Prepare for Landing: The Friendly Skies Competition Winner

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There is a dark side to the popular Freakonomics contest: the allure of Freakonomics schwag can turn otherwise rational, law-abiding people into animals willing to violate any norm of civilized behavior. As a result, there has been skullduggery in our competition in which we asked for your best (or worst) air travel stories. More in a bit.

But first, a couple of entries that are too late for prize consideration but quite amusing nevertheless:


Two summers ago, we were headed back to the US (via London) for my SIL’s wedding. As we changed planes, we were told that there would be a brief delay…which turned into several more brief delays. Finally, the airline admitted that the plane had been struck by lightning on its way over the Atlantic and personnel were calling the manufacturer to see if it was still safe to fly it back. Imagine how thrilled we were (several hours later) to board THAT flight!



On a flight leaving Burbank for Las Vegas, we taxied out to the end of the runway and waited…a long time. Finally, the attendant announced that the plane’s flaps weren’t working and we’d have to taxi back to get them fixed.

Back at the terminal, we waited again, for a long time. Then came the announcement that all was well and we were leaving.

Taxied back to the runway. Waited. And waited. Finally came the announcement: “Well, the flaps still aren’t working, but Las Vegas has a long runway so we really don’t need them anyway. Anyone who wants to get off the plane now may.”

Several people opted off. So of course we had to taxi back to the terminal again to let them deplane.

At last, we took off for Las Vegas. Still flapless.

Rob Lewis


We were on the last flight back to London. Everything went fine, we boarded, complete; we rolled back and there was a thump. We stopped.

15 minutes later we were told that we had run over something and punctured all the tires on one side. The cabin crew would be handing out free drinks while we waited for it to be fixed. Big cheers.

An hour later, we were told that all the (French) engineers had gone home, and that we would have to wait until they had got home before they could be recalled to fix the tires.

We were dragged back to the terminal and let off the plane. There were no drinks left on the plane. My father and I fashioned a cricket ball out of some screwed up newspaper and tape and, using a brolly as a bat, we started to play cricket in the departure lounge. After 20 minutes or so, five others had joined in. After an hour, we had nearly twenty people playing. A couple of French staff looked on in bemusement.

Two hours later, the game petered out; it was now about 11pm. We were told that it would only be another 40 minutes or so. Several times.

We took off at 2am and got to Gatwick at 2am. Seven hours later than scheduled for a 40 minute flight.

In 1986, I was in a position to commit a large amount of a large bank’s pension fund to Eurotunnel in a private placing. It didn’t seem a great investment, but I was dead keen on the idea of a channel tunnel. We made 4x our money when it was floated several years later.


As commenter Beyond Ken pointed out, anybody who made money off of Eurotunnel deserves not just a piece of Freakonomics schwag but control of a major hedge fund.

Now for the winner. The overwhelming choice of the voters was reader Unbelievable for his tale of frustrated lust at 30,000 feet, the “Mile-Low Club.” However, at the last moment Unbelievable posted a retraction that his story was pure fiction. I guess the author’s name should have told us something.

So no schwag, Unbelievable, but given the reader response to your entertaining yarn it’s clear you will be able to option the film rights for mid-six figures.

In any event, the rules are quite clear: should the winner be unable to fulfill his duties due to 1) falsifying his story, 2) failing a steroids test, or 3) appearing in Penthouse, the second-place vote getter assumes the crown. So congratulations, reader Dave. Your winning entry:


Flight back to Milwaukee from Paris. Switched planes in Cincinnati. Took a bus from the main terminal to the Commuter Terminal for the final leg. The bus hit another bus. The terminal was a large plastic tent. It was July, 90 degrees and 90 percent humidity. We were told to board the plane, then stopped because the toilets weren’t working and had to be fixed. We stood in a confined area in that heat for 20 minutes. We boarded the plane and one of the props stopped spinning as we headed into a thunderstorm. We were getting tossed around so bad I see the soda of the passenger in front of me splash against the ceiling. It turned out that we had an engine fire and had to make an emergency landing. As we landed, the flight attendant yelled “Run for your lives, get away from the plane.” They booked us on another plane. As we went through security, the X-Ray scanner broke and was running backwards. Our next plane was late because of mechanical failures. They lost our luggage. The flight was canceled at the last second and I missed it.


Hopefully, the schwag will make up for the trauma.

