Passenger Locked Aboard Airplane — and How to Prevent That From Possibly Happening to You

Photograph ©2013 by Brian Cohen.

At one time or another, you probably have eventually wound up falling asleep as passenger aboard an airplane — but when Tom Wagner took his hat off and grabbed a quick nap in a window seat near the back of the airplane which operated as United Express flight 4245 from Lafayette in Louisiana this past Friday, he woke up inside of a cold and dark cabin of a locked regional jet aircraft at the international airport in Houston.
He missed his connecting flight to California. Fortunately, Wagner had his cellular telephone and called his girlfriend, who called United Airlines. After greater than 30 minutes, workers “rescued” Wagner, who was compensated with a voucher worth $250.00 and a stay in a hotel room — but his airfare was not refunded.
Wagner eventually did arrive at his destination in California to visit with his sister.
This is not the first time a passenger was left sleeping aboard an airplane after the conclusion of a flight operating as United Express. In May of 2010, a weary Ginger McGuire fell asleep on the short flight from Washington to Philadelphia late at night — only to be left aboard the Embraer ERJ 145 regional jet aircraft alone for greater than three hours after fellow passengers deplaned.
As with many other FlyerTalk members, you might wonder how incidents such as these could even be possible. FlyerTalk member cordellimay he rest in peace — had actually experienced this phenomenon himself and offered some sage advice:

“I totally believe the story.
“Because it has happened to me (not the extra four hours though)
“Years ago I must have been dead tired, I fell asleep on a regional from New York down to Washington. It would have been United, but not a clue if it was a prop plane or regional.
“There was no drugs involved. There was no alcohol involved.
“The flight attendant woke me up just as they were about to close the door to fly back to NY. Their count was one off, and they were checking to see if I should have been on that flight (actually I should have been on a connecting flight, which I made with seconds to spare).
“The plane landed, I slept through it.
“The FA never noticed me in the last seat of the plane.
“The cleaning crew never noticed.
“They didn’t notice when they started boarding (it was a different FA then the one on the way down, not that it matters)
“Had the plane not been going back out again I could have probably easily been there happy as can be for hours.
“Because of that incident, I never, ever sleep on regionals or on the train to work anymore. I never would have believed it possible to sleep through a landing, deplaning (de-training or whatever) but apparently I could.”

At least a flight attendant double-checked with cordelli — something which was inexplicably not done with either Wagner or McGuire.
Somehow I usually and inexplicably have an “internal alarm” when I sleep during travel. I suppose that is derived from years of commuting on the subway system in New York. Sure, I might have been disoriented for a second or two upon waking up — but I have never slept past my designated stop. Similarly, I have never slept past the end of the flight. I can recall only a couple of times where the landing awakened me — otherwise, I almost always wake up before the flight lands.
While I cannot advise you on how to develop your “internal alarm clock”, I have some suggestions which you may want to consider — depending on the conditions of your flight and with what you may feel comfortable doing:

  • Now that portable electronic devices are allowed to be used at all times during most commercial flights within the United States, set the alarm on it to vibrate when your flight is expected to end and — if at all possible — wear headphones for a better chance to hear the alarm
  • Alert a flight attendant that you intend to sleep during the flight — especially a short flight where passengers are usually not expected to nap
  • Ask a seatmate to wake you up when the flight concludes
  • Avoid drinking alcoholic beverages before or during the flight
  • If possible, avoid ingesting medication or prescription drugs which list drowsiness as a side effect
  • Do not eat to the point where you may become drowsy before or during a flight; rather, eat just enough food to satiate your appetite and subside your hunger — and avoid consuming significant quantities of turkey, potato chips, cookies and other foods which tend to contribute to drowsiness
  • …and the most obvious solution, as noted by cordelli: do not fall asleep during the flight

There is plenty of advice out there on how to sleep during a flight — something with which many people do have trouble — but little advice on how not to sleep beyond the end of the flight.
Although the chance of you being left behind aboard an airplane after the conclusion of a flight is rare — with flight crew members double-checking the aircraft and crews cleaning the aircraft after a flight concludes as just two preventative measures — what additional advice would you give to fellow travelers to avoid having an similar incident happen to them? Was the airline at fault here; are the passengers responsible for the incidents — or perhaps should the blame have been shared? Have you ever been left behind on an airplane after a flight?

4 thoughts on “Passenger Locked Aboard Airplane — and How to Prevent That From Possibly Happening to You”

  1. tfrisch says:

    I once found myself all alone on an airliner but it was entirely voluntary. It was in September 1970 or ’71 and I had arrived at JFK from Frankfurt on TWA. It was my first flight in a 747 and I was curious to visit the flight deck. I waited for the pax to deplane, then walked upstairs to the flight deck level, where I expected the cockpit crew to be shutting down. The cockpit was deserted and no one was left on the upper deck. I had a good look round, managed to resist the temptation to try out some of the flight controls, then went back down and out. The first people I ran into were in the jetway. No one paid any attention to me.
    Those were the days…

  2. uclalum says:

    Recline your seat. During preparations for landing, you will typically get a nudge from the FA to return your seat to the upright position. The key is to actually wake up and do this, and not do it groggily before knocking back out. If you are in an asile seat and “trap” a pax to a window, they will no doubt wake you when they need to deplane.
    “•Alert a flight attendant that you intend to sleep during the flight ” I can see it now:
    FA approaches after being summoned by call button, “yes, sir. What can I do for you?”
    “Oh, um, I intend to sleep on this flight and just thought you should know.” Blank stare, silence, motionless face. “Okay?”
    “Oh, no problem, sir. You are more than welcome to sleep. That is the beauty of air travel. You relax and kick back and leave the flying to us. Would you like a blanket or pillow?”
    Alt Ending 1: “Uh, yeah. Okay. And I intend to work on this flight, so if you don’t mind…”
    Alt Ending 2 (a la Steven Slater): “Great. And what the f*** does that have to do with me?”

  3. thecowgoesmoo says:

    “At least a flight attendant double-checked with cordelli — something which was inexplicably not done with either Wagner or McGuire.”
    What do you mean? It’s totally explicable. In cordelli’s case, it was an outbound attendant that spotted him. With Wagner and McGuire, the planes were not used again prior to their awakenings.

  4. Truly says:

    “The cleaning crew never noticed?” “THE CLEANING CREW NEVER NOTICED!!?!???”
    Somehow, that’s the most shocking part of the story to me; although given the junk I have found in my United seats and seat back pockets lately, I guess this should not be a surprise.

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