How Did A Russian Without Ticket, Passport, or Visa Fly To LA Without Anyone Noticing?

A Russian passenger flew from Copenhagen to Los Angeles on Scandinavian flight 931 last month despite not having a ticket, passport, or visa. He’s being called a stowaway, but he wasn’t hiding. He simply sat down in a seat.

“[Ochigava] seemingly interacted with flight crew, ate two meals on the plane, spoke to other passengers on the flight, and, at one point ‘attempted to eat the chocolate that belonged to members of the cabin crew,’ Koebler wrote. “The affidavit states that ‘most’ of the crew noticed him on the plane, and said he was sitting in a few different seats, but that nothing else seemed amiss.”

He wasn’t on the flight manifest, and he wasn’t scheduled to depart on any international flight that day. No one knows how he made it through security and onto the plane, and he says he has no idea either. He thinks he might have had a ticket to the United States but isn’t sure, doesn’t know how he got to Copenhagen either, and claims not to have slept in 3 days.

According to an FBI agent at LAX he had a photo of the flight board at Copenhagen’s Kastrup airport as well as screen shots of maps showing a German hostel and of another city. He had both Russian and Israeli identification cards.

When he got off the plane in Los Angeles he went up to Customs and Border Protection and didn’t seem to think anything was wrong.

  • He said he left his passport on the plane (he didn’t)

  • He wasn’t even in the CBP system, because there were no flight records showing him coming to the U.S.

This doesn’t happen often in the United States, though I once talked through a family member showing up at a U.S. border without a passport. She’s dual nationality and was traveling abroad without her U.S. passport, unexpectedly needing to stop in the U.S.

A U.S. citizen cannot enter under a foreign passport, so she was looking at travel and waiting out a weekend to have a U.S. consulate issue an emergency passport. She could have flown to the U.S. on her other passport, and presented herself as being without a U.S. passport. She’d have faced questioning and delay, but likely hours rather than days.

Of course growing up you didn’t need a passport to visit Mexico or Canada and return. And passports as a travel requirement are actually relatively new as far as these things go.

  • The Latin phrase civis romanus sum or “I am a Roman citizen” was enough to travel across the vast Roman Empire unaccosted, because the retribution of Rome was known to be both fierce and certain if one of their citizens was harmed. That was the Roman passport.

  • There were letters of transit dating back as far as 450 B.C. where a King would grant permission for travel and ask those to whom the letter was handed to assist in providing for safe passage. China had something closer to passports as far back as 200 B.C. during the Western Han dynasty where documents detailed personal attributes and granted rights of passage across Chinese territory.

  • Only those who paid their taxes to the medieval Islamic Caliphate were granted passports – a receipt for taxes paid – which was a condition of travel across regions. The U.S. has recently started denying passports to those who owe taxes.

  • The first modern passport – using that term – dates to mid-16th century England. However passports weren’t commonly required for travel across Europe in the years leading up to World War I. Border agencies didn’t keep up with the volume of travelers that came with the advent of modern train travel. Rather than building up borders – or walls – passport requirements were relaxed. Indeed, where we now have passport-free travel across the Schengen area of Europe, that was also largely the state of affairs prior to the first World War.

When European governments began to erect border controls it was as much to keep skilled workers in as to keep foreigners out. That’s often the role that such agencies play. Recall which way traffic went over the Berlin Wall.

The U.N. held a travel conference in 1963 where abolition of passports was on the agenda. It’s hard to imagine that passport free travel in much of the world was possible a century ago, and that returning to this was thinkable 60 years ago.

There’s something romantic about the notion of being able to travel anywhere and at any time, without permission, as long as you do not appear to pose a threat. Of course discussions around that idea might as well have been 500 years ago, given how unlikely that is to come to pass again.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »



  1. I almost like the idea of proving that you paid your taxes as the required documentation to be able to travel across the USA. It would make traveling less crowded.

  2. The burden of proof of identification falls on the PAX.
    The airline in question will pick up the responsibility to return the passenger.

    He would have done better to cross the Rio Grande and requested asylum.

  3. I don’t know what the big deal is? Roughly 10,000 people a day enter the US without a passport. They get rewarded with room, board and transportation.

  4. As a frequent CPH-US flyer familiar with the protocols and a lot of people at the airport, I have a pretty good idea about how this could have been pulled off for some CPH-US flights. But for it to work reliably — and cheat the on-board passenger headcount without insider assistance — out of CPH would require one or more “co-conspirator” “passengers” on the ground and/or in the air. But there is another way for it to be done, but then the CBP should be looking at which person booked on the flight didn’t actually get admitted into the US at the airport that day.

  5. Regarding: “ A U.S. citizen cannot enter under a foreign passport, so she was looking at travel and waiting out a weekend to have a U.S. consulate issue an emergency passport. She could have flown to the U.S. on her other passport, and presented herself as being without a U.S. passport. She’d have faced questioning and delay, but likely hours rather than days.”

    What I’ve seen of US dual-citizens on my flights who flew to the US with their non-US passports and came in without a valid US passport, they have been allowed in within minutes of arrival and no hours long drama when having expired US passports or other US citizenship- and US identity-evidencing documentation with them on arrival at the US airports of entry.

  6. Passports to travel beyond the issuer’s realm is different than toll payment requirements for passage through the territory of the toll/tax demander/collector.

    The so-called Islamic caliphates from the pre-Renaissance period didn’t limit giving passport letters to just those who paid taxes.

  7. European governments enacted border controls first and foremost for taxation purposes and other customs control purposes.

    Restricting the movement of labor out would work for beefing up the domestic/imperial supply chain and limit the export of skill sets and bodies potentially useful for boosting the military capabilities of others.

