Friday, December 30, 2011

Weirdest travel incidents of 2011

This was the year the U.S. Transportation Security Agency changed its official motto from “Not on my watch,” to “Get your freak on, girl!”

By now you’ve probably heard about the TSA inspector who took time out from leering at images in the new full-body scanners to leave a handwritten note commenting on a passenger’s choice of, um, vacation accessories.

If that had been the strangest incident in travel during 2011, we would have chalked it up as a fairly normal year. But this was also the year military jets were put on high alert because a commuter-airline pilot was taking too long in the bathroom. It was the year of radioactive tourist attractions.

It was, to sum it up, the year travelers the world over got their collective freak on. Some highlights:

But he did wipe down the sink as a courtesy to the next passenger

Fighter jets were put on alert during a terrorism scare over New York’s LaGuardia Airport in November after the pilot of a commuter airline got stuck in the lavatory. A Chautauqua Airlines flight was nearing LaGuardia on a flight from Ashville, N.C., when the pilot ducked out of the cockpit for a quick bathroom break, the New York Post reported. The lavatory door jammed, and the pilot banged on it for several minutes from inside before a passenger came to investigate. The pilot asked the passenger to go explain things to the co-pilot.

But when the passenger tried to shout through the closed cockpit door, the jittery co-pilot radioed to air traffic controllers that “the captain disappeared in the back, and, uh, I have someone with a thick foreign accent trying to access the cockpit.”

The pilot was eventually able to kick open the bathroom door and radio that all was well before fighter jets were scrambled into the air.

My ficus went on vacation and all I got were these stupid aphids

Madrid residents who feel their house plants deserve a vacation of their own can now send their African violets and orchids to the new Hotel Para Plantas, which is, as the name says, a hotel just for plants. The hotel, which opened in the Islazul Shopping Centre in July, verges on a spa, according to AOL Travel: Each plant gets its own botanist to look after it. There’s even a streaming website so customers can check up on them.

Airlines could use sensitivity training

On at least three occasions, Southwest Airlines issued apologies and vouchers after failed attempts to enforce a “customers of size policy,” which tries to get the obese to buy two seats. In one case, after a Philadelphia woman was humiliated into buying a second ticket at the gate, Southwest wanted it back because they’d overbooked the flight.

Is that a banana in your suitcase or are you just happy to be flying?

“Feministe blogger” and “Renaissance degenerate” Jill Filipovic got one of those notices in her suitcase indicating the Transportation Safety Administration had inspected her luggage. “Get your freak on, Girl” was handwritten on the card, apparently by an agent who had found her Silver Bullet vibrator. Her response? “Total violation of privacy, wildly inappropriate and clearly not OK, but I also just died laughing in my hotel room.”

But all those guys in pointy hats at the Vatican are real popes, right?

Visitors outside Rome’s Coliseum in August were treated to a wooden-sword-swinging battle between groups of gladiators. What they were witnessing was a sting operation in which undercover police dressed in red tunics, metal breastplates and fringed helmets busted a group of bogus gladiators who had been intimidating and extorting tourists.

For years now, the faux gladiators have been preying on tourists, posing for pictures and then demanding as much as 50 euros ($67), often confiscating the victims’ cameras until the money is paid. Others take money for bogus tours that never happen.

That’ll be $800 for the ticket and $31,500 for the fuel surcharge

When Comtel Air, an Austrian charter airline, went out of business in November, stranded passengers on a flight from Amristar, India, to Birmingham, England, had to cough up $31,500 to pay for fuel, the BBC reported. The flight was on a stopover in Vienna when it was announced the airline had gone broke. The 180 passengers on board were escorted to ATMs in the terminal to withdraw gas money to get the plane back into the air. The bankrupt airline has vowed to reimburse them — some day.

A sequel for New Yorkers: “What the #$%@# You Lookin’ At?”

In Japan, apparently, it’s not unusual for riders to gawk unabashedly at foreigners. Arni Kristjansson, an Icelandic musician and DJ living in Japan, got tired of this, so he created a fake book jacket he could wrap around whatever he was reading at the time. In big, bold Japanese characters, the book jacket’s title asked: “Why do Japanese People Stare at Foreigners?”

The reaction, CNN reported, was “for the most part, laughter.”

Too Insensitive Part 37

Air Canada got in on the apologies after an internal memo about accommodations for crews on layover in Winnipeg was leaked. It blamed First Nations residents displaced by Manitoba floods for making areas near downtown hotels dangerous.

