Top 10 Airline Incidents of 2011

by  ShermansTravel Editorial Staff | Nov 10, 2011
Plane / Biletskiy_Evgeniy/iStock

There’s a reason why so many movies are set in airports and airplanes: The three-ring-circus, anything-can-happen atmosphere delivers on high-stakes drama and hilarious situational comedy in equal doses (think of Airplane: The Movie, The Terminal, Snakes on a Plane, and even Bridesmaids). But this isn’t another compilation of favorite airline movies – these dubious airline incidents really happened, during the course of a single year! Compiling a list of just 10 air travel snafus that garnered attention in 2011 proved to be as slippery as keeping up with the Kardashians, so our editors grouped bunches of blunders by theme. Even that was an exercise in futility (a report about Russian pilots and flight attendants smoking pot before takeoff emerged just before we clicked “publish”). Nevertheless, we hope you enjoy reading about these obnoxious airline incidents as much as we enjoyed piling them up, and please let us know what we left out. The first rule of Fight Club may be “You don’t talk about Fight Club,” but there are no rules when it comes to flight flubs. We’re spilling the beans.

Celebrities Kicked Off Flights

We don’t envy life on the A- or even D-list. In addition to swatting away paparazzi at every turn, celebrities are missing their flights – at least that’s what the rash of stars ousted from planes in 2011 would have us believe. One of the most rabble-rousing ordeals happened in September, when Leisha Hailey, star of Showtime’s The L Word, claimed flight attendants escorted her off a flight from Baltimore to St. Louis for kissing her girlfriend, Camila Grey. Southwest denied homophobia accusations and insisted the couple were approached because of another type of “word” – expletives that the duo yelled during the flight, disrupting the crew and other passengers. Southwest is no stranger to mile-high kerfuffles (remember when the airline declared actor, director, and Clerks star Kevin Smith too fat to fly?). In August, Green Day’s lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong sauntered onto a Burbank-bound Southwest flight wearing pants that hung quite low; when a flight attendant asked the rocker to hitch up his drawers, Armstrong lashed out and allegedly snapped, “Don’t you have anything better to do?” He was booted off the plane shortly after the incident. On a Delta flight in October, Whitney Houston barely escaped Armstrong’s fate: When a flight attendant asked Houston to buckle up, the crooner refused; it wasn’t until another attendant threatened to kick her off the plane entirely that Houston deigned to obey the seatbelt sign.  

Predictions for 2012
Kim Kardashian, thirsty for publicity after her divorce fiasco winds down, will plot an on-board stunt for press. We predict a mile-high sex tape – after all, that’s what launched the family to fame in the first place.

Molly Fergus

Critters on a Plane

No reports that snakes slithered onto a plane in 2011 (though with human assistance they’ve come close; see Airline Incident #6), but other unwanted animal flyers are taking to the skies. In February, passengers on an Alaska Airlines flight out of Seattle were forced back to the gate after someone spotted a furry stowaway. According to the Associated Press, a rat was seen scampering about the cabin; the flight ultimately departed 90 minutes late, on a different plane. An SAS flight from Stockholm to Chicago encountered a similar problem in August when a mouse was seen aboard the plane, according to Sweden’s The Local. The rodent was never caught, and passengers waited over five hours for a new flight home. A passenger on British Airways encountered another dreaded pest: bed bugs. On two separate BA flights a week apart, a Yahoo executive alleges she received close to 100 bites and found bugs crawling all over her seat, and that the airline did little to remedy her situation or even acknowledge any responsibility for the incidents. The passenger set up a website to recount her itchy tale (, which reads like a nightmarish horror story. BA eventually took the first plane out of service for fumigation, but still maintains the second plane was bug-free.

Predictions for 2012

Escaped lions and bears from an exotic animal sanctuary hijack a flight.

Disguises Gone Wrong

With such intense focus on checking passengers’ bags, checking the actual passengers can slip through the cracks. It certainly did earlier this year when an elaborate TV stunt exposed security flaws at Wellington Airport after a man posing as a pilot tried to gain access to a restricted part of an international terminal, before escaping. The New Zealand comedian went all out for the stunt, donning epaulets on his shoulders and silver wings on his cap. Just as unsettling, in February a Chinese asylum seeker boarded a flight from Hong Kong to Vancouver disguised as an elderly Caucasian man. The man was able to board apparently without a passport or any other documents with a picture or date of birth. He carried the boarding pass of a U.S. citizen who was booked on the flight. Once he had removed the grotesquely detailed silicon mask in a washroom mid-flight, he was taken into Canadian custody where he remained for three months. It was almost as daring as the thieving contortionist act of two men in Barcelona that made headlines in June. It turns out one had been curling himself up inside a large suitcase that was repeatedly placed in the cargo bay of an airport bus. He’d then sneak out to steal electronic devices from other people’s luggage, retreat back into his own bag, and be whisked away by his accomplice once they’d reached their destination. The men were eventually arrested for the theft of a laptop and a GPS device, and police are seeking to trace further burglary victims. Gutsy stuff!

