The ferret in first class

It's a zoo up there! You never know what hairy critter you might meet on your next flight.

By Elliott Neal Hester

Published June 30, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

On June 21, a Mesaba Airlines jet en route to Allentown, Pa., via Detroit was diverted to Cleveland. The change of course wasn't due to bad weather, mechanical trouble, a bomb scare or another case of "air rage." The captain diverted the aircraft for a far more peculiar reason: A passenger had been stung by a scorpion.

According to news reports, a 40-year-old man felt a sting on his hand approximately halfway through the flight. Mesaba spokeswoman Shirley Doering says the man looked down and saw the offending creature, which was swiftly killed by another passenger. "Our guess is it probably got into a passenger's carry-on luggage from the Southwest, Mexico or the Caribbean," Doering said.

Passengers were put on other flights while the plane returned to Detroit for fumigation. The victim received immediate medical attention upon landing (of the 1,400 species of scorpion that exist worldwide, only one deadly breed is found in the United States), and was released the same day with a swollen hand and a helluva story. He might be disappointed to discover just how familiar his tale is.

"To my knowledge, it's never happened at Mesaba," says Doering of the in-flight attack. "But it's not uncommon."

Doering is painfully correct.

During an October 1998 Ansett Airlines flight from Melbourne to Perth, Australia, 6-year-old Khyl Hardy reached under his seat for a lost lollipop and was bitten by a snake. Reports say his mother noticed something was wrong when the boy started trembling. Medical tests later confirmed that Khyl had in fact been bitten by a taipan snake. Found primarily in Australia and New Guinea, taipan snakes grow to about 11 feet. Bite victims have difficulty breathing and can suffer rapid paralysis; without an antidote, the likelihood of mortality is high. However, this young passenger was not seriously injured.

Ansett grounded the A-320 aircraft in Adelaide, where seven snake catchers boarded to search for the creature. When their efforts failed, sniffer dogs were summoned to do the job. The snake proved elusive for the four-legged posse as well. In the end, the airplane also had to be fumigated. "We're absolutely satisfied that there is no snake on that aircraft," said Ansett spokesman Peter Young. He believes a passenger must have brought it onboard.

Most airlines allow only domestic household pets -- dogs, cats and birds -- in the passenger cabin. These pets must remain in a kennel underneath the seat. Less common pets such as lizards, ferrets and snakes are deemed unacceptable in the cabin (even when transported in kennels); they must travel in the pressurized cargo compartment with larger animals.

Worried about a pet's chances for survival in the cargo hold, short on cash to pay shipping fees or merely too stubborn to follow the rules, passengers occasionally smuggle their pets aboard the aircraft. I once caught a woman with a lizard in her purse. A teenager carried aboard a ferret in a hatbox. Even more astounding, a colleague was forced to deplane a man who had a 5-foot python in his backpack.

United Airlines charges $100 round-trip to ship a medium-sized kennel from Los Angeles to New York. At many airlines last summer, however, several pets died from heat-related complications in cargo holds. As a result, United has imposed an embargo on all pet cargo shipments until Sept. 15. American, Delta and other major carriers have adopted similar pet moratoriums for the summer months.

This temporary cargo restriction is bound to spark a slight increase in onboard pet smuggling. If you're on a flight between now and the middle of September, and your seatmate's carry-on bag starts to wiggle, you'll know why.

As is the case with just about everything else in life, there are exceptions to the onboard-animals rule. Service animals such as Seeing Eye dogs are allowed in the cabin without a kennel. And believe it or not, "celebrity" animals have similar privileges. Yes, that's right. If a dog is a star it gets preferential treatment by the airlines.

Word for word, here's what my company-issue flight attendant manual says about celebrity animals:

Celebrity Animals are defined as: Cats/Dogs that are seen on popular TV programs/commercials. Usually travel in the First Class cabin but can travel in any cabin. Do not require pet kennels to be accommodated in the cabin.

A celebrity animal is considered acceptable if the animal is: Free of odor and parasites or well-mannered and harnessed.

Celebrity animals may be seated at the owner's feet during takeoff and landing. A celebrity animal may travel in a passenger seat provided the following: Must be a celebrity animal, not have a celebrity owner / Animal companion must provide own seat cushion and seat belt adapter for animal to be strapped in seat.

I'm not making this up.

One month prior to the Ansett Airlines snake fiasco, a small bird flew into the cabin of a United Airlines jet while it was parked at a gate at Washington's Dulles Airport. The bird reportedly flew into the cockpit of the London-bound aircraft and hid behind an electrical panel. Although mechanics removed the panel, it took more than 2 1/2 hours to locate the creature. By then the airline had decided to change planes, "just to play it safe," said United spokesman Tony Molinaro. The delay lasted three hours.

A few years ago, I had a similar onboard encounter. While passengers filed into our aircraft in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, a sparrow flew in right along with them. It darted up the aisle, skimming the heads of passengers, who ducked and stood up, ducked and stood up, repeating the movement with fluid solidarity each time the sparrow buzzed the cabin. It reminded me of football fans doing the wave in a crowded stadium.

