A CANADIAN man was sentenced to a year in prison in Belfast on Monday for abusing passengers and staff on a transatlantic flight. Michael Roy Shick had consumed alcohol and antidepressants before the incident, which ended with him spitting in a stewardess’s face.

The mere mention of antidepressants would normally secure an acquittal for a public order offence. But different standards apply in the air, resulting in very different behaviour.

Last year the UK civil aviation authority reported 2,219 incidents of air rage out of 238 million passenger movements. Only 58 were described as “serious” while another two were described as “Naomi Campbell”. In the United States, airlines reported approximately 7,000 incidents out of 770 million passenger movements. Both sets of figures indicate that fewer than one in every 100,000 passengers will misbehave on an aircraft despite the many frustrations of flying and the heavy promotion of alcohol on board.

This can mean only one thing. It is a deeply shocking conclusion that will outrage much of society but we must face the uncomfortable truth: everyone is perfectly capable of behaving themselves. None of the conventional excuses for public rudeness and aggression stand up. Stress, tiredness, irritation and spilling someone else’s drink are all commonplace in the air. Yet the risk of being sworn at, punched or stabbed is effectively zero.

The rise of the budget airline has only confirmed this observation. Over the past decade, millions of extremely vulgar people have managed to drink heavily for several hours in the close company of complete strangers without making a scene. Even more remarkably, hundreds of thousands of their appalling children have managed to sit still in relative silence without starting a fire or breaking a window. All of this is policed by young women armed only with frosty expressions. And peanuts.

Clearly, everything we think we know about anti-social behaviour is wrong. So how can these lessons from the air be applied on the ground?

We could redesign bars and nightclubs to resemble aircraft cabins, with forward-facing seats and tiny toilets. Restaurants could offer a simple choice of chicken or fish, while the Garda could set up an all-female frosty response squad. But this would miss the point. People are on their best behaviour in the air despite these things rather than because of them. It is the promise of swift and serious consequences that maintains the peace. There are no friendly cautions for an air-rage incident. The cabin crew will not take two hours to arrive on the scene and members of the public will not quietly look the other way. A package holiday is too clearly a luxury for social and economic excuses to apply. The loss of that ruined holiday and the humiliation of being escorted off the plane are punishments of a type that the courts no longer dare to impose.

Under the 2006 Criminal Justice Act, failure to observe a behaviour warning may result in an application to a District Court for a three-month behaviour order. Gardaí regard this expectation as so hopeless that the powers have never been used.

But in an aircraft cabin, the last public place in the western world where people are expected to behave, 99.999 per cent of us still somehow manage to do so.