Airplane interior
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Unbelievable Airline Incidents Through the Years

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Airplane interior
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The Not-So-Friendly Skies

Inflight entertainment used to just mean watching the latest out-of-theaters rom-com, but lately, it seems like airline passengers are witnessing more attention-grabbing events in the aisles than onscreen. Each week seems to bring news of another fight breaking out onboard or a passenger being ejected after a tense encounter with the flight crew. There are plenty of reasons for airline rage — cramped seats, crowded terminals, extensive delays — and we're hearing more about them thanks to viral videos shared on social media. Let's all put our chairs in the upright position and take a look at some of the most unbelievable airline incidents over the years. 


Related: 20 Things You Should Never Do on a Plane


Senior staff writer Saundra Latham also contributed to this story.

duct tape
dspn/istockphoto

Passenger Taped to Chair After Alleged Assault

August 2021

A Frontier Airlines passenger accused of groping two flight attendants and punching another was arrested after his flight from Philadelphia to Miami, but the case made headlines for different reasons: The flight crew restrained the man by taping him to his chair. Frontier put the crew members involved in the incident on paid leave, but it’s far from the first time duct tape has been deployed to subdue a passenger. Still, United Airlines felt compelled to warn its own employees against using duct tape, saying “there are designated items onboard that may be used in difficult situations.” 


Related: What Flight Attendants Want You To Know About Flying Now

Young woman without tooth on lower jaw. Missing tooth. Waiting an implant after tooth extraction
Daria Kulkova/istockphoto

Passenger Knocks Out Flight Attendant’s Teeth

May 2021

Despite its heart-shaped logo, Southwest Airlines wasn’t feeling the love on a May flight from Sacramento to San Diego. A passenger faces two felony charges after allegedly pulling a flight attendant’s hair and punching her, leaving the flight attendant with three chipped teeth, bruising, and a cut that required four stitches. The incident, which was caught on video, came after the flight attendant asked the woman to keep her seat belt on, stow her tray table, and wear her mask properly.

Old woman with Ventilator mask on Hospital bed
SoumenNath/istockphoto

Man With Covid Symptoms Gets On Plane, Dies

December 2020

Flying during a pandemic is nightmarish enough, but on one United flight from Orlando, Florida, to Los Angeles, pandemic insanity reached tragic new heights. The flight was diverted to New Orleans because of a passenger in medical distress who was later pronounced dead at the hospital. The cause of death: acute respiratory failure and COVID-19. The passenger’s wife was said to have acknowledged that he’d had symptoms consistent with the virus, but he denied them during pre-flight check-in, possibly exposing both fellow passengers and crew members


Related: 18 Ways the Pandemic Changed Travel

Cockpit radar
Fabian Gysel/istockphoto

Airline Alters Route For Naughty Radar Prank

November 2020

Unruly passengers are a given, but surely we can depend on the steadfast good judgement of airline officials, right? Maybe not. A Russian official was fired after changing a plane’s route so that it would leave a decidedly phallic path on the radar, something the plane accomplished with a long, looping detour while more than 100 passengers were aboard. The stunt may have been in support of a Russian soccer star who was suspended after an inappropriate video surfaced online. 


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View of jet airplane wing taxiing runway after landing at airport. Travel and air transportation concept.
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A Passenger Gets Some Fresh Air — On the Wing

August 2020

Planes aren’t exactly the most comfortable places to be, and most of us understand the desire for a little fresh air. Unfortunately, one woman took that desire to the extreme while she was aboard a Ukraine International Airlines flight. While the plane was on the ground at Boryspil International Airport in Kiev, the woman opened the emergency exit and walked out onto the wing of the Boeing 737, where she plopped down to cool off. The unbelievable moment was captured for posterity on Instagram, and the woman — who was not believed to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol — was later banned from the airline.

Cat
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Passenger Punished After Smuggling Fat Cat Aboard

November 2019

Russian airline Aeroflot’s rules for pets were simple: Furry friends must weigh under 8 kilograms, or roughly 17.6 pounds, to fly in the cabin. Otherwise, they go in the cargo hold. One passenger knew his plump feline, Viktor, wouldn’t make the cut, so he had someone bring another, smaller cat to the airport for the weigh-in, after which he swapped in Viktor — who weighed roughly 22 pounds — for the lightweight doppelganger. Though the flight came and went without incident, the tale went viral on Facebook and the airline opened an investigation, ultimately stripping the man of his frequent-flier miles. 


Related: The End of Emotional-Support Animals? Every Major Airline's Policy


Drunk man urinates on fellow passenger
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Drunk Man Urinates on Fellow Passenger

August 2018

After downing four flutes of champagne and sake on a Nippon Airways flight from Chicago to Japan, a 24-year-old American man urinated on the 50-year-old Japanese passenger sitting two rows behind him. The crew restrained the younger man, who was arrested when the plane landed in Japan. He allegedly had no memory of the incident.

