Tale of a flight from hell

Dawn MacKeen's tale of a New York-Los Angeles flight where just about anything that could go wrong did.

Published January 16, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Most of us really didn't have another option. It was the holiday season, the price was right and other airlines were booked. Tower Air, known for its cheap, cheap tickets, was our salvation -- it would take us from New York to Los Angeles without leaving us completely broke. We would leave JFK at 8 a.m. and arrive -- supposedly -- at LAX at 10:45 a.m. California time.

That morning, when I arrived at Tower's terminal, which sits west of the main airport, I was greeted with its motto: "Tower Air: More than a great fare." In retrospect, I could never accuse them of false advertising -- more is definitely what I and my 400-plus fellow passengers got.

My descent into airline hell started while I was slouched in a chair in the passenger lounge, waiting to board. Our flight had already been delayed for two hours, so when a voice finally came over the loudspeaker and announced the boarding of Flight 21 to L.A., everyone popped out of their seats and hustled over to the X-ray machines -- where we waited, collectively shifting from one foot to the other.

After we had stood there for about a half hour, it started. First it was a little nudge forward, like a harmless tap from behind. Then it grew into an outright push. The crowd of passengers, once in a blissful post-vacation trance, became a mob surging toward the metal detectors. "When are we going to board? You called us all here to board," voices shouted. We, the peasants, were all going to topple the Tower Air regime and demand what was rightfully ours: a flight to L.A.

When we finally made it through the metal detectors, we were stopped once again and made to wait in front of our designated gate. "This is comical," someone said, "there's not even a plane on the other side of this gate." We couldn't dwell on that minor detail for very long, however, because of what happened next -- what we, the survivors of Flight 21, like to call The Fight. Three young men, instantly dubbed by a fellow passenger as the Street Punks, moved to the front of the crowd and slightly pushed a man in his 40s who was already a little testy. Their leader, Street Punk No. 1, was the one who had blazed the trail -- past the kids, past the senior citizens, past the college students trying to return to school. Standing about 6-foot-4, with slicked-back dark brown hair and a thin line of a beard that followed only the curve of his jawbone, he wore a black leather jacket and blue jeans -- and had the look of someone you don't mess with. His cohorts, one pudgy guy with stringy, greasy hair and the other with a shaved head and a shirt unbuttoned to reveal a hairy chest and several pounds of gold necklaces, stood behind him.

"Who do you think you are?" said the older man, who was nondescript in that baked potato kind of way. Even his baseball hat looked like it needed to be pulled down a little on his head so it wouldn't fall off.

"I can go wherever I want to go. And what," Street Punk No. 1 said as he looked down on the guy, "are you going to do about it?"

The two started to shove each other. The rest of us, who were already squished in a 15-foot-wide hallway, moved as far as we could away from them. The bland guy yelled, "Can I get a policeman over here?" repeatedly while Street Punk No. 1 imitated him in a high-pitched, seventh-grade whine: "Can I get a policeman over here? Oh, I'm scared, oh, Mr. Policeman! Please come quick!"

Eventually, the bland guy disentangled himself from Street Punk No. 1 and walked off, presumably to call the police. The Street Punks stayed at the front of the line, where a woman soon appeared and began flirting with them. Since we had been reduced to the junior high level, this was only fitting and predictable. She had her dyed blond hair tied up with a clip, displaying her wood-colored roots as they climbed down her yellowy strands. "I live in Hollywood," she said as she peered out from the sunglasses she was wearing, "and I usually only hang out on the Westside, that's where everybody is." Even after the crowd went back to discussing the missing plane, we could occasionally hear her squeals and see her throw her head back with laughter.

Finally, a Tower Air representative appeared and said we were leaving from yet another place. We followed the narrow hallway for what must have been a couple hundred yards and stopped again. And waited. Then one policeman after another, after another, showed up and pulled Street Punk No. 1 and the bland guy, who had been waiting at the new gate, away from the crowd. They talked for a long time, but there was no further drama.

