The curious case of the extra passenger

I expected a short delay on last night’s flight from New York to Munich. JFK was still cleaning up from the prior night’s snow and the inbound was slightly behind schedule. About 30 minutes after the original departure time the pilot announced that the doors were closing and the all too familiar “cross-check” request came over the PA. Which was strange as the jet bridge was still attached to the plane.

At two hours late we were still on the gate. It took more than 45 minutes after that to offload the stowaway and his bags.
At two hours late we were still on the gate. It took more than 45 minutes after that to offload the stowaway and his bags.

Another 30 minutes later the flight attendants were chatting with a group of passengers on the far side of the cabin. I heard on ask if another passenger had a similar name. I assumed it was because they traded seats between cabins. I was very wrong.

The boarding door was reopened and I eventually saw a man walking up the jetbridge carrying a suitcase and a duty free bag. Getting booted from the flight for swapping seats is unusual and was not the scenario here. It turns out that two passengers with the same name managed to get on the plane using only one ticket. It was caught at the last minute when the flight attendants did their final count and came up one off. Once he was found out he was escorted off the aircraft and we all got to wait an extra hour or so while they found his checked bag and pulled it off the plane.

I’m not certain the details from there but my assumption is that they checked the manifest for seats that shouldn’t be occupied and found an “empty” holding a passenger. And I think he squatted in business class as I don’t remember him walking forward to be evicted. Given that the ticketed passenger was also in business class I guess they figured they’d get away with just pretending they took an empty to sit near friends (and it seemed to be a group of 40+ traveling together where this happened).

Getting past security isn’t so hard in such a scheme. The name on the boarding pass matches the name on the ID so no problems there. Getting on board is slightly more surprising as the gate scanner should reject the second passenger. Presumably someone processed an override there. And they probably should have noticed in when he checked a bag as that requires ID match; alas, my guess is that the airline rep checked only the name and not the bate of birth. The on-board count is hardest to fake. Either someone hides in a lav or otherwise manages to avoid the FAs during that part of the trip. It didn’t work for this guy. Much as I hate the TSA’s “we have layers of security” mantra this is a scenario where the multiple checks eventually worked correctly.

Perhaps most surprising to me is that the way these guys behaved suggests to me (and to the FAs) that this is not the first time they’ve tried this stunt. No surprise, no outrage, no indignation on board. And one of the two got to stick around for the trip.

UPDATE: Another angle that was suggested to me is that it was not malicious and just two guys with the same name and a screw up by the agents. That might also explain why he was squatting in whatever empty J seat he could find. But still crazy that he got on board given the checks that should have happened along the way.

Completely bizarre, especially considering that I’m pretty sure there was an onward connection after Munich, though I didn’t stick around to find out.

n.b. My airfare this week is being covered by Lufthansa Technik as part of a media event.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. We flew on an American Eagle flight out of Boston where there was a delay because the count of passengers was wrong. A woman traveling with a child for whom she had purchased a ticket held the child on her lap, and the agent saw the empty seat and boarded one more passenger. They finally figured it out.

    1. Lap child is typically how this sort of thing goes wrong from what I’ve seen in the past. But these guys were all sorts of felonious.

  2. I was traveling with a group with two passengers with the same name. Multiple flights during tour. Each time agents thought it was a mistake due to duplicate names and bumped off one of the ticketed passengers. It was chaotic.

  3. It’s been a while since I’ve had an issue like this, but I remember it being a problem years ago out of the IAD A gates before they started checking BPs prior to getting on the plane. Had a bunch of people bound for XYZ instead get on the plane to XYY. Always made for a fun flight…

  4. Seth
    On board body counts fail too, or rather a lack of proper body counts.
    I was in LH F in Dec 2010 (thanks to USAir Grand Slams of 2009 & 2010); went to FCL near Gate B22; driven from there to plane by limo after “gate agent” in the lounge had finished scanning passes. At the Z Gate, we were asked to come out for secondary screening for security and went OUT past the gate agent.
    By the time our family finished security, the gate was closed and the plane was pulling out. The only time I saw a F class agent flummoxed. They assumed we were on board the 747, as our passes were scanned, but did not check where we were in F.
    The only time I got to see a plane being brought back to the gate for us as we watched from the open jetway !

  5. We had a case a little over a week ago on a WN flight between PHX and LAX.

    Apparently the count didn’t match the manifest. I guess this is an uncommon occurrence because of what happened next. Obviously it’s WN so no assigned seats. 2 gate agents start going through the manifest, one by one, one from the back, one from the front. After covering a couple of rows they realize this is stupid and instead decide to do a good old roll call (no idea why they thought this was a sound idea, with 150ish on board), as we did that, some people waved their hands frantically and the gate agents talked to them and presumably escorted them off the plane, at least that’s what it looked like.

    How they got on the plane without getting scanned is beyond me, and how they made it that long without noticing that it wasn’t their flight (after many announcements that we were going to LOS ANGELES). Of course Southwest’s open seat policy can be a nightmare in cases like these where there will be no seat conflicts unless more people board than there are seats.

    My dad also had an issue many years ago, he was traveling, got to his seat, and then some other guy told my that that that was his assigned seat. FAs were called, they asked for seat numbers, then looked at the names, and noticed both had the same name. This is Mexico, so middle names are blank half the time, and the first last name matched, but not the 2nd. Most people only use first last name when buying plane tickets (allowed, unless international) .Since my dad got there first and that was his seat since he bought the ticket, he kept it. Seems like the system confused the two pax and combined the tickets into one.

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