The Blanford’s bridle snake was spotted above the overhead compartments on the AirAsia Airbus A320 plane on January 13 as the plane was preparing to land at Phuket airport.
After it was discovered, some passengers vacated their seats, while others filmed the reptile. One TikTok video of the incident has amassed more than 3.4 million views since it was posted.
In the footage, a member of the cabin crew is seen trying to catch the snake inside an empty water bottle, and it is later pushed into a plastic bag.
Local media reported that the snake was stowed safely until landing, and that staff at Phuket International Airport boarded the flight to search all luggage for other snakes. None were found.
Kristina Galvydyte, who used to work as a flight attendant for a leading UK airline, said: “Considering the snake was so small and found in the overhead lockers, where passenger bags are, the only logical explanation here would be it got into a passenger’s suitcase before travelling, therefore ending up on the plane.
“Snakes are quite common in Thailand, so it’s not an unusual animal to find hiding in people’s homes. However, the snake clearly went through airport security in someone’s luggage with no issues, so that should definitely be investigated further on how it happened.”
So is the snake dangerous? Mark O’Shea, Professor of Herpetology at the University of Wolverhampton, said: “Blanford’s bridal snake would fit, Lycodon davisonii, but I cannot see it clear enough to confirm the identification.
“These are small harmless snakes, I caught a rare bridal snake in Sri Lanka some years back, only the third ever in the country. The crew took very professional action securing the snake in a plastic bottle, that is what I would have done if I had been there.
“You have to be careful with Lycodon, some of them are mimics of highly venomous kraits (Bungarus) and that was the mistake the American herpetologist Joe Slowinskii made in September 2021 and he received a fatal snakebite. So although you might think it is a Lycodon (wolfsnake, bridal snake) you treat it carefully until you find its loreal scale to confirm it is not a Bungarus,” he said.
The incident has drawn comparisons with the cult 2006 film starring Samuel L Jackson, Snakes on a Plane. However, it is not an isolated incident. Since the release of the film, there have been more than a dozen incidents of snakes on commercial, cargo and private aircraft, from deadly cobras in the cockpit to pets illegally smuggled on board.
In 2012, an 18in reptile (a juvenile Middle American smooth-scaled racer) was spotted on a plane at Glasgow Airport, having arrived from Cancun, Mexico.
The Scottish SPCA senior inspector at the time, Billy Linton, was called to assess and remove the snake from the jet. He was fairly unperturbed by the incident: “We have rescued several exotic creatures from international flights, including scorpions, spiders, turtles and even giant land snails, so this isn’t as unusual as many people might think,” he said.
In another case in Scotland, this time in 2019, Moira Boxall discovered a spotted python curled up in a shoe within her suitcase after returning from Queensland, Australia, to Glasgow – a 40-hour flight with two changes.
“I honestly thought it was a toy and my family were playing a joke on me. But then it started moving, I saw its head and its fangs were going. I got the biggest shock of my life,” she said.
In some instances, snakes have escaped from their containers in the cargo hold of a flight. In 2009, in Australia, four baby pythons disappeared from a container carrying 12 Stimson’s pythons during a two-and-a-half-hour Qantas flight from Alice Springs to Melbourne. When ground staff failed to find the snakes after landing at Melbourne, the aircraft was temporarily removed from service and fumigated.
Eight years later, an Emirates flight from Muscat, Oman, to Dubai was cancelled when a snake was spotted in the cargo hold before passengers boarded the flight. The flight was cancelled as cleaning and engineering teams were hurried onboard to track down the serpent.
Sometimes passengers illegally attempt to smuggle pet snakes on board. In 2012, an Egypt Air flight from Cairo to Kuwait was forced to make an emergency landing in the resort town of Al Ghardaqa, Egypt, when a 48-year-old Jordanian was bitten by the serpent he had smuggled onboard. The man, who owned a reptile shop in Kuwait, hid the cobra in his carry-on bag, but it escaped down the passenger aisle. The plane completed its flight to Kuwait after local authorities confiscated the snake.
In another incident, in 2017, a passenger onboard a Ravn Alaska commuter flight from the remote village of Aniak to Anchorage took a large snake on board without permission. He had disembarked, not knowing the snake had escaped from his bag, and on the next flight passengers spotted the large snake asleep in the corner of the plane.
Sometimes, snakes end up on planes as part of the illegal international wildlife trade. In 2008, a ton of live snakes were discovered on a Thai Air flight from Bangkok to Hanoi airport, hidden inside 60 ice boxes marked “fresh fish”. Cabin crew said there were too many to count.
In the cockpit
Worryingly, snakes are not confined to frightening passengers in the cabin. Last year, pilot Rudolph Erasmus discovered a cape cobra under his seat while flying a light aircraft from Bloemfontein to Pretoria, South Africa.
“To be truly honest, it’s as if my brain did not register what was going on,” he told the BBC. “I felt this cool sensation sort of crawling up my shirt,” he said. Erasmus said he thought he hadn’t closed his water bottle properly and that water was spilling down his shirt.
“As I turned to the left and looked down I saw the cobra [...] receding its head backwards underneath the seat.”
Cape cobras are lethal, and their bite can kill a human in just 30 minutes. Erasmus successfully made an emergency landing, and all five people on board disembarked unharmed.
In 2012, a pilot in Australia’s Northern Territory was forced to make a 180-degree turn after he saw a snake emerge from behind the dashboard, and crawled down his leg. The pilot, Braden Blennerhassett, was flying to a rural township to drop off cargo when he saw the snake – unhelpfully, covering up the transmit button that is used to communicate with air traffic control. He eventually got through, and asked for a snake handler to be ready on landing.
“I’ve seen it on a movie once, but never in an aeroplane,” he told ABC Television.