Worst Airline Blunders of 2011
When you’re flying millions of people around the world, some things are bound to go wrong.
“I had to fight to keep my eyes open” are words you never want to hear from your pilot. But two British pilots were so fatigued earlier this year that they admitted to falling asleep—on the same plane. Thankfully, autopilot kicked in.
Flight delays and lack of legroom are still cause for airline complaints, but passengers are just as concerned about being treated professionally. In fact, fellow airline employees should be worried as well: a Southwest pilot ran afoul in March when his cockpit rant against colleagues who were too gay, too heavy, and too old was broadcast to air traffic control.
Passengers have also been singled out in public—and refused boarding—for their weight, and even fashion choices are at the root of a few recent high-profile incidents. One woman’s too-short shorts caught the attention of a JetBlue employee who allegedly asked her to prove that she was wearing underwear.
Other blunders result not from what airline employees say, but what they fail to do. Kosher passengers traveling from Tel Aviv to London were unpleasantly surprised to find bacon baguettes and ham melts on board. EasyJet staff apparently forgot to stock the plane with pork-free products. And this after launching a special kosher menu just four months earlier.
While no one wants to be disrespected, errors that put travelers at risk certainly rank more seriously on the scale of blunders. Still, as alarming as it is to hear about a drowsy pilot, these incidents are also quite rare—in fact, air travel becomes safer every year.
Of course, passengers have their own part to play in keeping air travel civil and safe. Consider the recent flare-up with Alec Baldwin, who was kicked off an American Airlines flight after he allegedly refused to quit playing Words With Friends on his cell phone and throwing a tantrum. Or the case of Gerard Depardieu, who was told to wait until takeoff to use the toilet, but urinated in the CityJet cabin instead (he claims he was aiming for a bottle)—another incident in a long tradition of celebrity air rage.
While this plane-as-bathroom trend hopefully won’t stick, passengers and airlines are likely to continue to make mistakes and make headlines for them.
Sisters Kicked Off Plane for Crying
There’s no crying in baseball, but on a plane? That should be fair game. Not so on a Southwest flight from Oakland, CA, to Dallas in July. Sisters Ricci Wheatley and Robin Opperman were heading to visit their father who had just suffered a heart attack. Wheatley, who admitted she’s a little afraid of flying, broke down while the plane was grounded. She says she asked a flight attendant for a glass of wine and claims the attendant quipped, “I think you’ve had enough.” The airline spokesperson says there was a “verbal altercation.” Whatever the case, the women were required to deplane and rebook a flight for the next day. At least there were no tears about extra costs: Southwest paid for their hotel room.
All-Pork Menu for Kosher Passengers
Kosher passengers traveling from Tel Aviv to London in February were unpleasantly surprised when EasyJet forgot to stock the plane with pork-free products. (And this after launching a special kosher menu just four months earlier.) When reached for comment, EasyJet did offer its apologies to the offended customers, but claimed that the pork products on board—such as bacon baguettes and ham melts—were not served to passengers, but only available for purchase.
Free Trip For a Multimillionaire
Most people in the U.S. could use a vacation right about now. But that doesn’t mean they can afford one. So when American Airlines gave an all-expenses-paid trip to Barbados and 200,000 AAdvantage miles to Dallas Maverick Dirk Nowitzki (salary: $17 million) in honor of his MVP performance at the NBA finals, it made the airline look a bit out of touch. AAdvantage’s Facebook page erupted as commenters expressed frustration. To its credit, AA’s social media team quickly took down the post and rescinded the offer.
Pilots Dozing Off
A Scandinavian Airlines captain admitted to falling asleep during a short 70-minute flight from Copenhagen to Stockholm. What’s scarier is that his sleep deprivation is not unusual. Of 492 pilots surveyed by a British pilots’ union (BALPA) this spring, almost 50 percent said they suffered from fatigue and about 20 percent admitted their ability to fly was compromised more than once a week. Two pilots on the same plane in early 2011 even acknowledged falling asleep at the same time.
