller. American would instinctively step away, while Arab might grow suspicious and deem him untrustworthy.


Even if people do not talk, they still communicate with one another by sending messages through multiple channels, whether they are aware of it or not. One of these channels is the distance that people maintain. The distance that separates us from other people, however, is not measured in feet or inches. Rather, it’s an expression of what you can do or feel at this distance.

Intimate distance allows us to feel the other persons breath, body heat and smell, to reach out and touch other person’s hand, to talk without straining our voice and hearing. As a rule, the higher the person’s social status, the more space he/she demands and secures. The most expensive tickets on intercontinental flights provide a separate, quite spacious passenger compartments.  The curtain that separates business and economy classes spare holders of more expensive tickets the sight of less fortunate, but also protects them from the envious stares.skyrage155

Passenger in economy class feels lucky if a seat next to him is empty. Not only it increases his private space, but also greatly increases the satisfaction of the flight. However, the reason for the sky rage is not so much tightness and squeeze as the uncertain status of inches considered to be a part of one’s private space. A dog travelling in a cage in the luggage compartment has no such problem: its little personal territory, albeit small, nonetheless is completely at its disposal, interfering with no other dog.

Suggested modus operandi en flight?  If you routinely fly in first class, you need none. Otherwise, philosophy aside, bring your seat in upright position, just in case.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s