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Dubious achievement in travel awards

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Printed in the Globe & Mail (Canada) Dec 31st. :)

The envelope, please

From an airline without planes to a man who took a trip in a UPS box, we bring you the winners of DOUGLAS McARTHUR's 19th annual celebration of dubious achievement in travel

The rich and famous got short shrift and little recognition on their travels in 2003.

Take New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark. Security guards frisked her for explosives as she passed through the Sydney airport en route to inspect her country's troops in Dubai. Embarrassed Australian government officials later conceded that the random check was "not the right way" to treat the leader of Australia's close ally.

British soccer superstar David Beckham was singled out for a full body search at Los Angeles International Airport only days after being presented with an OBE by the Queen. The celebrity-magazine icon and husband of singer Posh Spice had to remove his trainers and belt and undo his designer jeans before being patted down. The guards had no idea who he was.

And tennis great Martina Navratilova was told firmly by Australian authorities that her pampered pooch Frodo would have to fly to the United States in the belly of an airplane just like any other dog. She was refused permission to seat him beside her in the first-class cabin.

But it wasn't just the high and mighty who were humbled on their journeys. Everyone from the Queen to ordinary mortals, airline owners and travel-industry workers met with misadventures that were hilarious to everyone but themselves.

In honour of their achievements, we present the 19th Annual Travel Hall of Infamy Awards.

The Baby On Board Award to two-year-old Marcello Ferrand. He threw a tantrum and hid under his seat aboard a taxiing British Airways plane when staff tried to force him into a special child's seat belt. Police were summoned to remove the lad from the Milan-to-London flight, along with his elderly grandparents who were travelling with him. The airline refused to carry the family group on a later flight, forcing them to buy new tickets with Alitalia. The grandfather defended the boy by saying, "It's not like he was Dennis the Menace taking the plane apart."

The Baby Boomer Award to infant Freya Spratley, who did what all babies do when left in their room at home -- squeal and gurgle. Her baby talk seemed normal to her parents listening on a baby monitor from elsewhere in their house, located near Britain's Luton airport. But the noises disconcerted pilots, who heard them booming over their radios instead of the landing instructions they were expecting. Airport authorities spent 12 hours tracking down the wayward airwaves. Now, the Spratleys have a new monitor that works soundly -- compliments of the manufacturer.

The Like Mother's Milk To Her Award to a nursing mother with a baby in her arms who was waylaid by airport screeners at New York's JFK International Airport. They objected to three bottles of breast milk she planned to carry on a flight. Arguing there might be explosives in the bottles, the security agents insisted that she drink the contents herself before being allowed to board. The incident won the Most Flagrantly Intrusive Award this year from Privacy International, a watchdog agency that launched a global quest for absurd security measures.

The You Can Be Too Careful Award to security officials at Philadelphia International Airport who grew suspicious of a bottle of cologne -- and yes it was cologne -- carried by a Saudi student in his carry-on luggage. They declared a Code Red and called in police, FBI agents and firefighters. Worried that two police officers who sniffed the bottle might have been exposed to a hazardous material, officials ordered them rushed to hospital. En route, the emergency workers driving them made stops at a drugstore and a doughnut shop. This panicked authorities. They ordered everyone in the drugstore and doughnut shop to be quarantined inside for nearly an hour. The hospital emergency room was quarantined for three hours. Privacy International gave the drama its Most Inexplicably Stupid Award.

The Thinking Inside The Box Award to homesick shipping clerk Charles McKinley, who came up with a novel plan to visit his Dallas parents at no cost. The 25-year-old squeezed into a UPS crate in New York and had himself shipped home by overnight flight, truck and delivery van -- at his employer's expense. Authorities weren't amused. McKinley was charged with stowing away on an aircraft, and his family had to pay $6,800 (U.S.) in restitution to UPS. A round-trip air ticket would have cost him $270.

The Global Potemkin Village Award to the Queen, who did a walkabout in a market at the village of New Karu during an official visit to Nigeria. But the vendors she mingled with weren't locals. The mud-brick stalls were specially constructed for her brief stop, and many of the traders were actors from a BBC soap opera about "ordinary life" in Africa. The real village residents had to watch the event on a giant screen. Worries about terrorism were the official explanation for the charade. But the president of the Rural Women Foundation noted that if the Queen saw a genuine village, "she might collapse."

The Law of the Sea Award to a married couple who claim they were held captive while vacationing on a cruise ship. It happened, they say, after the captain discovered that the wife worked at a law firm that was acting on behalf of some disgruntled cruise line employees. Mark and Beth Lurie, a paralegal, sued Norwegian Cruise Lines, alleging they were locked in a room for several hours and prevented from disembarking when the ship made a port call in Maui. Later they were forced to leave the cruise early. The line accused the woman of "basically harassing crew members."

The Taking Care of Business Award to 18-year-old freshman business student Luke R. Thompson, who put his classroom learning to use by founding a discount airline from his dorm room. Thompson's Mainline Airways offered fares over the Internet for as little as $89 (U.S.) one way between Los Angeles and Hawaii. All was going well for the young CEO until Massachusetts and Hawaii took legal action to shut the company down. It seems the budding entrepreneur had forgotten a few details in his business plan -- such as aircraft and the permits to operate them.

The Cars That Go Like Stink Award to the growing number of people who rent cars for smelly tasks instead of using their own vehicles. Kortney Stringer, writing in The Wall Street Journal, says rental fleets are plagued with odours "from cigarette smoke and human sweat to fetid fish." A North Carolina renter let six goats relieve themselves inside a Thrifty Car Rental van. And in Kentucky, Thrifty personal received so many complaints about a stinky minivan, they dismantled its ventilation system. They found a decomposed pet snake inside.

