Barbara Corcoran Takes a 202 Mile Detour: You Don't Always Get Where You Want

Thousands of Passengers End Up At The Wrong Airport With airline flights the fullest they have been in years, cancellations frequent, and airports more chaotic than ever, make sure you know where the plane you are getting on is headed. A dirty little secret is that thousands of passengers get lost.

When uber real estate impresario Barbara Corcoran finished her speech early in Washington last week, according to her blog, she headed to the airport to hop onto an earlier USAir flight home to LaGuardia airport in New York City.

When her flight was called, she gave her boarding pass to the gate agent who ran it though a machine, and Ms. Corcoran got on the plane. But another woman was sitting in her seat. Barbara showed the woman her boarding pass with the same seat number on it, but figured, what the hell, and sat down in an empty seat.

As they got to the runway, the plane stopped and they were told that there was an issue with the number of passengers.

The plane took off one hour late. But strangely, the displays kept showing the weather in Syracuse, New York.

When the flight landed she looked around for her town car and called the company to complain. The woman on the other end said, "It's right there; he's been waiting for a while."

Barbara felt like she was being treated like a senile old lady and became increasingly frustrated. Eventually, according to her blog, she let rip and decided to take a cab instead.

But when she checked her purse, she found that she had only $20 when the fare would be over $30 to East 92nd Street (The super rich are like that. They never carry any money. Corcoran is reported to have earned over $70 million when she sold her company.).

She asked a "grizzeled" cabby if he would take $20 while she went upstairs and got the rest from her husband.

"No way, lady, you have to pay upfront with your credit card.

"This is going to cost you big time and I'm going to have to charge you $375."

Barbara freaked. "You are trying to rip me off? Where am I? This isn't LaGuardia?"

"No lady. This is Syracuse."

Everything clicked into place - the weather reports, the long flight delay. The airline booked her on a flight back to New York 202 miles away for free. Corcoran called USAir to try and figure out how this would happen in a post 9-11 world, but never got an answer.

Be sure, no one else, including any airline, is going to watch out for you.

Take the case of Mike Lewis, who was traveling from Los Angeles to Oakland, California, a mere hour away, a few years ago. Lewis, then 21, heard a gate agent announce the immediate boarding for the flight to Oakland. He hurriedly got on the plane, but started to get suspicious about two hours into the flight. There was only water all around and no land underneath, and he should have arrived an hour before. Turns out the gate agent was from New Zealand where they pronounce Auckland much like Oakland and he was now on a nine hour flight across the South Pacific. The airline gave him a free ride back.

Or consider the case of poor Elmer Stoltz, who was on his way from his home in Seattle to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota for throat cancer tests. Northwest had an attendant give him wheelchair service to the gate. Unfortunately, the attendant put the 92-year-old man on a flight to Detroit and no one at the airline noticed until the plane landed.

It's not that the airlines don't try. On a recent airline trip, the Pilot made a general announcement that, "If Columbus, Ohio is not in your travel plans today, you are on the wrong plane." He even went so far as to announce it twice, and the person sitting next to me wondered, why in the world would he have to do it so emphatically. Probably because he knows that the gate agents don't always check the tickets as they let people on the plane.

It's sometimes not so simple. After all, in addition to Columbus, Ohio there is Columbus, Georgia, Columbus, Nebraska, Columbus, Mississippi, Columbus, Indiana, and a host of other similar sounding cities, including Columbia in South Carolina, California, Tennessee, Missouri, and Washington.

Every day, according to airline analysts, more than 1,000 passengers fly to a wrong destination on US airlines. It is not something the airlines want to talk about or keep statistics on, but with the overcrowded airports, tight schedules, and full planes, airlines are often more concerned with on-time departures than with customer service or security. And people get lost in the process.

70-year-old George Kennison had a ticket from Denver to Los Angeles and ended up in Honolulu instead, after flight attendants put him on the wrong plane. He liked it so much he didn't call home for a week, until after his son filed a missing persons report.

It almost always turns out to be a problem of communication. A few years ago, a young Israeli walked into a New York travel agency. He said he wanted to go to "Atuna" the next day. The agent didn't give it a second thought. "You want to go to Altoona, Pennsylvania, right?"

