Air travel was once an elegant affair, as the TV show Pan Am reminds us. Flash-forward to 2011, when seeing the world meant crowded airports, foodless flights, pat-downs, body scans and fees for checked baggage. And then there were the kooks and crazies who created chaos along the way. In honour of their mishaps and misadventures, we present the 27th annual Travel Hall of Infamy Awards.
The Oh Shoot Award
… goes to Edward Deubler, a big shot in U.S. hunting organizations. Flying out of Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, he planned to carry his hunting rifle as hand luggage. At the request of a United Airlines ticket agent, Deubler attempted to demonstrate that the weapon wasn't loaded. Turns out it was. It went off, piercing the baggage scale and sending the agent to hospital with a shrapnel wound.
The Penalty for Boarding Award
… goes to members of Russia's junior hockey team. Giddy with delight after defeating Canada at the world championships in Buffalo, they whooped it up in a hotel bar. Come time for their flight to Moscow the next morning, some players were so intoxicated that they needed an assist to get on the airport bus. No sooner had the players scrambled aboard their airplane than Delta Air Lines staff kicked them off for "unruly behaviour." A day later, the team flew home without incident, but only after Buffalo police escorted them to the airport.
The Easy Come Easy Go Award
… goes to The Real Housewives of D.C. TV star Michaele Salahi, who amassed a collection of more than 50 hotel bathrobes. According to her ex-husband, Tareq, Salahi's first action on checking into a room was to call housekeeping and report a missing gown. When a new one was sent up, she tucked it away in her suitcase. All went well until she ran off with Journey guitarist Neal Schon. In a pique of anger, Tareq sold the robes in a charity auction, along with other items Salahi left behind. They included bed linen, clothes, furniture and two original sculptures.
The Mile Too High Club Award
… goes to Cathay Pacific. The carrier was publicly embarrassed when photographs of two crew members hit the Internet. The images showed a pilot and flight attendant engaged in a sexual act in a cockpit. Because of the publicity, the airline delayed the launch of a major ad campaign that was to feature staff members in informal poses. The tagline on the postponed ads read: "Meet the team who go the extra mile to make you feel special."
The Blame It on the Altitude Award
… goes to airline passengers who misbehave. The alcohol-fuelled behaviour of two Research In Motion employees forced an Air Canada Toronto-to-Beijing flight to make an unscheduled stop in Vancouver. The men were put on probation, ordered to reimburse the airline $71,757 for the costs of the delay, banned from Air Canada for one year and lost their jobs at RIM. Aboard a Virgin Atlantic flight, a school teacher drank a half litre of whisky, then groped a steward and demanded sex. On another flight of the same airline, a married couple from London and the wife's 76-year-old father started a 30-minute punch-up with other passengers when they were asked to stop being noisy. And a young man flying with Thomson Airways went berserk and tried to open a door. "It's okay," he told those who attempted to restrain him, "we are on a flight simulator."
The Broken Telephone Award
… goes to Southwest Airlines, which ordered a Muslim woman off a flight prior to takeoff. Her crime: She was wearing a head scarf and a flight attendant thought she said, "It's a go" while on her cellphone. In fact, the woman said, "I've got to go," as she ended her conversation.
The Unanchored Mind Award
… goes to a drunken passenger aboard the cruise ship Ryndam. Wearing gloves, he loosened the vessel's 18-tonne stern anchor and let it drop, then threw a life buoy overboard for good measure. Luckily, the ship wasn't disabled. The man was charged with attempting to damage the vessel. According to his lawyer, he was guilty only of "felony stupidity."
The Beating Yourself Up Award
… goes to a Hamilton man who felt pangs of guilt on a Chicago holiday with his wife. The couple had made the trip especially to attend the taping of Oprah's farewell TV show. So when hubby was unable to get tickets, he was afraid to tell his wife the bad news. Instead, he scraped his hand on a sidewalk, cut his head with a rock and told police that robbers had made off with the Winfrey passes.
The I Spy With My Little iPad Award
… goes to thieves who broke into a house in Melbourne, knowing that the owner was on vacation. They made off with thousands of dollars in electronic appliances, alcohol, shoes and even a dog bed, then came back for more. Little did they know that the owner, 8,000 kilometres away in Mauritius, was watching them through security Web cameras on his iPad. He called a neighbour, who called police. The men were arrested at the scene.
