LOS ANGELES — Passengers on United Airlines Flight 531 from Chicago to Los Angeles didn't just get to travel with a world-famous celebrity, they had their picture taken with him.
The affable celebrity was Oscar — as in the Academy Awards statuette — who rode in first class alongside film academy president Tom Sherak before making the rounds through the commercial flight to pose for photos.
Sherak surprised passengers just before they boarded the flight at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. He arrived with an Oscar in hand and announced that the famous golden guy would be flying with them.
Passengers used cellphones and pocket cameras to snap photos with Oscar as airline workers held a show-related trivia contest, awarding hoodies and hats from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
"This is the closest I'm ever going to be to having one, so I'm enjoying it," Rockford Yapp, of Chicago, said as he held the coveted trophy. The 52-year-old also won an Oscar sweatshirt because he was sitting in the 84th seat on the plane. The 84th annual Academy Awards will be presented Feb. 26 at the Kodak Theatre and broadcast on ABC.
"My kids are going to be so excited!" Heather Boyd, of Chicago, said as she reviewed her shots on her cellphone. "The pictures are going on Facebook as soon as I get on the ground."
Several passengers uploaded the photos to Facebook immediately upon landing.
"We're staying in Studio City and I was just hoping to see someone from 'American Idol,'" said a thrilled Joan Castell of Woodstock, Ill., who was heading west with her husband, Scott, for a vacation.
"I think United should do something entertaining like this on all their flights," he said.
A flight attendant called the occasion a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" as she invited passengers to enjoy "the flight of the Oscars."
Sherak said this is the first time Oscar has flown commercially out in the open. The statuettes, which have been made at Chicago's R.S. Owens foundry for more than 70 years, are typically shipped to Los Angeles with little fanfare.
So why have Oscar mix it up with passengers?
"Just for fun," Sherak said.
The pilot even allowed Oscar into the cockpit of the 757 before takeoff, calling the statuette his most prestigious "non-human" passenger yet.
"It's a special treat. We want everyone to enjoy the flight and enjoy the show," said Capt. Mel Mason Jr.
Nearly everyone on board held Oscar, and the 13 1/2-inch tall statuette surprised them with his heft. Made of a proprietary metal called brittanium and coated in 24-karat gold, Oscar weighs 8 1/2-pounds.
Sherak personally escorted 42 of the trophies back to academy headquarters in Beverly Hills, Calif., but only two rode in the cabin.
Oscar's celebration continued at Los Angeles International Airport. Gold and silver balloons and oversized Oscar posters decorated the arrival gate. As passengers left the plane, each was given an Oscar of their own — a tiny, chocolate version.
"United Airlines announces the arrival of the 84th Academy Awards Oscars," a voice said over the loudspeaker as Sherak followed the throng of passengers.
Holding the statuette above his head, Sherak announced, "He's home!"