In the middle of all this, Tower Air employees would occasionally materialize and make announcements in such soft-spoken voices I began to wonder whether or not laryngitis was to blame. They weren't even using the loudspeaker. No one could hear anything. Finally the woman next to me, a toughened beauty in her early 20s with long braids, took off the headphones she had on, stopped bobbing to the music that was playing and repeated the announcements from her diaphragm. The crowd erupted in cheers. She then casually slipped the headphones on and went back to bobbing to the beat.

After another hour in a narrow corridor with 400-plus passengers, it became hard to breathe. There was hardly any ventilation and as we sat on the floor, people complained of dizziness, nausea and headaches.

Suddenly some tall, frat-looking guys yelled out, "Some lady has fainted back here." No one was listening. "Maybe you should get one of those 10 cops up there to come back here and help her out."

No one did anything. No Tower Air employees showed up to help her. The guys yelled out again, "I'm serious, some lady is on the floor." Twenty minutes later, someone arrived and she was rolled out on a gurney. She was the first casualty of the day. This part of our pre-boarding adventure became known as The Faint.

But the fun didn't stop there. Once we finally boarded the plane at 12:30 p.m. -- four and a half hours after our scheduled departure time -- I made my way to my aisle seat and was about to plunk myself down and doze off for the rest of the flight when a lady started poking my arm with her fingernail. "My son, my son, he sit on other seat. Seat J, seat J. He can sit here. You sit there. OK?"

"Sure," I responded, irritated. I approached this new "J" seat and a military guy with a blond crew-cut jumped out of his seat and offered to take my jacket and put it in the bin up above. He grabbed my jacket, put it away and then said with a grin, "Welcome to my aisle." Unbeknownst to me, I had traded my aisle for a center seat. I wedged in next to the commando of the aisle and sat between him and a 21-year-old hippie guy who smelled like he hadn't bathed for a while. (I recognized the hippie guy from the check-in line -- he had placed his suitcase on a skateboard and pulled the whole contraption by the suitcase's strap.)

The military guy then asked, I mean told, one of the flight attendants, "We're going to get free alcohol since our plane is so late, right? That's the least you could do." She told him to go ask the purser, so he did -- and returned with four cans of the Silver Bullet, which he shoved into the pocket in front of him, next to the vomit bags and safety instructions.

He drank one, crushed it and moved on to the next -- and finished all four within 20 minutes. Then he leaned over me to the hippie guy and cracked what he thought was a funny joke: "So, what did the battered wife do when she got out of the hospital?" He paused rhetorically so the punch line could be that much more dramatic: "The dishes ... if she's lucky."

I finally lost it. After the fights, the fainting and the waiting, I said, "Are you planning on telling jokes like this for the next five hours, all the way to L.A.? I mean, I'm just curious."

He cut short his stand-up act and refocused his attention on the flight attendants, insisting on more beers every time he finished one. He burped and he shouted. Then he volunteered to help them pass out all the drinks and food -- a measly bowl of Product 19 and a cinnamon roll. Finally, after guzzling a 12-pack compliments of Tower Air, he threw up on a flight attendant and passed out next to me.

Our plane eventually touched down in the smoggy city at around 4 p.m., about five and a half hours after we were supposed to arrive. In a weird way, it was hard to say goodbye to some of the characters from the flight. They had become such an integral part of my life for one day. I saw the headphones woman leave first, then the military guy, then the hippie. But nothing could prepare me for seeing the Hollywood Blond leave arm-in-arm with Numero Uno Street Punk. They walked out of the terminal, off into the city of fake dreams. Sweet love had taken wing on Tower Airlines flight 21.

By Dawn MacKeen

Dawn MacKeen is a former senior writer for Salon, and author of a forthcoming book about her grandfather’s survival of the Armenian Genocide, "The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 2016).

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