Predictions for 2012
Identity fraudsters thinking some extra padding will do the trick will have a fat chance come January. Fat suits will officially be out of style, as a number of airlines, including Southwest and AirTran, will begin enforcing new weight restrictions that will force the more portly passengers to purchase a second seat.

Out-of-Control Air Traffic Controllers

Whether you’re a traveler who doesn’t trust the system and can’t stand the lack of personal control in commercial flying, or a frequent flyer who doesn’t give it a second thought, air traffic controllers falling asleep and making dangerous errors is enough to make anyone nervous. A recent report from the Government Accountability Office illuminates a dramatic increase in errors by air traffic controllers. Between 2008 and 2011, errors involving departures and approaches have more than doubled. Runway incursions have nearly doubled as well. Even the first lady has been a victim. Michelle Obama and Jill Biden had a close call on April 18 when an air traffic controller mistakenly directed their plane into dangerous turbulence of a military jet on approach to Andrews Air Force Base. Their flight had to abort its landing. The FAA insists the increases are due to better reporting, and we sure hope that’s the case. More alarming are the instances in 2011 of exhausted air traffic controllers falling asleep, none more shocking than the story of the air traffic controller that went to sleep intentionally. In February, a controller working the overnight shift in Knoxville, Tennessee, used couch cushions from the break room to build himself a bed on the floor of the control tower, leaving another controller in another area of the tower to answer pilots that only heard radio silence.    

Predictions for 2012
The FAA hires Neil Patrick Harris and Kristen Wiig to produce a training video titled “Air Traffic Control: What Not To Do” based on their famous Saturday Night Live skit. In addition, airlines may begin equipping cockpits with foghorns so pilots can awaken sleeping air traffic controllers.  

Jeremy Schug

Pilot Mishaps

Airline pilots are responsible for the lives and safety of hundreds of passengers every day, but even though they wield an incredible amount of power, they’re as subject to human error as the rest of us. In the U.S., pilots are limited to eight hours of flight time during a 24-hour period (though this is flexible during long flights) and required to take at least eight hours of continuous rest in that same period. But sometimes, that just isn’t enough. In February, the pilot of a full Boeing 737, flying from Copenhagen to Stockholm, fell asleep when his co-pilot left the cockpit to use the bathroom. The airplane was switched into autopilot mode but the dozing pilot was awoken when the co-pilot tried to get back into the locked cockpit. In a similar situation, this time in Japan, a plane carrying 117 passengers flew upside down for several seconds. The pilot left to use the restroom and, upon his return, the co-pilot accidentally turned the rudder trim knob rather than the cockpit door lock switch. The plane rolled to the side and then began to descend quickly before being righted by the crew. Errors like these don’t just occur in the air: In January a pilot misplaced a piece of luggage storing his government-issued 40-caliber handgun. The pilot set down the bag as he waited to board the plane and a woman, traveling with her parents and children, picked it up and took it onto her Florida-bound flight. Upon realizing her mistake, she told a flight attendant and the confusion was sorted out.

Predictions for 2012
With the European Union proposing longer duty hours for pilots (from nine to 13 hours), these high-altitude errors might be on the rise. Additionally, in the U.S., the TSA will be streamlining security measures for pilots, allowing them to effectively skirt the pat-down after identity verification.

Smuggling Animals

While common smuggling attempts involve weed or weapons, the more bizarre occurrences involve sneaking live animals through security. These inventive attempts to traffic endangered or rare (or just plain cute) animals result in hefty fines and imprisonment. In October, police stopped a man at Rochambeau Airport in French Guiana when they saw him behaving suspiciously. The man had hidden more than a dozen live hummingbirds inside pouches in his pants, intending to sell them overseas. Similarly, a man flying to Brazil was stopped in the Miami International Airport when security noticed several nylon bags hidden in the man’s pants as he passed through the body scanner. The bags held seven exotic snakes and three tortoises. In March, Jakarta airport officials detained two men attempting to sneak 40 sedated pythons to Dubai, but the x-ray alerted security to the snakes in their luggage. But the creepiest animal smuggling attempt of 2011 was in August, when a man coming from the Dominican Republic was intercepted in the Zurich airport carrying 261 endangered Mexican red-kneed tarantulas. The tarantulas were packed into individual bags and then into boxes. The arrest led police to a Swiss animal dealer’s home, where nearly 700 more tarantulas as well as 72 giant flesh-eating centipedes were discovered.

Prediction for 2012

A Snakes on a Plane sequel, especially when TSA officials lighten up with the touchy practice of body scans and pat downs.

