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The Year of Infamy

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The economy may have been in a nosedive, but 2009 was a high-flying year for travellers. Cirque de Soleil founder Guy Laliberté spent $35-million to orbit the Earth wearing a red clown nose. And the Sultan of Brunei laid out more than $25,000 to fly in his favourite London barber, seating him in a private cabin so he wouldn't catch H1N1 from other passengers.

But it was also a year of high-flying hijinks for ordinary holiday makers, road warriors, airlines and the hospitality industry. To honour 2009's crop of wacky travel tales, here are the 25th Annual Travel Hall of Infamy Awards.

The Big Bang Award … to a model, her boyfriend and an heiress, all first-class passengers on a Kingfisher flight from Bangalore, India, to London. Model Sarah Hannon fell asleep en route after drinking with boyfriend Daniel Melia. She allegedly awoke to find Melia fondling and flirting with a scantily clad neighbouring passenger, Guinness heiress Clare Irby. Hannah threw a tantrum and had to be calmed down by cabin attendants. Armed police boarded the flight on arrival and arrested all three. Commented a police source: "They certainly put the bang into Bangalore."

The Spelling Counts Award … to minions in the office of Stephen Harper. They issued a press release intended to say the Prime Minister would be making public appearances in Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut. But they mistakenly added a U, spelling the name Iqualuit. The PM's office later issued an apology when it was discovered the new word translates as a "Place of Many Excrement-Covered Bottoms."

The Gene Pool Award … to a Polish mother whose 13-year-old daughter returned home pregnant after a family holiday in Egypt. The girl didn't meet any boys on the trip, the mother asserted. So she sued an Egyptian hotel, putting the blame on its swimming pool, which is used by both males and females. The woman alleges the girl conceived because of stray sperm in the pool.

The You Can't Please Everyone Award … to British tourists whose whines and beefs were compiled by the Association of British Travel Agents and Thomas Cook. One woman complained she returned pregnant from a holiday trip because she and her fiancé were given a double-bedded room instead of one with twins as requested. One woman griped that her soup was "too thick and strong." Turns out she was dipping into the gravy boat. Other grievances: "No one told us there would be fish in the sea; the children were startled."

The Rude Awakening Award … to an inebriated Australian tourist in Queenstown, New Zealand. In a groggy state during the night, he got up without dressing and somehow wandered into a bedroom where a couple was sleeping. "He was a bit surprised that there were two people in his room and he was butt naked," said Sergeant Steve Watt. The startled woman fled to the bathroom while her husband called hotel staff.

The Pretty Please with Pepper on Top Award … to the American border guard who questioned Desiderio Fortunato as the B.C. man was about to drive into the U.S. "Turn off the car," the guard barked. The Canadian man asked him to be polite and say please. As a thank you for the manners lesson, the guard pepper-sprayed Fortunato in the face, pulled him from the car and threw him on the ground. He was then handcuffed and grilled for three hours.

The Honeymoon's Over Award … to a newlywed Saudi man who took his wife on a honeymoon trip to Malaysia. At Kuala Lumpur airport, the bride left him to visit the toilet. She returned to find her husband missing. It turned out he thought she was taking too long, so he flew home without her. At last report the woman was seeking an immediate divorce.

The Monkey-Business Trip Award … to Davor Ivanovic, who had to spend his birthday all alone on a business trip to Zagreb, Croatia - or so he led his wife to believe. As a surprise, the wife arranged a live call to his hotel room from his favourite radio station. The phone was answered by a woman. Listeners heard the wife scream, "Who are you with?" The husband's reply, also broadcast live: "Why have you done this to me? We have kids."

The Close But No Guitar Award … to United Airlines. It was bad enough when its baggage handlers smashed the custom-made $3,500 guitar of Halifax musician Dave Carroll. It was worse when the service department gave his complaints the runaround. Only when Carroll composed a song called United Breaks Guitars and posted it on YouTube - where it became a viral hit - did United promise to do better. It failed. Just over three months later Carroll flew United again. He arrived safely. His bag did not.