During an elongated flyby pause, passengers managed to make it to their seats. That's when my colleague sprang into action. Suzanne began chasing the bird up and down the aisle, swinging her arms in an effort to shoo it out the door. I stood in back of the aircraft, eyes squinting, arms folded across my chest, watching, waiting, praying I wouldn't have to get involved. When Suzanne gave me a dirty look, I felt a sudden compulsion to join the chase.

Judging by the boisterous laughter that ensued, our bird-chasing efforts were providing the kind of onboard entertainment passengers only dream of. Children stared at us with big goofy grins stretched across their faces. Men roared like giddy lions. Women held their sides in fits of silent sniggering. One giggling woman asked, "Do you guys get paid extra for this?"

I felt like a circus clown.

But after departure time had come and gone, and the stowaway bird continued to fly sorties through the crowded cabin, the mirth began to fade. Not for lack of comedic activity, mind you. The flight attendants' "run through the cabin and try to catch the frigging bird" routine had risen to new heights of hilarity once the rest of the crew joined the act. But many passengers began to focus on a more critical issue. They realized their flight connections in Miami were now in jeopardy.

The clock was ticking. Ten more minutes passed. Twenty. The sparrow flew around and around the cabin, chirping insanely like a wind-up toy with a busted spring. The same passengers who had been laughing at our ineffective efforts were now demanding that something be done. "This is ridiculous," blurted one enraged man. Of course it's ridiculous, you moron. (I didn't say this, of course, but I really, really wanted to.) There's a goddamned bird flying inside the goddamned airplane with four flight attendants running after it.

Though cabin crews are trained to handle in-flight childbirth, cabin decompression, onboard fires and emergency evacuations, we are not skilled in the process of removing uninvited sparrows from the cabin. We had to wing it.

After cornering the sparrow in the aft galley, we shut the curtain and stuffed blankets in the gaps around the curtain rod. I grabbed another blanket. Like a devious sophomore with a wet towel in his hand, I snapped the blanket toward (not at) the bird, hoping to coax it out the door. After a couple of near-hits that would have piqued the ire of renegade animal-rights activists, our feathered friend finally flew the coop. Forty-five minutes after scheduled departure, we were on our way to Miami.

In addition to dispatching stowaway birds, I've swatted flies and moths, flattened cockroaches, cornered a mouse, downed a couple of dragonflies and fought off a squadron of Caribbean bumblebees that wreaked havoc in the first-class cabin. But my piddling experiences pale in comparison to a trilogy of in-flight incidents involving rats.

On Aug. 31, 1999, a rat was sighted on an Air New Zealand flight from Los Angeles to Auckland, New Zealand, via Papeete, Tahiti. Yes, you read correctly. A rat. The coarse-haired, pink-tailed, long-snouted rodent that, along with the aforementioned cockroach, will one day inherit the Earth. "The rat was sighted by crew but their attempts to catch it failed when it ran to the rear of the aircraft," said Air New Zealand spokesman Cameron Hill. (Yeah, sure. Most flight attendants get squeamish when asked to carry a loaded barf bag to the lavatory. Try to get one to catch a rat.) "Later in the flight," Hill continued, "a passenger in business class felt something on her right leg, lifted her blanket and found the rat on her knees."

Talk about rattling experiences.

New Zealanders Dee Tracy and Paul Sanford had boarded the plane in Papeete. "We were sitting right down the back of the plane and a woman in front of us said, 'Oh, my God, there's a rat' -- and the rat went into a panic," Tracy said. "I jumped up onto the closest seat, but I was about six seats from where I was supposed to be sitting, so I had to climb over the seats to get to mine."

When the flight finally landed in Auckland, quarantine officials were there to meet it. A search of the airplane and of passenger baggage failed to turn up the rodent, which, according to witnesses, was the size of a small cat. The plane was subsequently quarantined and fumigated. The rat was later found dead in the cockpit.

Seven weeks earlier, on July 6, a similar event took place aboard an Air India flight. This time the plane was preparing to depart Dubai, United Arab Emirates. As the New Delhi, India-bound aircraft rolled down the taxiway prior to takeoff, passengers reportedly shouted that there was a rat on board. Passengers and crew disembarked while the plane was fumigated. Sixteen hours later, the plane was finally on its way -- the rat was never found.

Canadian Airlines joined the in-flight rat race back on Feb. 17, 1996. Apparently, this particular rodent escaped from a catering container shortly after the plane took off from Hong Kong. Realizing the potential problems a loose rat might create if the plane continued on its 11-hour flight to Vancouver, British Columbia, the pilot decided to divert the aircraft to Tokyo. Passengers were subsequently booked on other flights. Many were angry, not simply because of the inconvenience but because they suspected the rat was a prank. The plane, filled with holiday merrymakers, had taken off near the start of the Chinese New Year, which had begun the preceding Monday. And it just happened to be the Year of the Rat.

Elliott Neal Hester

Elliott Neal Hester has been a flight attendant for 15 years. He has also written for National Geographic Traveler, Men's Fitness, Glamour, Maxim and Caribbean Travel & Life. Out of the Blue appears every other Friday. E-mail your tale of life in the sky to Hester. For more columns by Hester, visit his column archive.

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