Many people say the enjoyment went out of flying long ago, but Marilyn Hartman hasn’t let the nightmare of airports and airlines dampen her passion for aviation.
She doesn’t worry about having all her documents and passport with her because she doesn’t carry any. And she doesn’t fret about the cost of the ticket because she doesn’t have one of those, either.
For the 69-year-old with the neat white bob, air travel has other challenges, namely the risk of getting caught.
Hartman is the bane of airport officialdom. Dubbed ‘the Serial Stowaway’, she is an habitual plane-hopper who has for decades managed to fly around the world without passport, ticket or boarding pass.
To do this even once in the security-obsessed post-9/11 era seems astonishing. Yet she has managed it at least 30 times over the past 19 years.
Of course, Hartman — female and in her seventh decade — isn’t an obvious candidate to set alarm bells ringing. And her ability to just drift ghost-like past airport security, airline check-in staff and flight attendants without attracting their notice is key to her success.
Not for her the desperate measures of Third World stowaways who hide in the wheel-wells of aircraft. She says she always walks on with the other passengers and finds a seat.
If stopped, she is extremely polite, coherent and plays the total innocent — ‘I don’t really want to get anyone in trouble,’ she once sweetly told a police officer who asked how she had got past airport security and onto a plane.
Unfortunately for Hartman, a Chicago pensioner, her free flying days may soon be curtailed by a prison sentence. She was arrested on Tuesday for criminal trespass at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport as she was about to board another passenger flight.
Hartman, who is homeless and says she suffers from bipolar disorder, had been wearing an ankle monitor which alerted police that she had left the halfway house where she is living. When they triggered the bracelet’s alarm as she was about to enter Terminal 2, the game was up.
The U.S. judicial system, which has always been reluctant to jail a woman who blames her flying obsession on mental illness, seems finally to have lost patience and a judge has made it clear she can expect a prison sentence.
The courts have plenty of evidence, anyway, of how she behaves in airports — particularly as, just two days before her latest arrest, she gave an interview to the broadcaster CBS in which she finally explained how she did it.
‘The thing I’ve got to tell you: I have never been able to board a plane by myself. I was always let through [with others],’ Hartman revealed, saying she was happy to talk as she was now sure she would never plane-hop again.
She described how she repeatedly avoided the attention of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents at airport security screenings, saying: ‘I got by them . . . by following someone. They would be carrying like a blue bag. And the next thing I know, I get into the TSA line and TSA lets me through — they think I’m with the guy with the blue bag.’
Ms Hartman is not averse to slipping under security barriers and rope cordons. Once through security, she sometimes manages to obtain someone else’s boarding pass that has been accidentally dropped or binned because the passenger has a replacement.
At flight check-in, she employs the same tactics as at security, attaching herself to other passengers (preferably a group) or simply slipping past when staff are dealing with someone else.
Such simple tactics have got her a long way. In 2019, she was sentenced to 18 months’ probation after admitting she had sneaked past Chicago airport security and boarded a British Airways flight to London the previous year.
She wasn’t caught until she got to Heathrow and immigration officials found she had neither passport nor ticket.
Security video in Chicago showed her hiding her face with her hair and slipping past a security guard as he checked other passengers’ papers. She first tried to board a flight to Connecticut but was spotted as she tried to dart around another passenger who was having their documents checked.
She told investigators she got past check-in staff, boarded the plane, then hid in a lavatory until she could find a seat.
Heathrow officials flew her back to Chicago, where she was charged with criminal trespass and theft. A judge agreed to release her on bail provided she wore an ankle monitor. ‘There is no pun intended for your client, but she is a flight risk given the number of offences,’ the judge told her lawyer. She was given probation and instructed to avoid both Chicago Airport and British Airways.
However, she was arrested at the airport again in October 2019, after being spotted trying to pass through security without ID or ticket. A guard alerted the police, saying: ‘There’s been a Marilyn sighting over here.’ The police dispatcher responded: ‘Can you keep an eye on her for me?’
The authorities may be wise to her now, but for years there was no such thing as a ‘Marilyn sighting’, as they never knew to look out for her: she was either not caught or, when she was, officials didn’t want to make too much fuss.
According to Hartman, her illegal flying started in 2002 when she managed to sneak on to a Chicago flight to Copenhagen. Her next trip, later that year, was to Paris. It is unclear whether she was stopped when she reached her European destinations but, unlike on U.S. domestic flights, she would technically have had to have show her passport.
She has also stowed away on flights to U.S. cities including Seattle, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Jacksonville.
Hartman has been caught many times, prompting one prosecutor to describe her as ‘persistent, if not relentless’, and has promised repeatedly to stop, only to head straight to the nearest airport.
Despite being arrested for trying to fly out of Hawaii with another woman’s boarding pass in 2009, she managed to avoid trouble until 2014, when she was convicted of flying without a ticket from San Jose to Los Angeles.
A judge let her off with probation — but the next day she was back at Los Angeles Airport, earning her a six-month jail sentence of which she served only three days because of prison overcrowding.
By 2015, she was on U.S. police files as a ‘serial stowaway’. That year, she flew from Minnesota to Florida ticketless, then checked into a smart hotel by posing as a contestant in The Biggest Loser, a weight-loss TV series.
It’s clear that often, Hartman is not trying to get on specific flights but any flight.
A former legal secretary, she is long estranged from her family in Illinois, who refuse even to discuss her except to say she ‘knows how to work the system’. Much of her adult life has been spent living in women’s shelters and motels, interspersed with periods of vagrancy.
She claims she was forced out of her home by the FBI after she became a ‘whistleblower’ in a corruption scandal.
That far-fetched claim is part of a deep-seated persecution complex in which she claims to be the target of a vast government-orchestrated conspiracy.
She says this often sparks a ‘fight-or-flight’ response in her, which she takes literally: ‘I feel the need to get on a plane to go away.’ She says she likes to hang around airports because they make her feel safe.
Some believe this is all rot, and at least one judge has said she does it for attention. This week, Hartman admitted it helped that people regarded her as ‘a nut’.
Experts are divided on whether she has exposed a serious security breach — some say she gets through precisely because she is clearly not a threat; others insist that is irrelevant. But Marilyn Hartman certainly proves it’s still possible to make commercial air travel an exhilarating experience.
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