The Best Performance in a Leaving Role Award … to a Chinese woman who missed her flight from Hong Kong to Los Angeles. One might say she was a little upset. She charged a security guard, screamed "Aieyyahhhhh!" at the top of her lungs, then sprawled to the ground wailing. Someone posted her three minutes of hysterics on YouTube. Within days, the "woman going insane after missing her flight video" had more than 400,000 hits.

The Employee of the Month Award … to a Florida woman who tried to make amends after arriving late for work. Because of her tardiness, her boss was late setting out to catch his American Airlines flight to Honduras. Fearing he would miss the plane, she allegedly phoned a bomb threat to Miami International Airport, then followed it up with an e-mail. Police tracked her down using her IP address and put her under arrest. The boss arrived in plenty of time; the flight was delayed for hours while authorities conducted a search.

The No Cans in the Can Award … to an inebriated 23-year-old man with a powerful thirst. On an Air Canada Jazz flight from Vancouver to Fort McMurray, Alta., he stole some beer from the beverage trolley, then tried to hide the evidence by flushing the empty cans down the toilet. The pilot made an unscheduled stop in Kelowna, B.C. where Mounties led the passenger away in handcuffs.

The Destination Wedding Award … to German sweethearts Mika and Anna-Lena, who planned to elope and get married in Africa. They set out in the early hours of New Year's Day, accompanied by Anna-Lena's sister, Anna-Bell. Their suitcases were stuffed with summer clothes and swimsuits. But police foiled their plans after spotting them waiting for an airport train at a Hanover station. They were returned to their parents, who had no idea what they were up to. Mika was 6, Anna-Lena 5 and accomplice Anna-Bell 7.

The Flying on Empty Award … to Japan's All Nippon Airways. In an effort to reduce weight and save fuel, it asked passengers to relieve themselves before boarding. If half its fliers complied during a 30-day experiment, the airline estimated it could cut its carbon emissions by 4.2 tonnes. And that's no piddling amount.

The Lost in Translation Award … to Aer Lingus, which mistakenly played the wrong prerecorded message on a flight from Dublin to Paris. English passengers heard the correct version, which asked everyone to return to their seats because of turbulence. But the French message, which followed, said the plane was about to ditch into the Irish Sea. "The woman behind me was crying," said one English-speaking passenger. "All the French totally freaked out."

The Up in the Air Award … to Richard and Mayumi Heene. The couple held global television viewers in suspense for five hours while their son Falcon supposedly floated over Colorado in a runaway balloon. But his journey never took place. There was relief worldwide when the 6-year-old was discovered hiding in the family attic. The parents later pleaded guilty to hoax-related charges after Falcon ratted them out. During a live interview with CNN, he admitted, "We did this for a show."

The Please Bear with Me Award … to budget carrier easyJet, which refused to let 6-year-old Alba Peris carry her teddy bear on board. Because she had put it in a plastic bag to protect it from rain, it was deemed to be "excessive baggage." Little Alba shuddered at the thought of her beloved Bebe making the journey in "the big, dark hold." So her mother mailed the bear home. The airline later apologized and offered to pay for the postage.

The Family That Preys Together Award … to Matthew Allen Eaton and his wife, Laura, who brought their children along on trips to a number of U.S. states. The kids made good decoys, the couple told "Dr. Phil" McGraw on national television, while the parents were shoplifting toys and other items. The Eatons collected up to $1-million selling the loot on the Internet over seven years, they confessed blithely. The couple were later charged with moving stolen goods across state lines."

The Women Are from Mars Award … to Miyuki Hatoyama, the wife of Japan's recently elected Prime Minister. Her tale of a trip to Venus 20 years ago is featured in her book Most BizarreThings I've Encountered . "While my body was asleep," she wrote, "I think my soul rode on a triangular-shaped UFO and went to Venus. It was a very beautiful place, and it was very green." Her husband at the time told her it was probably a dream. As for current hubby, PM Yukio Hatoyama, "He would surely say, 'Oh, that's great,'" she wrote.

