Top 10 Airline Blunders of 2009

Top 5/10 Lists — By Nicole Lerner on December 22, 2009 at 8:04 am

2009 was a tough year for airlines. The combination of rising oil prices and cost-cutting consumers/businesses has caused serious revenue declines in the industry, and the coming year isn’t looking much brighter.  It’s also been a year of blunders, from drunk pilots to near collisions to just plain awful customer service. In the spirit of improvement, we present to you a look back at the top ten airline blunders of 2009 – let’s hope these are lessons learned for 2010!

1. Asleep at the wheel? In October, two Northwest Airline pilots overshot their landing destination by 150 miles after failing to make radio contact with the air traffic control tower for more than an hour. The photo above (via shows the actual flight path of flight 188. Note the big U-turn 150 miles past Minnesota. Experts say the pilots would have had several, very clear warnings that they were approaching their landing destination, from the cockpit flight displays to the bright lights of the city.

2. Pilots hitting the bottle. The United Airline pilot who failed a breath test just before intended takeoff from London‘s Heathrow Airport in November was the third pilot to be arrested for being over the alcohol limit in the pervious 13 months. Yes, the industry may be suffering some serious losses, but hitting the bottle’s probably not the best way to vent your frustration when several hundred lives are at stake.

3. Near Collision. Just before Thanksgiving this year, a United Express and Frontier Airlines plane came as close as 200 feet of each other before the pilots took evasive action to avoid a collision. Though technically, this was an air traffic control error – controllers gave the Frontier pilots the wrong heading, and the plane’s subsequent u-turn is what put the planes on a path towards collision.

4. Passengers trapped on the tarmac. Back in August, 47 passengers experienced the ultimate travel nightmare: getting stuck on a small plane for nine hours with little food, screaming children and the smell of over-used lavatories while on the ground at the Rochester airport. Thunderstorms in the area forced the plane, which was originally destined for Minnesota’s Twin Cities, to land in Rochester around midnight; passengers remained on lock-down until early the next morning. Looks like those who suffered will be compensated though;the U.S. Department of Transportation issued $175,000 in fines to the airlines responsible for the incident, Continental, ExpressJet and Mesaba Airlines, and Continental has offered a full refund and additional compensation to each passenger. Just yesterday the U.S. federal government announced that airlines will be fined for keeping passengers longer than 3 hours on the tarmac.

5. Fees, fees, fees. More than anything else, 2009 has been the year of additional fees for jet-setters around the world. From the $15 dollar checked baggage fees to the $5 fee if you don’t pay said $15 fee online before arriving at the airport. And let’s not forget about our favorite European low-cost carrier, RyanAir, and its many penny-pinching schemes: a $7.50 fee for online checking (now the only way to check-in), a $60 fee for not printing out your boarding pass ahead of time, and a proposed pay-to-pee policy.

6. Random discrimination. In early December, on the International Day of Disabled Persons no less, a blind couple attempting to board a Jetstar flight from Melbourne, Australia was denied access to the plane because of their guide dog. The Jetstar clerk on duty at the check-in counter shouted, “No dogs, no dogs, no dogs” despite a Jetstar policy that permits seeing eye dogs to fly with passengers. Before that incident, a Best Buy executive was refused first-class access because he was dressed too casually…in a track suit.

7. An OJ Scandal. A first-class passenger on an American Airlines flight to Dallas was given a written warning  for, “threatening, intimidating, or interfering with a crewmember” with incarceration as a possible consequence, after asking for a glass of orange juice. The passenger was required to meet with an American Airlines representative upon arrival at Dallas for further investigation. The flight attendant who issued the warning apparently snapped out of no where, reports a witness in a post on The Consumerist.  Gadling also covered the story, and the passenger wrote in with his two cents.

8. Landing on the Taxiway. Earlier in 2009,  a Boeing 767, Flight 60, from Rio de Janeiro to Atlanta‘s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, landed on the taxiway rather than the runway…as in, where other planes are readying to take-off. Luckily, the taxiway was not occupied by any departing planes, but a collision with a fully fueled jet could have been catastrophic.

9. Hudson calling. Pilot Chesley (Sully) Sullenberger is a rockstar. In January, Flight 1549, headed to Charlotte, North Carolina, was airborne fewer than three minutes when it struck a flock of birds upon takeoff from New York‘s LaGuardia airport. Though the heroic pilot brought everyone to safety in an emergency landing in the chilly Hudson River, I’m guessing this was not the way most passengers wanted to kick off their first flight of the new year.

10. Stranded Passengers. Those with holiday flights on British Airways may have been saved – in December employees planning to strike were mandated by the court to work during the holiday period – but those with flights booked on Scotland’s LCC airline FlyGlobespan weren’t be so lucky. The airline stranded thousands of passengers across Europe when it abruptly shut down. The website said the company had “entered into Administration having suffered liquidity issues” and offered little recourse for current airline ticket holders.

Bonus: U.S. Security #Fail. On Christmas Day, a young Nigerian man attempted to destroy a jetliner with the high explosive PETN.  Thanks to a malfunctioning detonator and fellow passengers, his plot was thwarted, and the 278 passengers and crew aboard Northwest Airlines flight 253 landed safely. Airport security has once again become a hot topic with new regulations and measures.

Have another airline blunder to add to the list? Let us know in the comments!

[Photos: rene-germany/ Krums]

Tags: airline industry, planes, travel fails


  • CityTrader says:

    Those are blunders that airlines can’t afford.

  • Matt says:

    The one about the track suit cracked me up. Other than this guy thinking he is a rap star, I don’t see any issue with him in First Class with that outfit. Why should the airline differentiate based on whether you paid or upgraded. It’s not like he was wearing tattered clothes. I have worn far worst when traveling in Business Class – shorts, etc.

    Sometimes I find that airline gate crews do this type of thing because they are trying to exert the little power they have in their otherwise powerless lives.


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