Returning Soldiers Charged Baggage Fees
So much for a warm welcome home. In June, a squadron of soldiers returning from nearly a year in Afghanistan was charged baggage fees totaling almost $2,800. At the time, Delta’s policy allowed soldiers to check three bags free. Thanks to the outrage that ensued, it’s been revised to allow up to four (economy class) or five (business/first class) bags. And yes, the soldiers got their money back and an official apology.
Arrested for Baggy Pants
University of New Mexico football player DeShon Marman was singled out on a Southwest Airlines flight because, an airline spokesperson says, his baggy pants were below his buttocks and his boxer shorts were showing. Marman was reportedly asked to pull up his pants, and officials say he refused. The 20-year-old athlete—who was in San Francisco to attend a friend’s funeral—was arrested, but prosecutors are not filing charges. A few days earlier, a 65-year-old man had boarded a flight in a bikini, mid-thigh stockings, and high heels—without a peep from the airline, which drew criticism for double standards.
Indian Pilots Behaving Badly
IndiGo Airlines’ Captain Parminder Kaur Gulati raised suspicions when she made a rocky landing at Goa airport in January 2011 and then erred again on the return flight to Delhi, using the nose wheel to touch down instead of the rear landing gear. Investigators alleged that she used forged papers to obtain her airline transport pilot license—which has now been revoked. And you might need a drink after reading about other reprimanded Indian pilots: a report released by the Ministry of Civil Aviation in August 2011 reveals that more than 55 from airlines such as JetAirways, SpiceJet, IndiGo, GoAir, Air India, and Kingfisher tested positive for alcohol during preflight breath analyzer tests from January 2009 through June 2011.
Too Fat to Fly?
On an Easter Sunday layover in Dallas, a Southwest employee told Kenlie Tiggeman and her mother they were too fat to fly. A 45-minute conversation about the Customers of Size policy ensued, in which Kenlie (who, over the last two years, had shed 120 pounds) says they were asked their clothing size in front of a crowd. (Southwest policy recommends having such conversations in private.) A rep attempted to strike a deal: they could fly, along with a third overweight woman, if they sat together. In the end, a supervisor intervened, allowing them to fly as usual and offering an apology and travel vouchers.
Trapped in the Bathroom
Chances are you’ve experienced that moment of panic when you think you’re locked in a room—you jiggle the knob and kick the door, but it won’t budge. This scenario played itself out on a recent Chautauqua Airlines flight between Asheville, NC, and New York’s La Guardia Airport, during which the captain got stuck in the lavatory as the plane was preparing to land. A nearby passenger heard him banging and alerted the copilot through the locked cockpit door; however, the copilot was skeptical about opening it. Luckily, right after controllers suggested making an emergency landing, the captain freed himself—or, as he says, “I had to fight my way out of it with my body”—and landed the plane safely.
Dressed to Fly?
There are still those who dress up for a flight (suits, heels)—and many more who don’t. Malinda Knowles, a financial consultant from Harlem, fell into the latter category when traveling from New York’s La Guardia Airport to West Palm Beach on JetBlue. In a lawsuit filed in July, Knowles claims that she was escorted from the plane, taken aside, and had to prove she was wearing underwear. Allegedly, the pilot still did not want her on the plane; she was put on a later flight to Florida, where she had a business meeting—for which we hope Knowles packed a change of clothes. JetBlue did not comment.
Unaware that his cockpit microphone was on, Southwest pilot James Taylor unleashed a string of obscenity-laced insults about flight attendants that was broadcast across Texas airspace in March—and then replayed by news outlets across the country. He’s heard complaining to his first officer about the Chicago-based flight attendants he flew with for weeks, bashing them as unappealing to date on account of being overweight, old, or gay. He was suspended without pay and sent a written apology to employees.