Pan American World Airways prides itself on its one-stop check-ins. Once you've cleared the initial checkpoint for the first leg of your flight, they won't bother you again.

And it works. Just ask University of Maryland defensive back Bobby Gunderman. A sophomore who was going from West Milford, N.J., to Hawaii for Saturday's Aloha Bowl game, Gunderman somehow found himself on a Pan Am plane bound for Caracas, Venezuela.

"Things like this happen, particularly this time of year," James A. Arey, Pan Am's system director of public relations, said yesterday.

Gunderman originally was scheduled to go by charter flight to Honolulu on Monday with the rest of his teammates. But, because of a broken finger suffered early Monday morning, he had to take a later flight. On Monday afternoon, he left from Washington's National Airport for New York, where he would change planes to get to Los Angeles.

The problem was in New York. It seems Gunderman was directed to the wrong gate, where he waited patiently for two hours before boarding the wrong flight. Two hours later, as he tells it, he noticed that people were speaking "Venezuelan" Spanish and asked the stewardess where they were going.

Hours later, he was in Caracas without money or a passport. Early the next morning, after a night in the airport, Gunderman caught a Pan Am flight to Los Angeles and then Honolulu.

How did it happen? "I can only characterize it as an honest mistake on both the part of the agent and the passenger," Pan Am's Arey said.

The flight to Caracas that Gunderman boarded was a continuation of the flight he was on from Washington after a change of plane in New York. Most of the people who get off in New York are continuing on to Caracas and are directed to the different gate, Arey noted.

Although Gunderman was surprised he wasn't asked for his passport anywhere along the way, Arey said that's done only at the originating airport, and only for international flights.

"We pride ourselves in our one-step check-in, you see," Arey said. "If you board in Washington destined for an international point, everything is done there: all documents are checked, baggage is checked, passport is checked, boarding passes for domestic and international portions are issued." A person changing planes at a second airport need only proceed to the gate without further document check.

It's clear that the agent at the gate made a mistake in not checking the ticket more carefully when he boarded in New York. "I don't like to try to second-guess passengers, but really part of the burden these days . . . is on the passenger, to make sure he's on the right airplane," Arey said.

But perhaps the biggest mystery of Gunderman's adventure was why he ever went to New York in the first place. "Why on earth did he go to New York to go to Honolulu?" Arey asked. "There are direct flights from Washington."