"Yes," he answered. He seemed especially pleased when the agent told him the one-way price would be $280. About noon the next day, the agent heard from a USAirways gate attendant in Pennsylvania. "We have a customer of yours and he seems to be a little confused," the woman said gently. "Do you all know where he wants to be? He seems to be saying he want to go to "Atuna", and we keep telling him, this is "Altoona."

The agent told her to "hold on" and put in a quick call to the Israeli consulate in New York. "We have an Israeli citizen who keeps saying he wants to go to Atuna. Where would that be?"

He got a quick reply. "Atuna is Athens, Greece." The agent relayed this information back to the helpful people at USAir and they said, "we don't know what to do with him, but we are going to send him back to New York City, and you folks can deal with him there."

When the customer walked in later that day, he was unfazed by his ordeal and seemingly invigorated by his travels. The agent promptly found a flight to Athens and sent him on his way that night.

The frequency of people not ending up where they want to go has grown exponentially as more and more travelers are booking on the Internet through airline websites. Travel agents spend time with their customers and often catch these kinds of errors.

A reservations agent from USAir reports the story of a Chinese couple who planned a long awaited midwinter vacation to Florida on the Internet. They arrived at the airport in shorts and short sleeves in anticipation of the warm climate in Florida. When they arrived in what they thought was Daytona, Florida they couldn't understand what was going on. There was a foot of snow on the ground, and the temperature was about 15 degrees. But they plunged bravely on and only when they tried to get the cab driver to take them to their hotel, did they realize that they were in Dayton, Ohio.

A few years ago in a widely reported story, Erwin Kreuz was on his way from Frankfurt to San Francisco. The plane landed in Bangor, Maine for refueling. Thinking it was the end of the line, the German hopped off the plane. He didn't realize his mistake until four days later when he asked a cab driver to take him to the Golden Gate Bridge. A German couple in Bangor befriended him, introduced him to the governor, and drove him all around Maine. He was the toast of the town and state in a few days. When news of his plight hit San Francisco, the San Francisco Examiner paid his way there, but Kreuz later said he preferred Bangor and has returned many times. Mistakes also happen to seasoned travelers. William Sherman, then a journalist with ABC News, remembers the time he was bound from Rome to Karachi, Pakistan. Somewhat fearful of flying, Sherman always takes two sleeping pills before long flights. He groggily awoke as the plane landed in the middle of the night. He went through customs, got his bags, hailed a cab and told the driver, "take me to the Intercontinental Hotel", where he had reservations. As he was checking in he noticed that the people, although foreign looking, did not exactly seem dark enough to be Pakistanis. He asked the desk clerk where he was. "You're in Damascus, Syria, Sir."

2,000 miles from where he wanted to be, Sherman, tired and not knowing what else to do at 2 AM in the morning, checked in.

The next morning Sherman went to the airport and found that his plane had made an unexpected stop for mechanical problems. On landing, nobody had made any kind of announcement that he had heard, and all the passengers were disembarked. Fortunately, the plane was still there and Sherman was able to continue on to Pakistan later that day.

Ilene Koenig, a travel agent from Santa Monica, California tells about a couple that booked a flight to Bermuda. The travelers changed planes in Pittsburgh and were directed to the plane for Hamilton. They went through customs and hailed a cab to the Marriott, but soon began wondering why there was snow around and everyone had heavy winter clothes on - until they noticed the "Welcome to Canada" sign. They went back to the USAir counter and were rerouted from Hamilton, Ontario to Hamilton, Bermuda. When they arrived back in Pittsburgh, the immigration agent asked them how long they had been in Canada. "About ten minutes," was their reply.

One of the most bizarre stories occurred a few years ago on Northwest flight 52 from Detroit to Frankfurt. As the plane went into its final descent, the flight attendants, and almost all the 241 passengers, could clearly see that something was wrong as they watched electronic display maps with a dotted line showing the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 going to Brussels not Frankfurt. Only the Pilot, Co-pilot and navigator didn't know they were landing at the wrong airport. They kept addressing the Brussels flight controller as "Frankfurt" and no one corrected them. The cabin crew thought the plane was being hijacked, but because of procedures prohibiting them from interrupting the cockpit crew during landings, they were not allowed to ask what was happening. The plane landed and the pilots were asked to provide written explanations for the error. They were suspended from duty and the passengers put on other flights to Frankfurt.