When pigs fly

A smuggled swine raises a ruckus on a cross-country flight.

By Elliott Neal Hester

Published November 3, 2000 8:30PM (EST)

In more than 15 years of crisscrossing the friendly (and sometimes not-so-friendly) skies, I thought I'd seen everything. I've witnessed airline brawls and in-flight pukefests. I've watched as lovers gained admission to the Mile-High Club. I've rubbed shoulders with movie stars, traded high-fives with professional athletes, listened to advice from business tycoons who steered me in the wrong direction.

My most interesting in-flight encounters have been with regular people, people like you and me. But there's a downside to conversing with hundreds of interesting passengers every week: Occasionally you meet some real pigs.

I've been forced to serve passengers who ate like pigs and smelled like pigs, who dressed, waddled and snorted like pigs. I've waited on pig families. I've tried to silence pig tour groups. But like most flight attendants, I can't claim to have ever been on an airplane with a real pig -- the oink, oink, roll-in-the-mud, soon-to-be-bacon variety.

Unfortunately, some of my colleagues at US Airways can no longer make this claim. On Oct. 17, aboard a Boeing 757 en route to Seattle from Philadelphia, passengers were startled to see a pig in first class. That's right: a pig, in the first-class cabin of a commercial jet. Reports claimed the beast weighed as much as 250 pounds.

US Airways spokesman Dave Castleveter verified the incident. "I can and will confirm that we did transport, in the cabin of our aircraft, a large animal, a pig." "One thing is certain," he said, "it will never happen again."

Why on earth was a pig allowed to board an airplane?

According to a USA Today report, a mother and daughter had telephoned ahead to request special consideration on the flight. They mentioned something about a doctor's note and said they'd be flying with a 13-pound "service" animal. Instead, they showed up at the gate with a porker that weighed as much as a middle linebacker.

Service animals, like seeing-eye dogs for instance, are allowed to fly with their owners. Large, nonservice animals are forced to fly in the aircraft's pressurized cargo compartment. Small animals (cats, rabbits, dogs, etc.) can ride in the passenger cabin, but only if owners keep the pets in a kennel that fits under the seat.

Service animals do not bark. They don't oink. They don't complain about the in-flight movie. They sit quietly at the feet of the only human being they care about. Flight attendants will tell you that service animals are some of the best passengers they could ever hope to have.

It's still not clear what kind of "service" the pig was intended to provide for its owner.

Maybe the woman had been born and raised on a farm. Maybe she was emotionally attached to the animal. Leaving it behind might have created "separation anxiety." Without the faithful pet beside her, perhaps the distraught passenger would have flown into a fit of air rage.

Whatever the excuses, it's difficult to understand why a gate agent allowed the pig to board the plane -- and in the first-class section, no less.

The animal settled into the space between 1A and 1C -- directly in front of its two human escorts. The thing was so big, according to the report, that one end of its body protruded into the aisle. This could have been the crew's golden opportunity to eject the animal. Airline passengers are constantly told to keep carry-on items out of the aisle, by mandate of the Federal Aviation Administration. No portion of the aisle can be blocked during takeoff, during landing or while the plane is taxiing from the gate.

Nevertheless, the pig stayed put. To its credit, the creature remained quiet for most of the six-hour flight. There it lay, sleeping wedged against the bulkhead, soaking up the high-priced ambience of first class. But when the plane landed in Seattle, the pig went hog-wild.

According to published reports, it ran up the aisle, tried to enter the cockpit and then camped out in the galley. There, the redolence of leftover food drifted from service carts. Perhaps this is why the pig became so stubborn. To make it leave the galley, someone had to throw a piece of food.

Throughout this ordeal, the pig acted like a ... well, it acted like a pig. Unlike real service animals that know how to keep their bodily functions in check, this fat four-legger dropped feces -- more than once. Pissed-off passengers promptly told the owner to clean up the stinky mess.

This was an airplane, after all, not a pigsty.

How did the agents let themselves get duped by pig-loving passengers with a doctor's note? Why didn't the captain overrule them?

And I'm surprised at my flight attendant colleagues. How could they have been so insensitive to the passengers? As soon as the plane reached cruising altitude, they should have slaughtered the oinking swine and served pork chops in first class.

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.

MORE FROM Elliott Neal Hester

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Noble Beasts Travel