Southwest Airlines Had A Stowaway, And It Took 40 Minutes To Figure Out Who It Was

Update: Southwest clarifies that the passenger had a boarding pass but that it didn’t scan properly so they showed as not having boarded – and the airline cleared a standby, ending up “with more Customers on the aircraft than we had seats.” The deplaned passenger was moved to the next flight to New Orleans.

A woman boarded a Southwest Airlines flight to New Orleans without a ticket trying to see a Beyonce’ on tour.

The flight’s manifest has one fewer passenger on it than there were on the plane. According to one report the flight was sold out and there were more people on the plane than seats. It took 40 minutes to figure out who didn’t belong, because the stowaway wasn’t fessing up.

The airline asked for help from the cabin to resolve this, but the stowaway kept quite. Since Southwest Airlines doesn’t have assigned seats it’s not as simple as identifying what seat is supposed to be empty but isn’t, or in the case of a full flight checking the boarding pass of the person still standing against the boarding pass of the person in that assigned seat to see who really belongs.

Everyone on board went through a process of showing their IDs that took 40 minutes before they found the woman in the back of the plane that was traveling but wasn’t supposed to be on the plane.

It’s not clear how she got past the security checkpoint at the airport. She’d have had to show TSA an ID, at least, and if her travel wasn’t in their system she would have had to show a boarding pass. Perhaps she was scheduled to take a different flight? She might have refunded that ticket?

But once through security she also managed to board the Southwest Airlines plane without a boarding pass for the flight. You should your boarding pass, have it scanned, and the system is supposed to validate that you’re on the flight. This woman must have boarded while blending in with passengers that had been scanned.

It seems like it would be hard to stow away in the cabin of a commercial aircraft. And yet one woman, Marilyn Hartman ‘the serial stowaway’, did it over and over for 20 years. She says she’s taken over 30 flights that way, both domestically and internationally. She’s been caught, warned, and kept doing it again. Her picture was even posted at TSA checkpoints and she still got through without a ticket just by following other passengers through and because she looks unobtrusive and unthreatening. No one, either working for TSA or an airline, has ever been known to have been disciplined for the lapses that allowed her to fly without a ticket.

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 »

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  1. Some years on a no-fly list might discourage such behavior. People do things like this and trying to bring guns aboard because the penalties are woefully insufficient to discourage them from making stupid moves.

  2. I love the tweet from the guy that cries “security risk” and then immediately goes to compensation.

  3. What I want to know Gary is why didn’t you tee off on the guy for begging for compensation for a 40 minute delay because of a stowaway? Dude had no business asking to be comped under the circumstances. It’s people like that that make it harder for those of us who actually get wronged by airline behavior to get fair compensation.

  4. Easy enough to get by TSA with a boarding pass that been purchased then cancelled / fully refundable.

    Then loiter around the “preboarding” line and then join the “family” of the correct color following the one wheelchair while the gate agent is busy scanning the bunch of passes. Gonna be lots of opportunites on a WN flight.

    Just takes balls. She’s a big woman to hide. She did it in broad daylight in front of everyone’s nose.

    Obviously needs the airfare money to scalp Beyonce tickets!

    Isn’t it amazing that security theater insists only ticketd passengers proceed, fly no lists and ID requirements but no one checks to make sure a boarding pass is valid? It would simply take another clown & laptop to do so.

  5. The stowaway kept quite…. what? Seems like you’re missing a word there. Or maybe you meant the stowaway kept quiet? With all the AI tools available today I don’t understand why you can’t run your articles through some sort of proofreader to identify these obvious errors.

  6. Flying without a ticket is apparently not as hard as one might think, as I’ve (accidentally) flown stowaway once, had ticket, wrong flight.

    Was as typical boarding last well after the last passenger minutes prior to door close, the GA was leaning against the wall so scanned the boarding pass myself, it alarmed, I confirmed that I wanted the (middle) exit row seat I had Same Day Changed to last minute.

    2.5 hours later, I’m looking out the window at a large body of water, which I first thought must be from landing at IAD from the east, to then hear the pilot welcome us to New Orleans.

    Turns out between the time I had entered the lounge and gone to board there had been a gate change and the 8:15ish IAD departure had been subbed for the 8:15ish MSY departure, and the alarm was a “your boarding pass isn’t for this flight alarm” (which is the same tone and red light as an exit row seat), and as I’d SDC’d to an unpopular middle seat in the exit row (which the airline assigns last), there didn’t happen to be anyone assigned to that seat.

