How Dumb Do You Have to Be to Board the Wrong Plane? (Real Question)

It happens more often than seems possible.

If you have ever heard flight attendants announce the name of a plane's intended destination while everyone onboard is already buckled up and ready to go, you may have wondered why they bother. Surely everyone knows where they are going, right? Right?!

Well, actually, impossible as it seems, people often do board the wrong plane. Perhaps none so famously — or second-most famous after Home Alone's Kevin McCallister — was the young man who gained minor celebrity status when he misheard "Auckland" for "Oakland" and ended up on a plane traveling 6,600 miles farther than his California destination. Mike Lewis became known as Wrong-Way Mike, appeared on The Tonight Show, signed a movie contract, then in true dark Hollywood fashion, became involved in a contract dispute and became ill from stress.

That was way back in the mid-'80s, though. In this era of post-9/11 heightened security checks, how could such a blunder be repeated?

Just like in the case of Wrong-Way Mike, confusion may be sown by simply mishearing the name of the destination (Bucharest or Budapest?) or when different destinations have the same name (Portland, Maine or Portland, Oregon?) Perhaps the lines for two different flights departing at the same time from neighboring gates converge and you end up in the line for Dallas rather than Los Angeles.

That seems reasonable, up until the point where airline staff scans your ticket just before you board the plane. A fool-proof final check, surely. In a Quora thread on the subject, a user noted that the warning beep that sounds when the mistaken ticket is scanned can be dismissed as the same sound that notes a passenger is seated in the exit aisle. Or just shrugged off entirely. And if that ticket scanner is not working, well then it's even easier for mistakes to be made. One user named Stephen Foskett noted that, "It's fairly frequent for gate agents to handle the boarding process manually rather than relying on the scanner," he wrote. "Maybe 10 percent of the time with United. Perhaps the scanner is broken or the network or back-end is slow. When this happens, the easiest way for them to process passengers is to manually enter seat numbers rather than ticket or reservation numbers. So they just input 12A, 21F, etc. As you can see, it would be quite easy in this case for a passenger to board the wrong aircraft!"

If it does happen to you, hope that you can channel the good humor of this elderly couple who, due to a "bad ticket scanner," accidentally flew to Odensburg, New York rather than their home town of Grand Rapids, Michigan. “I call this our most exciting adventure,” 96-year-old Helen Wheeker told WOOD-TV.

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