The Out in Left Field Award
… goes to a couple who got lost in a corn maze on a Massachusetts farm. With a baby and another child in tow and the sun already set, they called 911 for assistance. The dispatcher stayed on the line and asked them to yell for help, while a police officer and his dog spent 10 minutes trying to locate them. As it turned out, they were less than eight metres from an exit.
The What's the Buzz Award
… goes to a tipsy business-class passenger who sneaked two cardboard boxes filled with bees aboard a Yakutia Airlines flight within Russia. He claimed later that the airport deputy director in Blagoveshchensk asked him to deliver them to someone in Moscow. When the plane reached cruising altitude, the bees crawled out, causing passengers to panic. Flight attendants manoeuvred the boxes into a closet and taped the door shut. On arrival in Moscow, the bees were supposedly exterminated with insecticide. But at the plane's next destination, Barcelona, five bees were still alive.
The To Whom It May Concern Award
… goes to cabin crew members on a Virgin Atlantic flight to Glasgow. Upset on finding two of their colleagues sleeping in empty seats, they sent a rude message – complete with expletive – to TV screens in front of the nappers. Or so they thought. The airline later threatened disciplinary action after learning that the words "Get up, you c***s" had flashed on all screens in the premium-economy cabin.
The Don't Call Us, We'll Call You Award
… goes to Britons travelling and living abroad. They make so many weird requests to embassy staff that Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne issued a reminder that the government doesn't provide a concierge service. Some examples: A man in Bulgaria asked the consulate to sell his house. In Moscow, a woman wanted someone to fix a buzzing noise in her apartment. One caller asked for Phil Collins's phone number, another for the Prince of Wales's shoe size. And in Spain, a man begged assistance in contacting his dominatrix, who had left him stranded at the airport.
The It's the Thought That Counts Award
… goes to Ryanair flight attendants for misdiagnosing a passenger who had a heart attack in flight. Assuming the man had low blood pressure, they brought him a sandwich and soft drink, according to his travelling companion, a nurse. The cabin crew never arranged for an ambulance to meet the flight nor did they help the man disembark on landing. But they insisted that he pay for the unsolicited snack.
The No Such Thing as a Free Ride Award
… goes to passengers on a Comtel flight bound from India to Birmingham, England. At a scheduled refuelling stop in Vienna, they were given bad news. The carrier didn't have the £24,000 (about $38,600) needed for the fill-up. Their only choice if they wanted to reach their destination was to pass the hat. Those with empty wallets were escorted into the terminal to make ATM withdrawals.
The Unsocial Network Award
… goes to Qantas Airlines. It hoped to build goodwill when it launched a contest on Twitter. But the timing was bad. The carrier was in the middle of a nasty labour dispute and had just come out of a system-wide shutdown. Instead of the anticipated warm, fuzzy messages, it was bombarded with complaints and criticisms. Media experts called it the greatest PR failure in Australian history.
The This Too Will Pass Award
… goes to three men from Nigeria who flew into Washington Dulles Airport on separate days over a three-month period. Each was pulled over for secondary questioning at customs because of suspicious answers to questions and obviously distended stomachs. All were given X-rays, which revealed something foreign in their abdomens. Eventually, in custody, the men passed a total of 285 pellets of heroin with a total street value of $354,000 (U.S.). They won't be flying back to Nigeria soon.
The Please Remain Seated Award
… goes to Air India, which turned a minor weather problem into a frustrating ordeal for more than 200 London-bound passengers. Because of fog at Heathrow, the aircraft was diverted 70 kilometres away to another London airport, Gatwick. Presumably the airline could have let the passengers off to find their own way to London, or alternately transported them to Heathrow by train or bus. Instead, it kept them trapped on the plane for nine hours without any food. Here are some of the excuses provided by the carrier: No food was available because Air India's caterers are at Heathrow. A new flight crew had to be brought in from Heathrow because the original staff had worked their maximum hours. The new crew got lost en route.