Police issue X26 TASER device with cartridge installed
Police issue X26 TASER device with cartridge installed by Junglecat (CC BY-SA)

Unruly Passenger Tased 10 Times

April 2018
After a man on an American Airlines flight from Miami to Chicago allegedly touched a female passenger inappropriately without her permission, he began arguing with the woman and her boyfriend, even after he was moved to another seat. When flight attendants asked the man to deplane, as the flight had yet to leave the gate, he refused. Following protocol, the crew began deplaning all passengers, and when police requested the man leave, he locked his legs around a seat and refused to go. An officer deployed his taser 10 times in the struggle to remove him from the plane.

Man befouls United Airlines bathroom
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Man Befouls Plane’s Bathroom

January 2018
Passengers on a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Hong Kong were forced to make an emergency landing in Anchorage after a man was found to have smeared "feces everywhere" in several of the plane's lavatories, according to police officials. The man also tried to cram his shirt down one of the toilets. The passenger was met by authorities in Anchorage and was taken for a psychological evaluation, and the plane was grounded overnight for maintenance.

Family kicked off delta flight over toddler's seat
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Family Kicked Off Flight Because of Toddler’s Seat

April 2017
A couple and their two children were booted from a Delta flight from Maui to Los Angeles for refusing to give up a seat for their 2-year-old. The family initially bought the seat for their teenage son but instead sent him home on an earlier flight, so the younger child could spend the overnight flight in a car seat instead of in the mother's lap. A video shows Delta officials arguing with the husband about giving the seat to a standby passenger, insisting that the ticketed passenger must be the one in the seat and that Federal Aviation Administration regulations say the child must be in an adult's lap. One employee even threatened the family with jail time and suggested that their children would be put in foster care if they refused to comply. The family eventually left the flight and flew home the next day.

You can't stroll your way onto American Airlines!
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Mom Sobs After Flight Attendant Yanks Away Stroller

April 2017
American Airlines suspended an employee and apologized after a video went viral showing a mother sobbing after a clash with a flight attendant over a stroller. Witnesses say the flight attendant violently wrested a stroller from the mother, who was holding one child while another was in a car seat. In the video, the woman is seen crying and asking for her stroller back, while a male passenger intervenes on behalf of the woman, yelling at the attendant, who challenges the man in return. The man ultimately returned to his seat, and the woman was taken to another flight, where she was upgraded to first class.

What's up doc?
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Doctor Dragged Off Flight to Make Room For Crew

April 2017 

In one of the most high-profile onboard incidents in recent history, a doctor was violently removed from his seat and dragged down the aisle of a Kentucky-bound United flight at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. The doctor was one of four passengers selected by computer to disembark after having been seated, to make room for United employees on the overbooked flight. When he refused, saying he had patients to see, police were called in to forcibly remove the doctor from the flight. The violent incident was caught on video by several passengers and sparked widespread outrage. After a lackluster initial response, United reached a settlement with the doctor, who suffered a concussion, a broken nose, and lost two teeth.

Beautiful Gray Shoes Footwear of Accessories. Young Fashion Woman's Legs in Black Jeans and Gray Sneakers on Street Road Background.
Mananya Kaewthawee/istockphoto

Girls Banned From Flight for Wearing Leggings

March 2017
United Airlines faced fierce public backlash after two girls were blocked from boarding a Minneapolis-bound flight at Denver International Airport for wearing leggings, which a gate agent deemed improper attire. United defended the decision to prevent the girls from flying as they were "pass travelers" — relatives of United employees who fly for free and are therefore held to a stricter dress code that bans form-fitting spandex pants and tops. When the incident was shared on social media, United was widely criticized for a policy some considered to be sexist and body shaming.

Thank goodness for Richard Marx!
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Richard Marx Subdues Violent Passenger

December 2016
While Richard Marx is best known for soft-rock jams like "Right Here Waiting," he gained some inflight cred when he helped subdue an unruly passenger on a Korean Air flight from Vietnam to South Korea. A passenger seated near Marx reportedly became violent and attacked other passengers and crew members, who Marx said were unprepared to deal with the passenger. One crew member was said to have aimed a stun gun at the passenger but ultimately didn't use it, thanks in part to Marx's help. Guess the passenger "Should've Known Better" than to mess with Marx.

Taking the seat back too far?
Sarah M. Golonka/Getty Images

Man Chokes Woman For Tilting Her Seat Back

October 2015 

A Southwest Airlines flight headed for San Francisco had to return to Los Angeles after a man was said to have choked a woman seated in front of him after she reclined her seat. The incident took place mid-air, and the crew decided to return to the airport after only 13 minutes. When the flight landed, law enforcement removed the man from the flight, while the rest of the passengers and crew switched planes.

