A recent Southwest Airlines flight to New Orleans (MSY) encountered an unexpected passenger that left everyone scratching their heads for over 40 minutes. It’s a tale that highlights the quirks of the airline’s unique open seating policy and raises some questions about airport security.
Picture this: The flight’s manifest showed one fewer passenger than there were individuals physically present on the plane. To make things even more puzzling, reports suggest that the flight was completely sold out, so there weren’t enough seats for everyone on the aircraft. So, how did this happen? Well, it turns out there was a stowaway among the passengers, and she wasn’t exactly eager to come forward. After all, she apparently had a Beyoncé concert to get to.
With Southwest Airlines’ open seating policy, identifying the rogue passenger wasn’t as straightforward as comparing occupied seats to seat assignments. There were no assigned seats in the first place. So, the airline had to resort to a more labor-intensive process. They enlisted the help of the cabin crew to get to the bottom of this perplexing situation, but the stowaway remained tight-lipped.
As a result of the lack of assigned seating, it took a whopping 40 minutes of ID checks for the airline to finally pinpoint the mysterious woman nestled in the back of the plane – a passenger who was, in fact, not supposed to be there. It’s certainly interesting they appear to have carried this process out on the plane itself; on the (very) rare occasion I’ve been on a plane where there was any question as to the passenger manifest, it’s been handled by having everyone deplane, and scanning back onto the aircraft one-by-one. Perhaps with the first-come, first-served seating policy, the airline didn’t want to anger anybody by taking away the seat they rushed to snag?
Now, you might be wondering how this individual managed to slip through the airport security checkpoint in the first place. After all, she would have had to show her ID and possibly her boarding pass, right? It’s not entirely clear how she navigated this hurdle. There are few ways this could have happened, but the most plausible answer is that she entered the TSA checkpoint on a valid reservation, and cancelled once inside; many fare classes on US airlines allow changes, cancellations, and even refunds until the door is closed, even if you’ve already checked in & cleared TSA. While it’s unclear where the flight departed from, some airports like MCO and TUL also offer free visitor passes, allowing the general public to proceed through TSA like a normal passenger to planespot, accompany family, or explore the terminal.
However, the real head-scratcher is how she managed to board the Southwest flight without a boarding pass for that specific flight. Normally, you’re required to show your boarding pass, have it scanned, and the system is supposed to electronically validate that you’re indeed on the flight you’re trying to board. Yet, somehow, this woman slipped through the cracks and blended in with passengers who had successfully cleared this hurdle.
One also has to wonder, especially with an open seating policy, how often this kind of incident occurs on Southwest and never gets detected. My hunch is had the flight not been completely full, this passenger likely would have gotten away with this unnoticed. Clearly, this woman did her homework in order to get as far as she did – perhaps she would have done well to at least check the load factors to make sure the flight wasn’t, you know, completely full? Either way, Southwest has some room to learn from this incident and implement new measures to make sure similar incidents can’t happen in the future – perhaps through turnstiles at boarding gates, or simply counting the number of empty seats as soon as boarding ends. Or maybe, just maybe, they end their open seating policy once and for all.
The incident leaves us with more questions than answers. How did she get past security? How did she manage to board the plane without the necessary documents? And why did it take a whole 40 minutes to sort out this bewildering situation? One thing’s for sure; this unusual tale from the friendly skies raises serious concerns about airport security and the potential for gaps in the system that allow unexpected passengers to join the journey.
(h/t: View From the Wing)