Road rage looks like a playground skirmish when compared to air rage these days.

Just look at what has happened on flights in the past two months: Passengers on a New York-bound Iceland Air flight duct-taped an allegedly drunk and unruly passenger to his seat. A woman on a JetBlue flight to San Diego reportedly became physical with a flight attendant when another passenger was moved to a premium seat for free because of a broken in-flight TV. A passenger heading to Atlanta, accused of slapping a crying 19-month-old and uttering a racial epithet at the toddler, was fired from his job because of it and now faces assault charges.

(Chris Ware/Lexington Herald-Leader/MCT)

The headlines seem deceptive when you consider the actual statistics, which reveal a decline in unruly passengers -- 101 incidents last year compared to a high of 330 in 2004, according to Federal Aviation Administration reports.

So why does it feel so much worse now? Maybe because air travel has gone from a pampered, exciting adventure to an anxiety-heightened, obstacle-ridden necessity -- and recent reports of a sequester causing air travel delays and a proposal allowing in-flight cellphone use have driven blood pressures to the boiling point.

Remember when United's "fly the friendly skies" actually existed? On my first cross-country flight 33 years ago, I got a free in-flight meal, kid's goody bag with playing cards and a coloring book and a trip to the cockpit to meet the pilot.

Those days have given way to overbooked flights and planes stranded on tarmacs. Airlines have slapped fees on everything from checked bags to blankets and pillows. And airport security checkpoints are a hassle of long lines, shoe removal, full-body scanners and Transportation Security Administration agents who don't always know their own rules.

Case in point: Two weeks ago, a 3-year-old in a wheelchair sobbed as TSA agents discussed patting her down, took away her stuffed animal and told her mother to stop videotaping the screening. When the video surfaced online, the TSA apologized and promised more training for its agents.

Is it any wonder why news of potential aggravations has travelers venting on online discussion boards?

Last week, in a political standoff with congressional Republicans, the White House warned that a sequester -- which would include cuts to air traffic controllers -- could cause 90-minute delays and eventual flight cancellations. If nothing else, the scare tactic served as a reminder of how precarious air travel has become.

That's why talk of possible personal cellphone use has travelers sounding off. The practice is widely accepted on most European and Middle Eastern airlines, but it still is barred from flights in U.S. air space.

Some airline industry experts say the United States will join the fold eventually, a few even predicting it by year's end. When it happens, we will just have to brace ourselves for the next potential air rage trigger.

Only one solution is truly in the hands of passengers -- dig deep to find patience and compassion for our fellow travelers.

I saw the difference that makes a couple of years ago while flying with my daughter, who was then 6 months old. Twice, the ticketing agent issued an incorrect child boarding pass, which we didn't discover until we reached the front of the security line both times.

Frustrated, and with our departure time fast approaching, I burst into tears. Fifteen minutes later, with the right pass in hand, we returned to security to find the line 50 people deep. A woman who had been in line behind us was still there, waving us forward.

"Don't worry," she said, letting us cut in front of her. "I explained your situation to everyone else. They understand."

We made our flight with a half-hour to spare.

And I've never forgotten how the fuse from that very stressful, emotionally charged trip was diffused because of an act of kindness.

Reach Ann Tatko-Peterson at atatko@bayareanewsgroup.com or follow her at Twitter.com/atatkopeterson.