O, Conrad Hilton...
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Conrad Hilton Calls Passengers ‘Peasants’

February 2015
Conrad Hilton, hotel heir and younger brother of Paris Hilton, had to be restrained by a British Airways flight crew during a flight from London to Los Angeles after he allegedly threatened the crew. Flight attendants believed Hilton was under the influence of drugs and were monitoring his erratic behavior when Hilton shouted, "I am going to f------ kill you!" along with other obscenities. He also reportedly yelled, "I will f------ own anyone on this flight; they are f------ peasants." Hilton is also said to have punched the bulkhead, missing a flight attendant's head by inches. The crew managed to restrain and handcuff him until landing.

When you gotta play Words, you gotta play!
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Alec Baldwin Kicked Off Flight For Cell-Phone Game

December 2011

While onboard an American Airlines flight awaiting departure from New York, actor Alec Baldwin was ejected after he reportedly refused to turn off his cellphone while playing the game Words with Friends. Baldwin claims he was unfairly singled out by a flight attendant and refused to turn off the phone when requested. He then went to the lavatory with his phone while the seatbelt sign was on and slammed the door, according to the flight attendant. The plane returned to the gate, and Baldwin was removed before the flight took off. 

Now that's a way to make an exit!
Steve Heap/shutterstock

Flight Attendant Quits, Slides Out of Plane on Emergency Chute

August 2010
A JetBlue flight attendant decided to quit his job with a flourish many people only dream about. After landing in New York, a passenger on the flight reportedly stood up while the plane was still taxiing on the runway. The two got into an argument and the flight attendant was hit in the head with a suitcase. He then got on the intercom, cussed out the entire cabin, grabbed a beer from the galley, deployed the emergency chute, and slid off the plane. He was later arrested and charged with criminal mischief and reckless endangerment.

O dear, the defecating was a bit much.
Matej Kastelic/shutterstock

Man Defecates on Food Service Cart

October 1996

An investment banker from Connecticut probably holds the title for most dramatic display of airline rage. While onboard a United Airlines flight from Buenos Aires to New York, he allegedly made the most of the free alcohol and became intoxicated. When a flight attendant refused to serve him more, he began serving himself. Informed this was against regulations, he threatened the attendant and reportedly began terrifying other passengers, knocking over crew members, and pouring drinks on himself. Afterward, he jumped on top of the food-service cart, proceeded to defecate, and tracked the mess through the rest of the plane. He later agreed to 300 hours of community service and a fine of $50,000.

Let's take it for a joy ride!
Carlos Yudica/shutterstock

Delta Employees Take Jet For a Joyride

August 1994
While some people only dream of being pilots, a mechanic and a customer service agent with Delta Air Lines decided to take matters into their own hands. At 3 a.m., the duo took an empty Boeing 737 for a mile-long cruise around the taxiway in Tucson, Arizona. The joyride didn't last long, though. The mechanic was arrested for suspicion of driving an aircraft under the influence, unlawful use of transportation, and theft, while the agent was charged with unlawful use of transportation, theft, and criminal trespass.

Interior of commercial airplane with passengers in their seats
ViktorCap/istockphoto

Passengers Think Hijacking Is a Prank

February 1969
"Candid Camera" is considered one of the first reality shows and an inspiration for modern prank shows like "Punk'd.” But when the show's host, Allen Funt, and his family were flying from Newark to Miami in 1969 aboard Eastern Airlines, the joke became all too real. Hijackers took a flight attendant at knife point and demanded that the pilots reroute the flight to Cuba. Everyone remained motionless until someone recognized Funt and told everyone that it must be a stunt. Despite Funt's insistence that the hijacking was real, everyone continued to laugh off the incident, cheering for the hijackers, who they thought were actors, and asking Funt to sign their air-sickness bags. When the plane landed in Havana, greeted by Cuban military, the passengers finally realized it wasn't a prank, and most became furious with Funt for "tricking" them.

It seems we are in lighting!
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Ball Lightning Travels Down Aisle

March 1963
Ball lightning is a glowing sphere of electrical light that can appear during a storm. It's been mistaken for UFOs, caused serious destruction, and perplexed and eluded scientists over the years. But on a late-night flight from New York to Washington in 1963, scientists onboard the flight claim to have witnessed the strange phenomenon. While passing through an electrical storm, the plane was surrounded by a bright, electrical discharge. Soon after, a glowing orb of light, roughly 8 inches in diameter, appeared from the pilot's cabin and drifted down the length of the plane. The incident was later documented in a study in the journal "Nature."