Thanks to all who wrote in. And before we move on, for what it’s worth, here’s my air travel story:

Many years ago, at the end of a stint I did working as a travel writer in then-communist Eastern Europe, my brother and I took:

  1. A bus ride from Amsterdam to Paris
  2. The metro from the bus terminal to Orly airport
  3. Flight from Orly to New York
  4. Flight from New York to Boston
  5. Flight from Boston to Cleveland

All of this 24-hour travel marathon was done without benefit of a bed or a shower, and we were college kids coming off a weekend in Amsterdam, so it’s not like we were particularly well-rested even at the start of the journey.

So you can imagine how happy we were to board our final leg of the trip home, the flight from Cleveland to Chicago O’Hare. The flight was blissfully uneventful, and we started our final descent into O’Hare. The landing gear went down. At that point, the pilot came on the intercom to announce that they had discovered that one of the landing gear had been stuck in the “down” position throughout the flight.

This is a lot better than having the landing gear stuck in the “up” position, I’ll grant you. However, the problem was that “the company prefers to deal with this issue in Cleveland.” Therefore, despite the fact that we were already practically skimming the treetops in Chicago, the plane turned around and took us all the way back to Cleveland, where we were forced to deplane and wait hours for another flight. And I thought I’d left communist-style Kafkaesque inefficiency back in Warsaw.

Again, thanks to all the entrants!


An awful yet amusing second hand story:

I was once talking to a guy in the Toronto airport, as we were all sitting around waiting for a bunch of flights that had been delayed by thunderstorms to finally depart.

He'd come in from Vancouver, on his way to Ottawa, with a connection in Toronto. His flight from Vancouver to Toronto was diverted to Ottawa because of the thunderstorms, but because the plane wasn't scheduled to stop in Ottawa, and there was no gate for it, he simply had to sit on the tarmac in Ottawa for an hour or so, while they waited for storms to clear temporarily in Toronto, at which point the plane flew back to Toronto.

Of course, by then, he'd missed his connection to Ottawa and was stuck trying to get on another connection. By the time I talked to him, he'd been on the ground in Toronto for a couple of hours, and was definitely confirmed on the first flight the next morning to Ottawa but was waiting around on standby in hopes of getting out on one of the last few flights that night.

All of this knowing he'd already been in Ottawa that day and just hadn't been able to get off the plane.



Seriously? Deplane? Not a real word.

Simon Farnsworth

Reading these reminds me of a personal experience; I was on a Boeing 737, waiting to depart. We'd been pushed back, but then not moved for 5 minutes, when the pilot's voice came over the PA system: "I'd like to apologise for the delay - the avionics computers are giving completely insane readouts. We're going to completely shut the plane down, start it up again, and see what happens."

The plane duly goes dark and silent (no power), then everything is restarted in stages. When everything is running again, and the engines have been restarted, we get the pilot's voice again: "I've no idea how that solved it, but the avionics now agree that we're not actually flying. We're going to take off and see what happens once we're in the air".

Thankfully, nothing major did happen - but to this day, I wonder whether we really did have avionics trouble fixed by the restart, or whether the pilot was just messing around with us.



Thank you for taking it fairly easy on me. In truth--and this is the truth--I didn't write it for the schwag. I wrote it just for entertainment value. I had no idea I'd be taken seriously or win.

Again, my apologies. (I do have a conscience--especially since that story went places that my staid, religious life has never/would never permit.) I do hope that the fact that I confessed once I found I had become a finalist has some mitigating effect.



Yes it is Gavin.. Just ask Tattoo: "Deplane boss, Deplane!!!"


So what was Unbelievable' story?!?

Leland Witter


From Merriam Webster: Deplane - To disembark from an airplane. First used in 1923.

I travel often and hear and use deplane a lot. Hardly an uncommon word.


I can think of few 'honors' in my life as much fun as being named a Freakonomics schwag winner. I look forward to the prize and the lifetime acclaim such a title brings. :)


On the stuck-down landing gear: Landing early was probably a neccessity rather than a choice. The gear would have greatly increased drag, hence fuel burn, so that you wouldn't reach the destination with sufficient fuel reserve.
On the possibility of a stuck-up landing gear: while this is a worse scenario, it is not remotely the emergency situation that some media coverage would lead you to believe. You will walk away from a one-gear-up landing, but the plane will need significant repairs.


