United’s Dreamliner Stowaway: How We Think He Did It
This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.
Friday morning, we told the story of a Romanian man who flew on a United Dreamliner from London (LHR) to Los Angeles (LAX) without ever having booked a ticket. Worse yet, he wasn’t authorized to travel to the United States, which landed him — and the airline — in serious hot water upon Flight 935’s arrival in LA.
From my discussions with the various parties involved, I’m fairly certain of the sequence of events:
- A female United passenger dropped her boarding pass in the terminal at LHR
- The female passenger asked an agent to print another boarding pass
- An unidentified man, who is a Romanian citizen, found the lost boarding pass
- With said pass to LAX in hand, he decided to change his travel plans on the spot
- The man successfully boarded United 935 to LAX
- Upon boarding, he sat in a random open economy seat
- After takeoff, United determined that there was an extra passenger onboard
- US Customs and Border Protection met the Boeing 787 upon arrival at LAX
- Passengers were instructed to deplane one-by-one
- The stowaway was identified, questioned and taken into FBI custody
The big question that remains is why United gate agents in London allowed him to board using a boarding pass in the name of another passenger, who also still managed to travel on the flight to LAX.
I’ve flown to the US from Heathrow’s Terminal 2 several times. As I recall, for connecting passengers who hadn’t entered the UK, boarding passes are scanned at the security checkpoint, but IDs aren’t checked. Passports are verified either by airline employees or contractors at the departure gate, and passes are scanned just before boarding.
When one agent verifies documents before another scans a boarding pass, identification typically isn’t checked a second time — the passport checker clearly made a mistake here in approving the man for travel even though his documents didn’t match.
The stowaway likely boarded the aircraft before the passenger whose name was on the pass, in which case he wouldn’t have been flagged during the boarding pass scan. Perhaps expecting the boarding pass owner to still board as well, he likely took another seat, which ultimately ended up being unassigned.
When the rightful boarding pass holder tried to board, the scanner likely flagged the duplicate. Perhaps assuming a colleague had scanned her in as well, the gate agent dismissed the duplicate scan alert and allowed her to board. She took her assigned seat, which was empty, and didn’t think twice about the boarding pass alert.
Now, let me be clear — this is entirely my opinion, but as someone who’s traveled on hundreds of international flights, it certainly seems like a reasonable explanation.
The stowaway clearly hadn’t considered the immigration process, or, more likely, wasn’t at all familiar with US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) arrival procedures. Even if it hadn’t been determined that there was an extra passenger onboard, the stowaway would have stuck out like a sore thumb when he tried to pass through immigration without appearing on the flight manifest, which CBP agents have access to. Not to mention that he didn’t have a visa, which is required for Romanian citizens, and therefore could not travel to the United States.
As a result of this July 1 adventure, he’s likely facing some serious federal charges in the US, assuming he hasn’t already gone before a judge. There’s a clear lesson to be learned here, though: As thrilling as an adventure like this may seem, if you ever come across a discarded boarding pass, hand it over to an airline agent or throw it away — traveling as a stowaway will land you in very hot water, and, perhaps worst of all, you won’t be earning any frequent-flyer points.
Welcome to The Points Guy!
Earn 90,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer ends 8/3/2022.
With Status Boost™, earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, up to two times per year getting you closer to Medallion Status. Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels, 2X Miles at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets and earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases. Terms Apply.
- Limited Time Offer: Earn 90,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer ends 8/3/2022.
- Earn up to 20,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) with Status Boost® per year. After you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, you can earn 10,000 MQMs up to two times per year, getting you closer to Medallion® Status. MQMs are used to determine Medallion® Status and are different than miles you earn toward flights.
- Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels.
- Earn 2X Miles at restaurants worldwide including takeout and delivery in the U.S., and at U.S. supermarkets.
- Earn 1X Miles on all other eligible purchases.
- Receive a Domestic Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate each year upon renewal of your Card. Payment of the government imposed taxes and fees of no more than $80 for roundtrip domestic flights (for itineraries with up to four flight segments) is required. Baggage charges and other restrictions apply. See terms and conditions for details.
- Enjoy your first checked bag free on Delta flights.
- Fee Credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck® after you apply through any Authorized Enrollment Provider. If approved for Global Entry, at no additional charge, you will receive access to TSA PreCheck.
- Enjoy an exclusive rate of $39 per person per visit to enter the Delta Sky Club® for you and up to two guests when traveling on a Delta flight.
- No Foreign Transaction Fees.
- $250 Annual Fee.
- Terms Apply.
- See Rates & Fees