    I was napping before takeoff. Was lucky original flight was hub-hub so just hopped the MSY-IAD flight later that evening.

    I assume that if I’m able to do it accidentally, someone with intent has plenty of human engineering opportunities to do it intentionally.

    (Getting through TSA is easy: Buy any refundable ticket not in your name and claim you don’t have ID. And this stowaway would have likely gotten away with it if they’d checked flight loads and picked a not-sold-out flight.)

    The tweet claiming a security issue is just ignorant though – If TSA screened you, TSA screened you.

  7. It’d be a good idea to read your article before you push “send”. This is not a good representation for you or your publication.

  8. In all fairness to Gary, he pushed through multiple (5-6 daily) articles, 7 days a week, with a deep dive analysis and gets the point across, quickly and usually just fine even with a few typos – plus supposedly has a full time executive level job (CFO) and a small family.

    My criticisms (as a fellow CFO) might be to de-sensationalize some headlines,
    – be a bit more selective what he chooses to write about (do we really need to know about every barf)

    Apply some of that statistical knowledge we get as CFO’s to but things in appropriate perspective. Just because 1 passenger on one flights spins around looking for seat 2A in the 20’s rows, in Europe doesn’t mean ALL passengers are dumb as toast.

  9. The airline clearly stated the passenger had a boarding pass that did not scan properly. Seems to me that is not a person trying to stowaway but a lapse in the gate agents screening. They should have removed the standby passenger instead.

  10. Gary, props for being quoted in the WSJ today. However, your website seems to cover more People magazine type stories like this one, than travel information to help people find deals or promotions being offered.

  11. The update should be in a reply so it can be followed easier. So the passenger did have a boarding pass but was pulled out of her seat and kicked off of the airplane? Or was the standby customer with a boarding pass the one kicked off of the airplane. In the case of the first passenger, the fault was that of Southwest, so that person should have got denied boarding compensation if that person was kicked off. I’m unsure of what was due the standby customer other than a later flight.

  12. Uncle Johnny’s Sewing Machine is a total sleazebag, btw. He tweets this to WN and has to balls to ask for compensation in his tweet. For what?!? In what way was this d-bag inconvenienced? This is a big problem in our society, a bunch of people with an entitlement attitude like this. Too used to getting free stuff just for asking.

    At least the stowaway tried to be clever (and amusingly failed).

  13. Compensation is absolutely due to anyone who had a connecting flight in New Orleans.

    Probably not many but there will be a few whose (paid up for earlier) boarding passes are now moot and now on the back of the bus in the middle seat. Nothing worse for paying up for a “BS” fare and being stuck in the middle coast to coast because of a mechanical delay on the short hop to connect.

    The gate agent has one job to do, make sure the damn machine scans & beeps properly.

    I shocked that the large POC didn’t protest furiously, she was in the right. Kudoes to her. Hopefully WN comped her the flight.

    And the POS twatter should be sued for defamation of character of the nice lady.

  14. I was on an American flight last week where they misboarded a passenger. The person’s boarding pass wouldn’t scan. So the agent did something and reprinted it, then it did scan. Person took assigned seat (passenger also didn’t speak english and was using translate app back and forth to Chinese). Another pax comes on plane, stands at bulkhead and tells flight attendant: someone is in my seat. F/A says “her boarding pass has same seat.” Man at front says “I’m an Exec Plat, I should get the seat” which that’s another whole discussion topic. Gate agent can’t figure it out. Neither can F/A. I am in the seat directly behind and can see what the woman is holding. I interjected and asked if anybody bothered checking the names. “She has a boarding pass for this flight, this seat.” Yes she does but with a man’s name, and underneath she is holding a boarding pass for same seat to another city (departing from the adjacent gate) with a female Chinese name. They finally asked her where she was going, and confirmed she was on the wrong plane. The agent printed and gave her the man’s boarding pass (who was supposed to be on the plane in that seat).

    You’d be shocked how often this happens.

  15. This article is spreading a lie that someone made up on TikTok. There was no arrest because it was a SW error that was quickly resolved.

  16. 40 minutes is not quickly when you have a connection and overpaid for an A01 boarding pass. I’ve seen agent put aside a creased, crinkly BP that wouldn’t scan to hand key it in later but there is no excuse to clear standbys on a full flight before this happens…

  17. Years ago… 9/11.

    On a short flight out of I think LGA. Woman who was scheduled for a later flight same route was sitting in my seat. Talked to the FA on this.

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