Even though boarding passes get scanned electronically now, people still end up on the wrong flight.
I was on a flight a few months ago where three people managed to board the flight I was on without having tickets for the specific flight. They only noticed once the actual owners of their seats showed up.
But it happens. Sometimes the scanning system is down and the gate agent checks off seat numbers manually. Some flyers who accidentally got on the wrong flight think the gate agent mistakened the “no” sound for the exit row seat warning.
There was a whole line of conversation on Quora about this topic. Some of the conversation drifts into people who book the wrong city, which are interesting reads too. But there are a lot of stories on there from flyers who got on the wrong flight–and didn’t quite find out until they got to their location (or at least, in the air).
One woman almost went to the wrong location and it was because she was handed the wrong boarding pass (for someone with a similar name).
Me = Alexandra Sutton, flying to Orlando
Her = Wendy Sutton, flying to St. Baart’s
I was about fifteen minutes from being on the plane, and if I’d been traveling alone, probably wouldn’t have noticed until either my seat assignment overlapped with someone else’s, or until it was too late. (Although…free trip to St. Baart’s….)
The most alarming part was that we had triple checks back then — so three different security checkpoints looked at my ID, looked at my ticket, saw the difference, and were like ‘eh, close enough.’
Someone else was handed my boarding pass once. Luckily, he was going to the same destination. His name was John Hoffman. My name is Jeanne Hoffman. One pronunciation of my name can sound a bit like John, so I can understand-ish the mix-up. (This is how you pronounce Jeanne in French).
Here are a few situations that happened:
A friend’s mother was mistankely sent to Warsaw (Poland) instead of Bologne (Italy). After she arrived at Rome from Buenos Aires, she was supposed to continue to Bologne. She did immigration and went to a gate and asked if the flight was to “Bolonia” (Bologne in Spanish) and was allowed to border the Alitalia flight to Warsaw, Poland (Polonia, in Spanish). They flight was half empty and she only realized her mistake when she landed in Warsaw and couldn’t read the signs as they were not, as she expected, in Italian.
In this case, they rebooked her on flight to get her to Bologne.
One time, I was running, literally, from my arriving flight from Miami to my connecting flight to Amsterdam. However, on that day Delta changed their international flights to a new terminal. Except for the flight to Amsterdam. Somehow I and a coworker got confused, and boarded a flight to London.
In this case, they were in first-class. They realized the mix-up before the flight took off, but at that point their actual flight had left. So the airline booked them a connecting flight from Gatwick to Amsterdam.
So it seems like yes, this does happen. Not all the time, but somehow mistakes happen and people end up on the wrong flight. And it looks like, for the most part, airlines absorb the cost of getting them to where they are supposed to go.
In one case (not from the Quora thread), a man got on a Virgin flight going from SFO to Dallas when he was supposed to go to LA. There were no more flights on Virgin, so the airline purchased him a ticket on United.