The Taught By a Master Award
… goes to Poison rocker Bret Michaels, who took credit for actor Charlie Sheen's bad behaviour. Michaels claimed he taught the former star of Two and a Half Men how to wreck a hotel room. Sheen wasn't doing a good job at first, Michaels told Access Hollywood. "I said, 'You gotta really let it out, man! You gotta let it out and bust this stuff.' "
The Bedtime Stories Award
… goes to Material Girl Madonna, who doesn't like sleeping where others have slept. Before checking into Berlin's trendy Soho House with boyfriend Brahim Zaibat, she insisted that her room be repainted and outfitted with new furniture. She also demanded 50 bottles of Kabbalah water for her entourage. The cost to the hotel – which had been open less than a year – was more than $20,000.
The Back of the Bus Award
… goes to the New Zealand bus driver who barred entry to Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. He said she couldn't come on board with the other national leaders – all of them men – who were attending a Pacific Islands Forum in Auckland. Instead, he told her, she was supposed to take the following bus for wives.
The Boys Will Be Boys Award
… goes to a male Virgin Blue flight attendant who decided to join in a family's midair game. A father and 17-month-old son were amusing themselves playing peek-a-boo, but the steward must have thought it was hide-and-seek. He picked up the toddler, placed him in an overhead luggage bin and closed the latch. The airline fired him.
The Take a Stand Award
… goes to Pennsylvania businessman Arthur Berkowitz. He had just settled into an aisle seat for a nearly seven-hour flight home from Anchorage when a last-minute passenger took the plane's only remaining seat next to him. The new seatmate weighed more than 400 pounds and needed half of Berkowitz's space to fit in. Berkowitz was forced to stand in the aisle or galley for most of the flight. US Airways apologized, but the best offer it came up with was a $200 voucher toward a future flight. It didn't say if a seat was included.
The Je Ne Regrette Rien Award
… goes to French actor Gérard Depardieu. He told CNN that he had no regrets about being thrown off a CityJet plane while it was taxiing for takeoff. His crime: peeing in a bottle and letting some of it spill in the aisle. A flight attendant, he explained, had turned down his request to use the toilet. "So I took the bottle and I peed. It felt beautiful," he said. "The bottle was too small. I am an elephant!"
The I Do Declare Award
… goes to a 36-year-old woman who was tired of being strip searched at customs whenever she flew into Bermuda from London. So when officials asked if they could search her luggage, she took off all her clothes in the queue. "If you want to see me naked," she said, "you can do it right f---ing here."
The Sky's the Limit Award
… goes to those Virgin Atlantic passengers who stymie flight attendants with outlandish demands. According to a staff survey, the most common bizarre requests are: "Please can you open the window?" and "Can you show me to the showers?" Then there are the passengers who want the captain to stop the turbulence and turn down the noisy engines. One flier inquired whether there was a McDonald's on board. And another asked for a cup of tea and a massage for her Barbie doll.
The I Hear You Knocking Award
… goes to a Chautauqua Airlines pilot who accidentally locked himself in the toilet on a New York-bound flight. His banging on the door attracted a helpful passenger who promised to alert the co-pilot. Unfortunately, the would-be rescuer had a heavy accent. When he relayed the pilot's plight at the cockpit door, the co-pilot thought the man was a terrorist and refused to let him in. Luckily, the pilot eventually freed himself, but not before fighter planes had been alerted.
The Wrong Place Wrong Time Award
… goes to a would-be robber in Los Angeles. The man had no idea when he held up a hotel at gunpoint that some of the hotel's guests were there for the World Jiu-Jitsu No-Gi Championship. Answering the desk clerk's calls for help, two amateur martial-arts competitors wrestled the man to the ground and relieved him of his semiautomatic handgun and sack of money. The entire episode was caught by the hotel's video camera and posted on YouTube (youtube.com/watch?v=QUntJ2Js3T8).
Sources: AP, Access Hollywood, BBC, Chicago Tribune, Daily Mail, Elliott.org, Herald-Sun, Homeland Security, Moscow Times, New York Post, Reuters, South China Morning Post, Sun Media, Sunday Tribune, The Daily Telegraph, The Evening Standard, The Hamilton Spectator, The Oregonian, The Sun, The Tallahassee Democrat, The Telegraph, The Times, The Times-Picayune, The Washington Times, Toronto Star, Travel Industry Today, TMZ.com.
Special to The Globe and Mail