@9: Huh? They were already beginning their final descent into Chicago. If they had enough fuel to make it back to Cleveland, where they started, then they certainly had enough fuel to finish landing.


It doesn't compare with the terror and/or frustration experienced by other contributors, but here's my tale of woe:

The airline charged me $80 extra for my 55-pound bag "because of weight-and-balance concerns." They still took the bag, mind you, only for more money, while the 300-pound hulk seated next to me (150 pounds) paid the same ticket price. Greedy, lying bastards.

Bobby G

Dave, I refuse to detect any sarcasm in your acceptance post, be there some in there or not. I aspire to one day win some freakonomics schwag myself, and no I'm not joking.

Bob R

I wish I knew about this contest before the winners were announced. I have many stories fo travel woe, but let me summarize two quickly: 1) Upon arriving at the airport on a business trip to Florida, I noticed a group of Phillies fans who were obviously celebrating the recent World Series win back in 2008. I later realized that it was probably a family reunion when an elderly couple arrived, and the elderly woman did not look well. They boarded the plane early since they needed help, but I didn't pay any more attention until I boarded and found my seat right next to the couple. The woman was already sleeping, resting against her husband's arm. Which might seem romantic except it was 8 am. And she didn't move much except to complain that she needed cough drops (?!). When the flight attendant arrived to serve drinks, she asked if she was ok, her husband asked for her bag from the overhead bin, and that's when the flight attendant said "she doesn't look well". Her husband then said "she's not breathing", at which point the flight attendant tried to start first aid BY REACHING OVER ME!. I finally escaped and moved to the only seat - across the aisle - leaving my laptop and bag in my seat while they worked on this poor woman. THey could not resuscitate her, and her husband didn't handle the situation well (who would?!), saying many inappropriate things that was only compounded by the fact that their son, who soon came forward to help, was actually a fire department chief who then had to break the news to the rest of the family on the flight. And the flight did not stop - we flew for another 2 hours while the flight attendant kept the passenger in a prone position on the seats and prevented her from falling to the floor. Surprisingly, there were no counselors on the ground when we arrived, and when I left the plane I past the rest of the family that was waiting for the family to be reunited . . . needless to say, I was depressed for quite awhile. And I wrote a letter to the airline that was promptly answered and they agreed to handle the situation differently in the future.
2) When the volcano in Iceland was active earlier this year, flights in europe were delayed or cancelled. I happened to be in india when that happened, and furthermore the German and French airlines were suffering from delays and cancellations due to strikes. To avoid any further delays, I secured a 1 day delayed flight from India to Dubai. Only to get stuck in Dubai for 24 hours because the plane had engine problems. But that was only confirmed after spending 3 hours on the plane and getting free drinks. The funniest story was running into the CEO of company that specializes in couriers that travel anywhere in the world to deliver packages. He was one of the top frequent travelers in the world, so he knew he had to sleep when he got on the plane. After 3 whiskeys (straight up!) and a sleeping pill, he was told to leave the plane along with everyone else. He was actually quite funny and in good spirits despite being under the influence. His bossy, demanding wife was a different story. I just thought she was an irate passenger at Customer Service until he spoke up, measured his words and slurred "itsh . . . ok . . . hunny . . . you . . . don't . . . have . . . to . . . yell. . . at . . . them. . . " I took a tour of Dubai (fun!), and then caught my flight to Toronto the following day. Only to get stuck in Toronto because of bad winter weather - my flight was cancelled, later flights were delayed so I spent all day in the airport. When I went to check in for my flight, they told me my carry on bags were too heavy - because there was no room in business class, I was downgraded to tourist - even though I paid for business. So they kind airline worker started berating me about excess baggage and weight - figuring I was just another arrogant business traveler trying to beat the system. I found a way to rearrange my belongings and check one of the bags, and of course I told her I'd go to the back of the line so as not to hold up other passengers. With tears of rage, frustration, anger, sadness and sheer exhaustion in my eyes, I guess she realized I was at my wits end. When she pulled up my flight history, she realized (and I told her) that I'd already been traveling for 3 days straight. So she calmed down and helped me get through it (but not before charging me for the excess weight!). I finally flew out that evening, only to circle Philadelphia for an hour until the passing storm calmed down enough to let us land. So after 3 1/2 days of travel, I finally made it home . . .