Flying high sans a ticket or passport
No one suspects a little old lady and the automatic response is to come to her aid and help her rather than question her presence.
By Bikram Vohra (Travel Bug)
Published: Sat 27 Jan 2018, 10:23 PM
Last updated: Sun 28 Jan 2018, 12:25 AM
The older generation will remember the role of the stowaway Helen Hayes played in the 1970 movie Airport. She clambered on board a Boeing 707 at Chicago's O'Hare terminal and hid in the aircraft toilet. A sweet, old, grey-haired woman, who charmed her way past the system.
Fast forward to earlier last week at the same airport. A 66-year-old homeless woman from Illinois beat all the odds, knocked a cocked hat out of airport security as she managed to fly on an international flight to London. Without a ticket or a passport.
Known as the serial stowaway Marilyn Hartmann has made 10 attempts to get on board an aircraft in the past few years including a year in jail for pulling this stunt. In 2014, she was stopped eight times, arrested twice at Chicago airports in 2015, and also 'grounded' in California and Arizona.
Interestingly, the only other infamous Hartmann in aviation is Erich Hartmann who was a German air ace with 352 kills. No relation.
How did she manage to do this? By mingling with other passengers, hiding her face behind her frumpy hair and sneaking into the toilet à la Helen Hayes and then parking herself in an empty seat after takeoff. The flight had winged its way across the Atlantic when the alert was sounded and the British police were waiting at the Heathrow airport for their unwanted guest.
It is reported that Hartmann was cheerful and helpful with the investigation on her return to the US and only too ready to volunteer how she got past all the controls at the world's busiest airport.
After 9/11 the measures put into place have been draconian but a chain is as strong as its weakest link and in this scenario it is the human factor. No one suspects a little old lady and the automatic response is to come to her aid and help her rather than question her presence.
This is the problem with airport security. It is handled by human beings and they respond to different stimuli. In today's world printing a boarding pass is very easy as it is to 'collect' one from careless passengers. Hartman did neither, she just took advantage of the melee and also cased the terminal for several hours moving about gradually from one sector to another. In modern airports passenger movement is always forward not sideways and there is no retracing of steps. You just keep moving inwards. By pushing a work trolley, wearing overalls or simply a uniform with a label that can enable movement.
Hartmann had been stopped from getting on a local flight to Connecticut earlier in the day and yet no alert had been sounded. If she were a man the reactions would have been different. She had spent 24 hours at the airport getting on to a shuttle bus for the international terminal by not being asked for her ticket or passport. Little old lady image wins again.
She then probably got past the Transport Security while they were preoccupied investigating a carryon bag going through x-ray. That security area is another because the attention is on luggage and not the passenger.
How she managed to get the electronic and manual checks of ticket and passport at the boarding gate is a mystery and her best bet would have been to join a large family where there is confusion in the checks.
Anyway you hack it, both the Airports Authority and British Airways messed up and badly. There was no head count tally, no pre-flight toilet check, no ticket and passport name comparison. Also with the lemming effect that kicks in when a flight is announced and the crowd surges forward that little old lady gets preference and is probably ushered onwards.
Reason why the human factor takes precedence is because the system disallows such an occurrence. Getting on a plane illegally just does not happen until it does.
These past few days experts have been agonising over how this could possibly happen in this time when there are so many checks and stops.
People have stowed in the undercarriage or the cargo hold but to go through the procedures with no documentation is unprecedented. Between 1947 and 2015 international aviation has recorded 113 attempts by 121 individuals hiding in wheel wells with a death count of 86.
For those interested, Hartmann has been released. And as the soul-searching starts, it only proves that so long as humans are involved someone will get through.
Bikram Vohra is a former editor of Khaleej Times