The Wee, Sleekit, Cow'rin, Tim'rous Beastie Award to U.S. visitors to Scotland who are confused about the origins of haggis, a Scottish delicacy. An on-line survey by haggis maker Hall's of Broxburn showed that one-third of them believe that haggis is an animal and a quarter think it can be hunted. In fact, it is a sheep's stomach, stuffed with liver, heart and lung and mixed with oatmeal, suet, stock, onions and spices.

The It Ain't Easy Being Green Award to nine passengers on a P & O Iberian cruise whose hair was blond before they took a plunge in the ship's swimming pool. When they emerged, it was green. The line blamed chlorine for the incident. It offered its apologies and sent those affected to the ship's beauty salon "for corrective treatment."

The Casual Dress Day Award to two male Southwest Airlines pilots who asked a flight attendant to come to the cockpit during a flight to deliver soda water and paper towels. When she arrived, the pilots were not wearing uniforms. In fact, they were wearing little or nothing at all. The men claimed it was because they had spilled coffee. The carrier fired them. The incident, it said, was a prank that went too far.

The Nobody's Perfect Award to the Canadian Tourism Commission, which left Prince Edward Island off the map in the debut issue of PureCanada, a consumer magazine designed to promote inbound tourism. Among a long list of other errors, the publication failed to mention Northwestern Ontario and misspelled Nunavut. The CTC initially pinned the blame on its U.S. partner in the venture, Fodor's Travel Publications. Later, it admitted the goofs were entirely its own.

The Not Wanted On The Voyage Award to a man who carried a ferret onto an American Airlines flight, concealed inside a carry-on cooler. When flight attendants discovered the weasel-like creature, they told the man he would not be allowed to take it on his connecting flight after the plane landed in St. Louis, and offered to deliver it to the humane society for him. Instead, he took it to an airport washroom during the layover, broke its neck and flushed it down the toilet. He was charged with abusing an animal.

The Out With The Old Award to Norwegian shipping and airline magnate Fred Olsen, who touched off a controversy during a television interview. Olsen, 74, suggested SAS Scandinavian Airlines could cure its economic woes by replacing its older stewardesses with young, pretty and childless women, like those on Singapore Airlines.

One reader of Norway's Aftenposten newspaper wrote, "It is nice to see that it is possible to be so politically incorrect."

But another contended that SAS planes are a gathering place for aging aunties.

The Night to Remember Award to newlywed John Wardle, who carried his bride, Valerie, across the threshold of a hotel honeymoon suite in North Shields, England, only to discover a naked couple romping in their bed.

Because of a computer error, the hotel had already booked the room to another just-married pair.

"We wanted everything to be memorable," John said, "but instead someone was making their night one to remember -- in front of us."

The Catch An Airline By The Toe Award to two black sisters who sued Southwest Airlines over a children's rhyme. A flight attendant, trying to get the women to sit down before takeoff, made this announcement over the intercom: "Eenie, meenie, minie, moe; pick a seat, we gotta go." The sisters sued, claiming a racial slur since the poem's original version had contained the n-word.

The Through Streets Broad And Narrow Award to Michael O'Leary, head of Irish-based budget carrier Ryanair, who found a way to fly through the notorious traffic jams of Dublin's fair city. He paid $9,400 for his own taxi licence, which allows his Mercedes saloon to drive in restricted bus lanes. The move is legal but, if hailed, O'Leary could be required to pick up customers.

The Weapon of Mouse Destruction Award to a research scientist who built what he thought was a better mousetrap, then made the mistake of attempting to carry it with him aboard a flight out of Tampa. The trap, stored inside a coffee can, was detected by an X-ray security check. Panicked authorities cleared the ticketing area, delayed a number of flights and used a robot to retrieve the item from the man's hand luggage.

The Life's a Beach Award to Vietnam Airlines passengers who take home more than memories when disembarking at ocean vacation spots. Many have discovered that the aircraft life vests -- stored under seats for emergency use -- make great flotation devices for frolicking in the South Pacific surf. Sixteen to 20 vests are regularly stolen from single flights.

The Making The Plane Safe For Democracy Award to a pilot with British holiday airline MyTravel. The man swung into action when an onboard computer indicated that his passenger jet was in the air while it was still on the ground waiting for takeoff on the Spanish island of Menorca. The pilot tried to solve the problem by braking abruptly while taxiing. Later, after the ground crew had moved the luggage from the rear hold to the front, he made two unsuccessful takeoff attempts. Then he unloaded the passengers and spent several hours working on the nose wheel. Eventually, he walked into the terminal covered in oil, stood on a chair, and asked the 200 nervous and weary holidaymakers to vote by a show of hands on whether they wanted to fly on a plane he had fixed himself. Fourteen of them chose not to take the risk.

The Sorry Wrong Number Award to the pilot flying a Mexicana Airlines 757 who tried to punch in a four-digit code to alert the San Francisco Airport control tower that the plane's radio was malfunctioning. But the code he entered indicated the plane was being hijacked. Dozens of police, FBI and security agents were summoned and the plane was diverted to an isolated airfield where passengers were kept on board for two hours. Matters were made worse when the pilot was asked to confirm the original code -- and once again punched in the distress code.

The Low-flying Aircraft Award to so-called "Mukha Airlines," which operates entirely on the ground. It is actually an Indian-run syndicate that smuggles Indian and Pakistani migrants into Hong Kong from China for a fee. Paying "passengers" wheel a large suitcase through the China side of the border at Shenzhen. Then they meet a "pilot" in the toilets and crawl inside the suitcase, which is wheeled through the Hong Kong checkpoint. One Pakistani man was caught in a suitcase and jailed for 18 months, but sources say about 15 people a month complete the crossing successfully.