How Are Stowaways Sneaking Onto Airplanes in 2024?

A man was recently found guilty of being a stowaway on a recent flight. Here's how this happens.

In season one, episode 13 of the hit USA series Monk, the premise of the murder mystery that the long suffering Adrian Monk must solve involves a passenger sneaking onto the airplane disguised as a different person. I won't give the whole story away (it's a fun watch), but I always found that this woman's ability to sneak onto the plane was a bit suspicious. I mean, the episode aired in October 2002, just over a year after 9/11. Security wasn't exactly lax.

But even in 2024, it turns out it's actually still possible for a person to board an airplane without a ticket. Back on November 4, 2023, a 46-year-old man named Sergey Vladimirovich Ochigava boarded a plane in Denmark headed for Los Angeles. On January 27, he was found guilty of being a stowaway and can face up to five years in federal prison, according to the New York Post.

The big question? How did a man sneak onto an airplane traveling internationally in 2024? Speaking with Rich Davis, senior security advisor at security company International SOS, we got into just how possible it is to actually sneak on an airplane on a flight. For starters, it is an incredibly rare occurrence Davis described as a "periodic multi-million-to-one event" that is part of government and airline security training processes.

"When things happen, the stories are told over and over again to try to minimize recurrence," Davis told Thrillist. "There's always a possibility that there's a breakdown somewhere in the process and it always rises to the attention of people to the media, to the airlines, to the airports, to the government."

No humans are perfect

As for the specific recent incident involving Ochigava, Davis outlined the fact that we still don't have the exact details on how he was able to board the plane—human error may have been a factor. "Mistakes or failures that happen—that is possible," Davis said. "It's also possible that there were no human errors here."

The type of error that allows a successful stowaway situation to happen is very dependent on the circumstances. Famed "serial stowaway" Marilyn Hartmann stowed away on at least 22 flights, and did so by exploiting various weaknesses in airport security. She often simply found ways to walk through TSA without a boarding pass. In a 2021 television interview, she said that she was once able to simply follow through another person carrying a bag, because everyone assumed she was with the other person.

It's these kinds of human errors that could have allowed Ochigava to make it onto the LAX-bound flight without a boarding pass. Davis speculated that it could have simply been a matter of the man observing gate agents and finding a weakness in the boarding security process so that he could exploit it. "Airport security, airline security around the world is based on layer after layer after layer of processes because there is human error," Davis said.

Technology will help

But, as the airport security process becomes more and more linked to advancing technology, it will be less likely—even as it is already incredibly rare—that this method of sneaking onto an airplane is possible.

"Technology is continuously improving and continuously making it more and more difficult for people that have ill intent to accomplish what they're trying to do, whether it's X-ray machines, metal detection, liquid detection, all of the above," Davis explained.

Some parts of the security process are still going to rely on the diligence of security workers, even as technology advances. Real ID is a perfect example of this. The forms of identification will never be more sophisticated than they will be when that requirement first goes into effect. But it's not going to change the requirement of showing our boarding pass to a TSA officer to get past the checkpoint.

"Real ID is a very, very good enhancement that once in place really assists the TSA at the point where we are presenting our ticket and our ID. It won't necessarily enhance the gate boarding process at this juncture, right?"

So maybe with all of this new technology Monk's murder suspect wouldn't have been able to sneak onto the airplane at all. But, it is still possible we might see one or two stories about passengers intentionally sneaking onto flights in the near future—and we will certainly keep hearing about people who accidentally got on the wrong flight. That's human error we can count on.

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Opheli Garcia Lawler is a Staff Writer on the News team at Thrillist. She holds a bachelor's and master's degree in Journalism from NYU's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. She's worked in digital media for eight years, and before working at Thrillist, she wrote for Mic, The Cut, The Fader, Vice, and other publications. Follow her on Twitter @opheligarcia and Instagram @opheligarcia.