Duane Hoffmann / msnbc.com
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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/1/2008 10:04:41 AM ET 2008-04-01T14:04:41

Today, if a friend, relative or co-worker calls you up or sends you an e-mail to tell you about a brand new, truly unusual airline amenity or a travel story that seems a bit wilder and wackier than usual, hold your tongue and check the calendar.

It could be on the level. Or it just might be an April Fools’ Day hoax. The trouble is, it's getting harder to tell the difference.

Last week, I spent a lot of time giggling in front of my computer screen.  My e-mail inbox kept filling up with stories that had me thinking “Wow! The pranks are certainly starting early this year!”

I was wrong, but with headlines like these, who can blame me?

  • US Airways pilot fires gun in cockpit, shoots hole in plane
  • Queen christens super-efficient Heathrow terminal, thousands forced to stay for tea
  • TSA apologizes to woman after nipple ring incident

At first glance, these could all be April Fools’ Day stories. But even the most casual reader of last week's news knows they're not:

A US Airways pilot, authorized to carry a weapon as a member of the Federal Flight Deck Officer (FFDO) program, really did accidentally (he claims) fire his gun in the cockpit while attempting to stow the gun away. No one was hurt, but so far there's been no explanation as to why the pilot had the gun out in the first place.

Queen Elizabeth II did pop in to celebrate the much anticipated completion of Heathrow Airport's new $8.6 billion Terminal 5. But she didn't stick around for the opening day meltdown.  Airport officials had been boasting about the terminal's “world class” baggage system that “uses proven technology” to make it “as reliable and fast as it can be.” Someone may have read the brochure but forgotten to actually test the system: opening day snafus led to hundreds of flight cancellations and a pileup of nearly 30,000 bags.

And I still can't quite believe that "nipple-gate" isn't an April Fools’ prank. But the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was so quick to post an apology (of sorts) on its Web site that it seems the only boobs we need to be afraid of are pliers-toting TSA workers who haven't quite gotten the hang of their job.

Planning a trip to beautiful San Serriffe?
These silly stories may actually be real, but it's not as if there haven't been any great travel-related pranks. I found the fascinating story of San Serriffe in the Hoaxipedia, “an online encyclopedia of hoaxes, pranks, urban legends, and scams” maintained by the Museum of Hoaxes.

It seems that on April 1, 1977 the British newspaper The Guardian published a special seven-page “travel supplement” about an idyllic but imaginary country in the Indian Ocean consisting of several semi-colon-shaped islands.  (The name San Serriffe and many of the details about the culture and geography of the fake republic are clever takeoffs on typographical terms.) The hoax successfully fooled thousands of readers and spawned bumper stickers, T-shirts, requests for airplane reservations and an equally entertaining sequel on April Fools’ Day 1978.

Test your knowledge
The story of San Serriffe may be totally made up, but when it comes to travel, the truth really does often turn out to be much stranger and more amusing than fiction.

Remember these odd stories? Initially, I thought these were all the work of pranksters as well:

  • Following technical problems on a Boeing 757 aircraft, officials at Nepal's state-run airline sacrificed two goats in hopes of appeasing the Hindu sky god. The problems were soon fixed and the airplane was returned to service.
  • Officials at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport announced that travelers with layovers will soon be able to enjoy airside “relax clubs,” much like the ones in the city's infamous red-light district. One top-level manager explained, “We want our visitors to have an opportunity to enjoy absolutely every amenity the city has to offer.”
  • A passenger switching planes on his way home from Egypt to Dresden, Germany found himself in a pickle. Actually he ended up pickled. The man chugged an entire bottle of vodka rather than surrender it at a security checkpoint and comply with new restrictions about liquids in carry-on baggage.  After being hospitalized for life-threatening alcohol poisoning, the man was released, made to walk a straight line, and sent on his way.
  • This past November, a group of United Airlines workers, including a few pilots, reported seeing something extremely unusual hovering over O'Hare International Airport. Pretty much everyone else at the airport denies seeing anything resembling a large, spinning, disc-shaped object.  However one air traffic controller did say, “To fly 7 million light years to O'Hare and then have to turn around and go home because your gate was occupied is simply unacceptable.”

If you're traveling this April Fools Day, remember that it really is unacceptable to joke about bombs or terrorist plots on an airplane or at an airport security checkpoint. That kind of fooling around can get you arrested. Most other places, though, jokes, pranks and hoaxes should at least be tolerated, if not celebrated.

So I'll tell you now that all the news stories mentioned in this column are true, except one. Have fun this April Fools’ Day figuring out which one is totally made up.

Harriet Baskas writes msnbc.com's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the “Stuck at the Airport” blog, a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for USATODAY.com.

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