How to sneak on to a plane: A traveler’s guide

Wondering just how some people manage to sneak past the many layers of security and human interaction to board a plane without buying a ticket? Thanks to a recently published report from the TSA we can see just how one woman managed to pull it off in Orlando.

The story begins in October 2019 when a TSA Inspector is called to Gate 71 at Orlando International Airport because a passenger on a flight is refusing to show a boarding pass and also refusing to deplane the aircraft. The inspector arrived to find that the plane was no longer at the gate and the passenger in question long gone. But the reported details more than make up for their slow arrival to the closing scene of the incident.

Clearing TSA

The scofflaw first attempted to pass through the security checkpoint by showing a checked baggage payment receipt to the TSA ID check agent. That didn’t work, in part because it was for an airline on the other side of the terminal and in part because it is obviously not a boarding pass. The would-be traveler was dismissed and wandered away. But she was not deterred.

Approximately 30 minutes later she returned to the checkpoint, this time mingling with a family of six. As the TSO at the ID check station was handling that large group the passenger slipped past, approaching the security screening. I assume it looked something like this:

They submitted to the screening as normal and the AIT detected an anomaly. That was cleared through a manual check and the bag was passed through the X-ray cleanly.

Boarding time

At the gate the would-be passenger simply walked past as pre-boarding began. One passenger apparently reported it to the gate agent, who pursued our crafty protagonist into the boarding bridge. But the GA returned alone, having confronted the woman and being satisfied with the answer that she had been scanned through. Neither a boarding pass nor ID was requested or shown, though the stowaway did state she was assigned seat 15A.

That probably would have been the end of the discussion had another passenger not held a valid boarding pass for seat 15A. A bit of a kerfuffle ensued on board, but our wayward soul was not to be trifled with. She held firm that seat 15A was hers.

Busted on board!

The gate agent also was on the plane to verify other passengers and the flight attendants asked to have 15A verified as a valid passenger. Showing neither a boarding pass nor an ID (instead, a blurry selfie on her cell phone was waved about). Turns out that was insufficient.

The agent ultimately succeeded in convincing the interloper to walk off the plane, though not without some additional yelling and cursing at the rightful holder of 15A.

The plane eventually pushed back, though it returned to Gate 73 a short time later as Delta Corporate Security expressed concern about who the woman was and whether she had passed through TSA screening or not. At the time of the incident the TSA was also unclear of that status. All passengers and carry-on bags were re-screened before the flight eventually departed for Atlanta.

More lies, and a sternly worded letter

Orlando Police removed the woman from the scene and escorted her back out to the public part of the airport where she was released, but not before providing false information about her identity. She was later tracked down and the TSA requested a statement from her. This is what she provided:

To whom it may concern:

I purchased my ticked and I boarded the plane. I am so sorry I don’t know [what] else to say but don’t blame me. Everything falls on your customer service and security.

Following the incident the Baker Act was invoked to allow the woman to receive a mental evaluation. It was determined that she had a “lengthy history of mental instability” and was residing in a long term recovery facility.

Ultimately, the TSA chose to provide a formal warning (and even mentioned potential to lose PreCheck access) rather than assess a Civil Penalty. It is unlikely that she could afford the $13,669 penalty, however.

Overall it is a spectacularly bizarre scenario, but one that has played out similarly over the years at various airports. Fortunately not a real security risk, but that is a big part of the story.

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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.