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posted: 5/3/2014 5:45 AM

Alternatives to coach might not be that bad

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What do you inhale at 35,000 feet?

Almost nothing if you're a teenager curled up in the wheel well of a Boeing 767.

In case you missed it, a teenager jumped the fence at San Jose International Airport and stuffed himself into the wheel well of a plane with less space than a middle economy seat. He planned to go to Africa.

Instead, 5½ hours later he landed in Hawaii, alive. Experts said it was impossible. At best, temperatures would dive to a minus 60 degrees and there would be virtually no oxygen at that altitude. Many who try it perish. But the boy survived. And he's not the first to travel in wheel-well class.

Emilio Dominguez, a young man from Honduras, is one of the first to discover this mode of travel. In 1998 he tucked himself into the landing gear of an Iberian Airlines plane and survived a two-hour flight to Miami under similar conditions, according to news reports.

In 2001, another man spent eight hours in the wheel well of a Boeing 747. He flew from Tahiti to Los Angeles. Again, the experts couldn't imagine how he survived the uninhabitable conditions. But maintenance workers discovered a blanket tucked into the landing gear -- something coach passengers rarely find.

Most stowaways go for more comfort. Back in the 1960s when security hardly existed, travelers flew free by locking themselves in a lavatory before takeoff. After reaching cruising altitude they slipped undetected into any empty seat. They often enjoyed a meal and a beverage of their choice -- something landing-gear riders miss. With the computerization of tickets and tighter security, sneaking onto an aircraft becomes more difficult. But not impossible.

Last year, a 9-year-old boy slipped through security and onto a flight from Minnesota to Las Vegas. Crew members discovered him at cruising altitude when he didn't show up on their list of unaccompanied children.

In 1998 an 11-year-old boy flew from Venezuela to Europe without a passport or a ticket. It wasn't his plan. He wanted to go to Disneyland. When the plane landed in Amsterdam, he boarded another flight to Budapest. He never made it to Disneyland, but he gave Peter Pan a run for his money.

The most creative stowaway has to be Charles McKinley. In 2003 he stepped out of the box. Literally. Homesick and broke, he packed himself in a shipping crate and booked himself as cargo on a trip from New York to Texas. The cargo section is pressurized and heated, so he didn't deal with the outside elements. Charles traveled by truck, plane and van right to his parent's doorstep in Texas. There the feds boxed him in a corner. He had to pay a fine of $1,500 and spend a few months in house arrest.

Some airline should hire Charles. Cargo could be the next class of service. No meals. No reclining seats. But then, it's rare to find them onboard, either. You wouldn't have to pay for checking your luggage. And delivery right to your door? Now that's service!

• Gail Todd, a freelance writer, worked as a flight attendant for more than 30 years. She can be reached via email at

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