The Bad Habits Award … to members of a Bristol, England, soccer club. On previous group trips, the men had dressed up as St. Trinian's schoolgirls in Portugal and babies in Cyprus. But their luck ran out when they showed up in a bar in the Greek island of Crete, outfitted as sexy nuns in lingerie and wimples. They were charged with "causing a scandal by provocative acts and misrepresenting a uniform." The British Embassy arranged their release, but not until they had spent nearly 48 hours in a cramped cell - still in costume.

The 'How Long Can You Hold It?' Award … to a New Brunswick woman who told police she had been kidnapped at gunpoint and forced to drive to Toronto. Her captor never left the vehicle, she claimed. But when police became suspicious, she admitted the story was false and that she had made the trip on her own for personal reasons. It was RCMP Sergeant David Vautour who first cast doubt on the original tale of a harrowing journey. "I don't know any man," he said, "who can spend 17 hours without a pee."

The Noah's Ark Award … to a menagerie of creatures that added extra hours to air passengers' journeys. Delta Airlines unloaded passengers prior to two separate transatlantic flights on the same 767 because of a mouse cavorting in the cabin. British Airways cancelled a flight for fumigation after a passenger reported seeing a tarantula crawling between his legs. Korean Airlines delayed a takeoff so crew members could catch a sparrow flitting about the cabin. And a runway at New York's busy Kennedy Airport was closed for 45 minutes to allow the removal of 78 diamondback terrapin turtles that had moseyed in from the water.

The Don't Leave Home Without It Award … to passengers who blithely tried to carry illegal items aboard their flights. Among belongings confiscated by security agents at three New York airports were: a live baby alligator, a gassed-up chain saw, a two-metre6-foot-long African spear, a sword, drills, baseball bats, a shower rod, rodeo whips, fire extinguishers, 10-point deer antlers, a fully loaded 9mm Smith & Wesson handgun - and even a kitchen sink.

The No Country for Old Men Award … to two German seniors who changed out of wet and soiled clothes in full public view at a Brazilian airport. Responding to complaints, Salvador police questioned the men for two hours before releasing them to catch their flight. The men told the officers they thought it "was normal" to change clothes openly in Brazil, especially in a city with a beach.

The Fool and His Money Award … to a German pensioner who drove away from a service station forgetting he had placed a packet with a large amount of cash on his car's hood. Realizing his mistake, he asked a policeman to help him search the roadside bushes. The good news is that they recovered almost all the currency. The bad news is they also found a receipt showing he had withdrawn the money from a bank in Luxembourg, something he had not reported on returning to his home country. The helpful policeman notified the customs authorities.

The So You Think You Can Fly Award … to pilots at four airlines who were given suspensions. At Northwest Airlines, two pilots were grounded for over-flying their destination by 240 kilometres. They told investigators they became distracted discussing company policy. United Airlines suspended a pilot after he was arrested in London for allegedly showing up drunk to fly a Boeing 767 with 124 passengers. Air India suspended two pilots and two crew members following a mid-air scuffle that spilled into the passenger cabin. And Delta clipped the wings of a pilot charged with attempting to run down police officers with his private plane.

The Up the River without a Paddle Award … to Demetrius Jones. Just days before his third birthday, the B.C. toddler drove away from his family's campsite in his battery-operated toy truck, dressed only in a diaper, T-shirt and sneakers. He manoeuvred the vehicle into the turbulent waters of the Peace River and floated merrily past log jams for 12 kilometres. Even when the vehicle turned over, he clung nonchalantly to the upturned axle. Following his rescue by police, he told his grandmother he wanted to go back on his "boat."

Special to The Globe and Mail

Sources: Agence France-Presse, Airwise News, Anna Mehler Paperny, Asian News International, Associated Press, Ananova, Caroline Alphonso, Canadian Press, CBS, Jill Colvin, Los Angeles Times, New York Post, Online Travel Review, People Magazine, Reuters, Scottish Daily Record, Sky News, Sunday Age, The Independent, The Sun, The Daily Telegraph, Travel Mole

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