French Pee Soup

Alec Baldwin made bigger headlines, but the award for worst celebrity air travel performance goes to Gerard Depardieu, who needed a pre-takeoff pee on a delayed Paris-Dublin CityJet flight. An attendant told the Golden Globe winner to hold it till the plane was aloft. Instead, he returned to his seat and grabbed an empty water bottle. Alas, it wasn’t big enough, Depardieu couldn’t stop the flow, fellow passengers gathered to take pictures and the flight was further delayed by a return to the terminal.

Second place was spending six hours stuck on the tarmac

In November, a 29-year-old Vancouver resident named Jaeger Mah stepped out of Vancouver International Airport after having lived there for 80 straight days. Mah beat out 159 other entrants to win a contest celebrating the airport’s 80th birthday. And he didn’t have to spend his night on benches in departure lounges; he got a suite at the Fairmont Vancouver Airport Hotel with floor-to-ceiling views of the runways.

Armed with a digital video camera, Mah posted regular reports about his adventures on Facebook, Twitter and his own blog. He learned which VIP lounges serve the best food, had his teeth fixed at the airport’s dental office and visited its wildlife operations centre.

Now you can smell like Lithuania without having to go there

Elizabeth Taylor, Mariah Carey and Britney Spears have their own scents, and now the nation of Lithuania does, too. Launched last January, the perfume “Lithuania” is a blend of sandalwood, cedar and musk. It’s intended, according to a report in the British newspaper The Independent, to “connote the Indo-European origins of the Lithuanian language as well as Lithuanian strength of character.”

TV guy Stephen Colbert said it “smells like a goat slaughtered at a lesbian drum circle.”

In the man’s defence, he did remove his shoes first

Turned back at security because he didn’t have a photo ID, a Columbia University researcher leapt over the check-in counter at New York’s JFK Airport and tried to ride the luggage conveyor belt onto the plane. In an online profile, the New York Post reported last January, the man said he specialized in researching “human impatience.”

Airborne ad nauseum

Spirit Airlines is now selling advertising space on its airsickness bags. For $18,500 you can promote your product — Pepto Bismol? Alka Seltzer? Spray ’n Wash? — to nauseated people fumbling for a place to hurl their lunch, according to an October report in USA Today.

That’s not all. For $119,000 you can advertise on tray tables for three months, according to the report. For $196,000 you can paint your corporate message on the outsides of overhead bins. On-board ads have the highest ad recall rate of all media, Spirit Airlines spokeswoman Misty Pinson told the paper.

“We provide an environment where cellphones are turned off and the consumer is stationary with the ability to focus on nothing but your brand for an average of three hours,” she said.

Let’s see now, the red button is …

For 117 passengers on an Okinawa-Tokyo flight in September, the scariest moment of 2011 came when the Boeing 737 nearly flipped while plunging 6,000 feet in 30 seconds. For the rest of us, All Nippon Airways’ explanation was nearly as frightening: The co-pilot tried to unlock the cockpit to readmit the pilot after a restroom visit, but he hit the rudder controls instead.

Too gay, too cranky, and too tall

Southwest also made headlines when Leisha Hailey, star of Showtime’s L Word, was taken from a flight after a passionate pre-flight kiss with her girlfriend. Apparently, a flight attendant explained that “Southwest is a family airline.” We don’t know what Southwest told the Texas mom and son grounded because her toddler “screamed for daddy and yelled, ‘Go, plane, go’.” Horizon Air, meanwhile, bumped a man for being too tall. He couldn’t safely stow his feet under the seat in front of him.

Definitely not Kosher

EasyJet officials were red-faced after offering a pork-or-nothing menu on a Tel Aviv-London flight. A spokeswoman explained that ham melts and bacon baguettes were loaded in error. Okay, but when are hog products a good choice for any flights originating in the Middle East?

Southwest Again

Southwest issued another apology after a flight attendant reported hearing a woman in a hijab say into her cellphone prior to takeoff, “It’s a go.” It’s believed, the mother of three, who was removed from the plane, actually said, “Gotta go,” after the standard warning to turn off all electronic devices.

Too Insenstive II

Air Canada got in on the apologies after an internal memo about accommodations for crews on layover in Winnipeg was leaked. It blamed First Nations residents displaced by Manitoba floods for making areas near downtown hotels dangerous.

Does RIM stand for ridiculous idiots misbehaving?

The good news is that, along with their $35,878 fines, two former Research In Motion executives won’t be able to fly Air Canada for a year. They earned their infamy by becoming belligerent on a Toronto-Beijing flight after indulging in booze and drugs.

Finally, a reason to wear deodorant on airplane flights

At Sydney Airport, the alarms on the newly installed state-of-the-art full-body scanners were set off by sweaty armpits. As reported by the web site in July, the second person to be scanned by the machine set off its alarm three times. After determining that he had no hidden metal on his body, airport security officials blamed the problem on the passenger’s underarm perspiration.

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