Suspicious Packages

It’s easy to take for granted that suspicious packages and unclaimed luggage are routinely checked at airports, but the folks who discovered some of the more bizarre surprises of 2011 deserve a medal. Indeed, unzipping a bag can be an act of bravery. In October, four inert land mines were found in luggage at Salt Lake City International Airport. It’s believed the mines were bought as souvenirs by a member of the military. They were quickly determined to be harmless and no charges were filed. It mirrors a similar incident in September when a bomb squad was called to the world’s busiest airport, Hartstfield-Jackson International in Atlanta, to inspect unclaimed baggage that seemed fishy, and rightly so: Authorities uncovered spicy fish wrapped in aluminum foil. Apparently the unknown traveler was planning to spice the fish with herbs while flying. It wasn’t the only time a food product caused a stir this year – earlier in September, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was questioned at Mexico City International Airport and almost had his beloved Vegemite confiscated. Rudd’s trusty travel tube of the classic Aussie breakfast spread was flagged as a potentially dangerous liquid (we don’t blame the authorities as the inky black stuff looks and tastes nasty).

Prediction for 2012

Perhaps the tables will turn and peanut butter and jelly will be confiscated Down Under.

TSA Fails

The Transportation Security Administration took some serious heat when it spilled a bladder cancer survivor’s urostomy bag all over his clothes during a pat-down in November 2010, but apparently the agency didn’t turn a new leaf with the new year. Thomas Sawyer, the 61-year-old cancer survivor, filed his second complaint with the TSA in July, when another security administrator squeezed his urostomy bag during a pat-down. Mercifully, the bag did not bust open this time, but the incident is just one example of the TSA’s astonishing invasions of privacy. In October, TSA agents at New York’s JFK airport pulled Lori Dorn aside for a pat-down after her breast implants – which she got after undergoing a bilateral mastectomy – set off the airport security scanners. Dorn asked to retrieve her medical ID cards detailing the implants, but the agents refused and forced her to proceed with the pat-down or miss her flight. Dorn and Sawyer can rest assured that they are in high-powered company: Even Donald Rumsfeld is at the whims of the TSA. In July, the former secretary of defense was forced to undergo additional screening at Chicago’s O’Hare airport when his titanium hip and shoulder caused alarm. Unlike most travelers, Rumsfeld was decidedly chipper after the incident, when he tweeted, “It takes those of us with two titanium hips and a titanium shoulder a bit longer to get through TSA.”

Predictions for 2012
The number of physical privacy invasions might actually decrease, as a new behavior-detection pilot program instructs agents to talk more and touch less in the search for terrorists.

Toilet Troubles

The pissing contest began in June, when a New Zealand man relieved himself in the aisle, on a man’s leg, and on a woman’s scarf during a Jetstar flight from Auckland to Singapore, according to the New Zealand Herald. Then in August an 18-year-old member of the U.S. Ski Team drunkenly confused JetBlue seat 15A with the lavatory and narrowly missed an 11-year-old girl; the New York Post reports the teen has since been kicked off the team and scratched from the list of 2014 Olympic hopefuls. Less than a week later, the drunken shenanigans continued when Gerard Depardieu dropped trou and tinkled in the aisle as his CityJet plane was preparing for take-off from Paris, according to news reports. Finally, on 9/11, three passengers on Frontier managed to make it to the bathroom – but someone thought they were taking a suspiciously long time to do their business. Conflicting reports claim a pair of passengers was either feeling ill or attempting to join the mile high club, but what we know for sure is that NORAD sent two fighter planes to escort the airliner to its destination, and the FBI detained three suspects on the ground. No charges were ultimately filed. Our favorite part of the whole toilet trouble trend? Anderson Cooper getting a major case of the giggles when trying to deliver a pun-heavy recount of the Gerard Depardieu incident (seriously, look it up on YouTube).

Prediction for 2012
Ryanair passengers stage a “pee-in” to protest the reduction of toilets on planes (see Airline Incident #10).

Worst Ryanair Moments

Good customer service is a badge of pride for many low-cost U.S. carriers (look at JetBlue, Southwest, and Virgin America), but just across the pond, budget carrier Ryanair simply doesn’t seem to have any shame. (And we’re not even talking about the airline’s 2012 Cabin Crew Charity Calendar showcasing barely-clad flight attendants, or CEO Michael O’Leary’s just-announced proposal to introduce porn to his passengers via an in-flight app.) Apparently operating under the philosophy that any publicity is good publicity, the company notorious for threatening to charge for toilet use in 2010 stumbled through a series of high-profile snafus this year. Exhibit A: an October announcement of plans to reduce the number of on-board loos from three to one (ensuring that 2012 will see an even more severe outbreak of Airline Incident #9). Exhibit B: also in October, an aborted flight due to window tape coming loose. Exhibit C: in August, offering a man suffering from cardiac arrest a sandwich and soft drink and then charging him for it! We rest our case.

Predictions for 2012

From their standing-room-only cages (50 more euros if you want to fly free range), Ryanair passengers will enjoy fresh breezes thanks to the elimination of expensive window glass. Don’t worry, they’ll pass the savings along to you!

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