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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 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. 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, including a recent hair-raiser where a passenger was forced to land a plane on his own after the pilot suffered a medical emergency.

 

Related: 20 Things You Should Never Do on a Plane


Staff writers Saundra Latham, Liane Starr and Lacey Muszynski also contributed to this story.

Propeller plane flying
Alexskiba/istockphoto

Passenger Has to Land Plane After Pilot Passes Out

May 2022

If this doesn't give you the shivers, few things will. A passenger in a single-engine airplane flying near Boca Raton, Florida, radioed air-traffic control in a panic to warn that his pilot was suddenly incapacitated and that he had no idea how to fly — or land — the airplane. Amazingly, unflappable air traffic controllers managed to guide the man to a safe landing at Palm Beach International Airport. Federal officials are investigating the incident.


Related: Will Spirit, Frontier Merge Into an Airline You Actually Want to Fly?

parts of an airplane
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Passengers Sent Graphic Plane Crash Photos

May 2022

Sometimes there's a good reason to turn off your phone even before the flight attendant asks you to. Nine Israelis were arrested for sending graphic plane crash photos to passengers about to take off on a flight from Israeli to Turkey. The flight was delayed by several hours and a thorough security check was conducted, but one woman reportedly fainted, and another passenger had a panic attack. Not surprisingly, the men who were arrested may be facing charges for disseminating false information, which has a maximum sentence of three years in prison.


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

JetBlue land operations and boarding in Owen Roberts Intl. Airport in Grand Cayman Islands
LeoPatrizi/istockphoto

Pilot Pulled From Cockpit, Suspected of Being Drunk

March 2022

Driving drunk: Bad. Flying drunk: Um ... also very bad. A JetBlue pilot was recently kicked out of the cockpit shortly before an early-morning flight from Buffalo. A TSA officer noticed he might be impaired, so he was given a breathalyzer test that showed he had a blood alcohol content of 0.17 — more than four times the Federal Aviation Administration's limit of .04. (The FAA also bars pilots from drinking within eight hours of takeoff.) According to a police report, the pilot said he'd had 10 22-ounce "tall boy" beers the night before. JetBlue is investigating, and the pilot could also potentially face federal charges. 


Related: 30 Air Travel Perks We Miss

Python snake hiding in the house
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Snakes on a Plane — For Real

February 2022

The plot of the silliest Samuel L. Jackson movie ever made came true recently when a stowaway snake was found mid-flight on an AirAsia plane in Malaysia. The snake was seen slithering through the light fixtures in the passenger cabin — and we can only hope someone uttered the movie's famously profane catchphrase. The plane was diverted and fumigated, presumably rendering the snake harmless, and banishing it from planes forever.

Air hostess is making coffee for passengers
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Unruly Man Gets a Coffee Pot to the Head

February 2022

Flight attendants need to protect themselves from unruly passengers any way they can, and in the case of one recent incident on an American Airlines flight, that meant clobbering a passenger with a coffee pot. A 6-foot-3, 50-year-old passenger had been acting erratically from the very start of a flight from Los Angeles to Washington, saying people were trying to hurt him and followed him onto the plane. He tried to use plastic silverware as a shank, a champagne bottle as a weapon, and kicked a service cart being used as protection into a flight attendant. The last straw came when he tried to open the exit door mid-flight. A flight attendant hit him in the head twice with a coffee pot, and passengers assisted by punching him in the jaw and tackling him. The flight was diverted to Kansas City, where the man was taken into custody.


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My Pandemic Diary: 2020-12-08
My Pandemic Diary: 2020-12-08 by Francesco Mariani (CC BY-NC-ND)

Anti-Mask Passenger Forces Plane to Turn Around

January 2022

We've all threatened our misbehaving children with "turning this car around" at some point or another. Incredibly, a pilot had to do exactly that — except the unruly child in this case was a fully grown woman who refused to keep a mask on. American Airlines Flight 38 was already en route from Miami to London when it had to turn around, landing back in Miami nearly two hours after it initially took off. Police officers subsequently escorted the woman from the plane, and the flight was canceled. 

woman lingerie isolated
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Man Trades Required Face Mask for a Thong

December 2021

A Florida man, disgruntled by a federal mask mandate that remains in place for airline passengers, recently chose a unique way to show his displeasure. Instead of a mask, he wore a red thong over his face, and was subsequently removed from a United flight departing from Fort Lauderdale before it took off. "Everything else that has sparked change in this country has started from everyday people," he later told local news media. "Rosa Parks wasn't famous. She changed the course of history." United isn't amused, and has at least temporarily banned him from its flights while it investigates.

young man throwing a punch
nito100/istockphoto

Passenger Sucker Punches Flight Attendant

October 2021

In "one of the worst displays of unruly behavior we've ever witnessed" — that's according to American Airlines — a passenger sucker punched a flight attendant twice, breaking her nose. The New York-to-California flight was diverted to Denver, where the man was apprehended by police. Witnesses say the man attacked the flight attendant after he was accidentally bumped. He was later charged in federal court. For its part, American has banned him from all future flights.

duct tape
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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.”

Old woman with Ventilator mask on Hospital bed
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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.

Cockpit radar
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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.

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
balticboy/istockphoto

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. 


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.

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.
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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?
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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!
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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.
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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!
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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
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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." 


Related: 'Atmospheric Rivers,' Ball Lightning and Other Truly Bizarre Weather Phenomena