  8. If he went from Hamburg and/or Kiel in Germany to CPH using public transit on the ground, then he would have needed a boarding pass to get airside at CPH and then a passport to get into the non-Schengen side of the airport. Did he use an Israeli passport to clear CPH passport control? Or maybe he flew into the non-Schengen side of CPH airport by coming in via Turkey or one of the MENA carriers, but then too remains the question of which passport he used. Given his phone is reported to have had a partial image of a passport issued in his name, the FBI should already have a very good idea about which country has issued a passport to this guy.

  9. SAS indicated that its cabin crew did the on-board headcount by section for just weight and balance purposes but didn’t aggregate the tally across the plane. And yet at some point later they mention something about being “plus one”. They also say he moved about the plane in different seats repeatedly and would casually talk to other passengers who seemed to have no pre-existing relationship with him.

    Seems like this guy knew what he was doing and/or was very well schooled in how to try to get away with this but was doing it on the cheap or while hidden airside at CPH — thus explaining why he was crazy hungry on the plane.

  10. My take, assuming everything above is correct …. someone working at CPH with access to seat allocations on that SAS flight (maybe a SAS employee) smuggled him through a security check for vehicles going from landside to airside, then got him onto the aircraft and knew which empty seat he should sit in

    It would not be the first time a person was smuggled onto a flight with the assistance of a rogue person with ramp access

    His story of not knowing how he got there or where his passport was is similar to stories told by those seeking to enter a country illegally

    Finally ….. Did he seek Political Asylum ?

  11. There is certainly a possibility that he was smuggled into CPH airport by someone with an allowance to get automobiles and containers/cargo/supplies onto the tarmac from outside the airport’s barriers, but then they would have had to both hide him and get him into the plane, and that latter thing is a somewhat harder thing to pull off without being noticed at CPH.

    But his connection with Kiel and Hamburg does increase the odds that he got smuggled in, although possibly by someone who didn’t know he was being smuggled in and then he hid low until a witting accomplice got him out on the day of his flight. But then where did he relieve his bladder and bowels while waiting for a willing accomplice to get him out and into position for a US-bound flight that day.

    The FBI should check with the Danish national police if he used an Israeli or Russian passport to clear Schengen exit passport control at CPH that day. The Russian passport would require a Schengen visa or Schengen country residency permit to get him through there. What I would have thought more likely was that he used an Israeli passport and had a boarding pass for some other CPH-departing flight, but his extreme hunger increases the odds that he had spent time waiting outside of the regular passenger areas typically used by passengers waiting at CPH for non-Schengen flight departures and avoided Danish passport control.

    Will be interesting to hear what the Danish authorities will relay to me about this, but fortunately even in the days and weeks since this early November incident I’ve been hit by no increase in a security dog and pony show when flying CPH-US.

  12. Michael,

    I haven’t come across anything about him having filed for asylum in the US.

    But assuming he is both a Russian citizen and an Israeli citizen, on what grounds could he claim to need asylum protections from both Russia and Israel? That he doesn’t want to be forced into military service? Since he was already in Denmark and probably Germany too, he could have just claimed asylum status before flying to the US if he was needing asylum as soon as possible.

  13. There are a lot of people out there with mental health issues who will do all sorts of weird things at international borders. For those looking to claim asylum, it isn’t uncommon for them to try and “lose” their passport and ticket stub on the plane so there is no evidence of their real name when they land. While it seems like he isn’t trying to claim asylum, he may have had some poorly conceived plan of how entering under some other name would be helpful to whatever strange goal he has. My guess is that there was a passenger that checked in but never boarded the flight and it is this guy.

  14. Interesting that this story showed up in the news program area of the Russian state run TV/radio web site.
    I regularly monitor the site as I am learning Russian and it is a good source of material.

  15. Andrew M,

    “My guess is that there was a passenger that checked in but never boarded the flight and it is this guy.”

    I would have thought that was part of what happened, but the CBP controls/checks and the SAS checks indicate that this ticketless stowaway was taken as a “plus one” rather than as a simple substitution for a no-show-but-already-checked-in-for-this-flight person. The CBP, FBI and SAS are all on the same page on this.

  16. David P says: “I don’t know what the big deal is? Roughly 10,000 people a day enter the US without a passport. They get rewarded with room, board and transportation”

    That is so true. Only makes the news when it happens via airside

  17. @CMorgan: Sure, they also walk hundreds to thousands of miles to do it. And then we have extremely bright policymakers who think a fence will make a difference.

  18. Since this article is incomplete, here is what I found online:
    The passenger, identified as Sergey Vladimirovich Ochigava and landed at LAX (Los Angeles airport).
    After an FBI investigation, Ochigava pleaded not guilty earlier this month to violating a federal law that prevents anyone from boarding or secreting themselves on an airplane or vessel without the consent of the owner or person in command.
    Ochigava has since been indicted on the same charge of being a stowaway. At the end of November, court minutes noted he did not appear due to hospitalization. He remains in federal custody in Los Angeles. He is due back in court Dec. 26.

  19. “ Christopher Raehl” says : “Sure, they also walk hundreds to thousands of miles to do it. And then we have extremely bright policymakers who think a fence will make a difference. “

    Many other countries use fences as border security which along with electronic and physical surveillance is effective. Why do you think the United States is any different?

  20. I have yet to be to a country that has a fence that is effective at stopping all irregular border crossings even when they also have electronic and manual/physical surveillance. And I’ve been to a lot of countries, including those of relevance to this suspected Israeli-Russian guy who took this CPH-LAX flight.

Comments are closed.