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12 Most Ridiculous Moments in Travel: 2011 Edition

December is the perfect time to reflect back and take a moment to appreciate some of the year’s most jaw-dropping, double-taking moments in the world of travel. Ridiculous moments came in all shapes and sizes this year, from pilots getting trapped in the bathroom to passengers coming to fisticuffs over reclining seats. Got a story we haven’t included in this hall of shame? Add it to the comments below!

2011: The Year of Stowaway Animals

Why is it that when a flight suffers an animal infestation, it’s never a stampede of adorable puppies or a tumble of fuzzy bunnies? This year has included some particularly unsavory invasions—we’ve seen cockroaches, rats, bats, and even bedbugs. What’s a squeamish passenger to do? Keep those carry-ons zipped up tight, wear closed-toe shoes, and hope for the best.

Ryanair Proposes Worst Idea Yet

Leave it to Ryanair, the drunk uncle of the skies, to find new ways to offend. This year, the airline’s skeeviest idea was to add a porn option to the inflight entertainment lineup. Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary reasoned, “Hotels around the world have it, so why wouldn’t we?” Hotels also have room service, bathrooms for every guest, and enough room to actually stretch out and sleep, but we notice O’Leary isn’t rushing out to match the hotel experience on those points. For now, no action has been taken on the mile-high film-club proposal.

Would-Be Passenger Trapped at Airport

Drawing on two of the travel world’s most enduring wronged-passenger archetypes—the baggage-fee victim and the passenger trapped at the airport—would-be US Airways passenger Teri Weissinger found herself stuck at San Francisco International for eight days after spending her last dollars on an airline ticket and being unable to cover the cost of her baggage fees. Eight days makes even the worst layover seem tame by comparison.

Air Traffic Falls Asleep at the Controls

High on the list of people you don’t want to fall asleep on the job—right up there with surgeons and trapeze artists—are air traffic controllers. But that’s exactly who was caught snoozing on the job back in March. Two planes at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., were forced to land without clearance after pilots were unable to make contact with air traffic control by radio or phone. The on-duty controller later admitted to taking a nap and was suspended. We hope he used the time to catch up on sleep—and maybe buy a new coffee pot for the office.

Bathroom Traps Pilot

What sounds like the set-up for a bad joke—a pilot gets stuck in the airplane bathroom—actually happened aboard a Chautauqua Airlines flight from North Carolina to New York in November. The pilot, realizing he was stuck, banged on the door and instructed a passenger to alert the copilot to the issue. When the well-intentioned passenger knocked on the cockpit door, it alarmed the co-pilot, who reported to air traffic control that the captain had disappeared and that someone with a thick foreign accent was trying to access the cockpit. Eventually, the pilot broke out of the bathroom and sorted everything out. The moral of the story: It’s high time for the return of the chamber pot.

Passengers Find New Lows

Sure, pilots occasionally lock themselves in bathrooms and air-traffic controllers sleep on the job, but when it comes to ridiculous behavior, no group shows as much determination and creativity as airline passengers. This year, we’ve heard about passengers punching pilots, urinating on the floor, getting in fistfights over reclining seats, stripping naked, and trying to open emergency exit doors mid-flight. Celebrities in particular really outdid themselves: Gerard Depardieu also peed on the floor, Alec Baldwin was kicked off a plane after refusing to turn off his iPad, and Whitney Houston created a scene because she didn’t feel like buckling up before takeoff.

United’s Smoking Windshield

As a passenger, you can get a hefty fine for smoking on a flight. But last March, United allowed a plane with a smoldering windshield heater to fly. That’s despite the fact that it had been flagged as an issue the day before when the cockpit filled with smoke and fumes, forcing the pilots to make an emergency landing. Mechanics then cleared the plane for travel because of a loophole in the United maintenance manual. When the plane took to the skies again for a flight from New York to San Francisco, the smoke and fumes from the previous day returned, along with 16-inch flames shooting from the cockpit window and a windshield that shattered during the plane’s second emergency landing in two days.

Ryanair Fee Incites Mutiny

Wondering how to say “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore” in Flemish? Just ask the 100 Belgian students who mutinied aboard a Ryanair flight from the Canary Islands to Brussels after discovering their carry-on bags were going to cost them €35 each, a fee not included on the airline’s list of fees but rather only on the carry-on FAQ. The incident led to police involvement, deboarding of the entire plane, and the refusal of service to the group, leaving dozens still stranded on the island days after the event.

Coffee Spill Emergency Diversion

Clearly, someone needs to switch to decaf. Back in January, a United Airlines flight between Chicago and Frankfurt had to be diverted to Toronto after the pilot spilled a cup of coffee on the plane’s communication device, an accident that “triggered a series of emergency codes, including one for hijacking.” Passengers were then flown back to Chicago and rebooked on the next day’s flight to Frankfurt, an inconvenience that likely required more coffee for everyone involved.

TSA Agent Gets Creepy
We’ve recognized the pilots, air traffic controllers, and passengers who made the skies more ridiculous this year, but now it’s time to turn our attention to the ground and salute the absurd actions of the TSA. “Wildly inappropriate” was the term used by the passenger who found the words “Get your freak on girl” scrawled on the TSA paperwork in her suitcase after her checked bag was searched and an agent found a small sex toy. While the employee was fired, the passenger managed to keep her sense of humor about the incident, blogging “Total violation of privacy, wildly inappropriate, and clearly not ok, but I also just died laughing in my hotel room.”

In early December, it happened again. Rapper Freddie Gibbs tweeted, “The TSA found my weed and let me keep it.” He posted an image of what appears to be a bag of marijuana alongside a TSA inspection form with the words, “C’mon son” scribbled on it. Clearly, these TSA agents need a seventh-grade study-hall teacher to break them of their note-passing habits.

Spirit Adds Fees to its Fees

Leave it to Spirit Airlines, bold pioneer of inappropriate airfare-sale names and nickel-and-diming pricing structures, to come up with fees on its fees. Of course the airline already charged for both checked and carry-on bags. But in March it got creative with an additional fee of $5 to $10 for baggage fees purchased within 24 hours of departure. How did Spirit justify that degree of nickel-and-diming? By spinning it as an “early-bird discount” for passengers who pay their fee in advance.

Contortionist Baggage Thief Nabbed

And finally, what’s a list of ridiculous moments without at least one mention of a ne’er-do-well contortionist? In June, Spanish police nabbed a contortionist wearing a headlamp who, it seems, had a regular gig hiding in a suitcase to gain access to the cargo bay and then pillaging travelers’ baggage on an airport bus between Barcelona and the city’s airport.

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