When fists flew on the San Juan Special

Only the strongest flight attendants survived this legendary New York-Puerto Rico flight.


Elliott Neal Hester
August 3, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Back in the mid-1980s, when DC-10s roamed the airspace between New York and
Puerto Rico, when I was new with the airline, when the world lay before me
like a virgin wearing nothing but a wicked grin, I worked, on occasion, the
most dreaded of all flights: the infamous San Juan Special. The S.J.S. had
the dubious distinction of departing from JFK shortly before midnight, seven
days a week. It was always filled to capacity with 295 cut-rate passengers
who didn't give a damn about the 3 a.m. arrival time. What mattered was the $99
one-way fare.

Only the hardiest flight attendants remained mentally and physically
unscathed after working a typical three-and-a-half-hour flight. The Saturday night
departure (a.k.a. the Saturday Night Special) was particularly rough. There
was always a fight, always a problem, always an incident to add to the pages
of airline folklore.

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On one particularly comical Saturday Night Special, I
watched a new flight attendant experience a complete nervous breakdown
while she collected tickets at the boarding gate. A wave of overanxious New
Yorkers -- the likes of which the poor, naive Texas girl had never seen
before -- descended upon her, trying to board the airplane all at once. From
my faraway position at the aircraft end of the jet bridge, I could hear her
frantic shouts: "Please, please, back up," she cried. "Y'all listen to me ... Oh my Gawd,
nooooooo!"

Forgoing my assigned position at the aircraft entry door, I stepped into the
jet bridge, looked down the corridor and saw the funniest sight of my
airline career. The flight attendant was sprinting toward me -- arms
flailing, knees pumping, big hair splashing around her head like a waterfall
gone berserk. She was being followed by a herd of heckling passengers.

"They won't listen to me, they won't listen to me," she cried. "They won't
listen to me, they won't listen to me," mocked a voice from the approaching
mob. Riotous laughter erupted inside the jet bridge.

But from the flight
attendant's perspective, it might just as well have been Mount St. Helens
erupting. Crazy with panic, she shifted into Michael Johnson gear. I
had no idea a country gal could run so fast wearing three pounds of make-up and
two-and-a-half-inch heels. She seemed to be more than 10 feet away when she
launched herself, flinging her arms and legs around me as if I were a
soldier returning from war and she the expectant fiancie. Sobbing
uncontrollably, twin rivers of snot running from her flaring nostrils, she
trembled like scrub brush in a cold Siberian breeze.

With the sobbing flight attendant still glued to me, and a smile struggling
to blossom on my pseudo-serious face, I announced to the passengers that
boarding would commence in a moment. They waited impatiently -- smirking,
rolling their eyes, jostling for position with an elbow or a knee -- while a
co-worker escorted the traumatized flight attendant to a lavatory where she
could collect herself. But she never did. The very next day she submitted
her resignation and returned home to Texas, where only the cattle stampede.

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Such was life on the San Juan Special. The passengers ate you up and spat
you out; only the strong survived.

During the beverage service, it was not unusual for a female passenger to
demand a can of Coca Cola. Not for herself, mind you. The high-octane soft
drink was to feed to her infant child. S.J.S. flight attendants have been
known to shake their heads and sigh while pouring oceans of Classic Coke into
baby bottles. I've done so many times myself. To add insult to a very
possible long-term injury, the same retro-mommy might request five or six
packs of sugar, which would be torn open, poured into the baby bottle filled
with Coke and then, like a tit plump with sugar and caffeine and carefully
balanced phosphoric acid, the bottle would be jammed into the screaming
infant's mouth.

At any time during the flight you might witness a card game with serious
money involved. Gold chains were de rigueur, boom-boxes optional. Rumor had
it that on one exceptionally rambunctious flight, a group of hookers worked
the coach-class lavatories. Passengers who wished to use the lavs for
conventional purposes simply had to wait.

Patience never fared well on the
San Juan Special, however. Whenever the lavs were occupied, even when
hookers weren't on board, passengers sometimes found creative ways to purge
their swollen bladders. Once I saw a man standing absently a few feet away
from the lavatory. Upon closer inspection, I realized he was peeing into a
free-standing garbage bag. As if squirted from a figurine in some debauched
European fountain, the golden arc of fluid glistened in the dim cabin light.
Considering the distance between man and bag, the passenger was blessed with
remarkable aim and trajectory.

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Had we been young boys engaged in a peeing
contest, I might have been impressed. But we were grown men on a goddamn
airplane. I walked up beside him, threw up my hands in exasperation and
yelled, "What the hell are you doing?" He tossed a sidelong glance, nodded
his head and simply smiled the smile of a man who had finally found relief.

On my very first Saturday Night Special, New York police officers were
summoned to the departure gate to break up an airplane brawl. The fight was
initiated during the boarding process, by two men who, as children, probably
had suckled a million Coke-filled baby bottles. Here's how the action unfolded.

I watched a nervous-looking gentleman as he placed his new Panama hat in the
overhead bin. Noting the tremendous care he bestowed upon the hat -- the way he moved it a few inches to the left,
turned it slightly, then moved it a few inches to the right -- I couldn't
help smiling. This was a man who loved his hat, a man whose hat was as
precious as a newborn child. Clearly, this hat was not to be touched by the unsavory hands
of strangers. Though the overhead bin was otherwise empty, the man closed it
gently, leaving his prize to rest in uncluttered peace.

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I was standing at the rear of the airplane, about 25 feet away from the hat
man, when a heavyset gentleman plopped into the last row of seats. His eyes
were red. He stank of liquor. He was sweating and panting and seemed on the
verge of collapse. Still, he looked up at me and smiled. "Psssssst,
psssssst ... mira," he said. "Yo necesito un vaso con hielo." ("I need a glass with ice.") He opened his jacket, pointing
somewhat stealthily to a fifth of rum tucked in his breast pocket. "Yo
necesito un vaso con hielo. Ahhh, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha ..." This was the kind
of passenger we often greeted on the Saturday Night Special -- a drunken fat
guy who packed his own party.

As the final passengers squeezed into the crowded cabin, I noticed a man
dragging a heavy carry-on bag along the right-hand aisle of the aircraft. He
hurled repeated insults at his wife, who, though she was half the size of
her husband, was dragging a carry-on that seemed twice as heavy as his. His
wife snapped back at him, delivering a retort in Spanish that sent
ripples of laughter through the crowd of nearby passengers. Embarrassed by
this public display of female disobedience, the husband flew into a frenzy.
He yelled and cursed, berating her with a volley of conjugated verbs that
drew ice-cold stares from passengers. In the midst of his tirade, the
husband threw open an overhead bin. In one blind movement, he picked up his
massive carry-on bag and slammed it in the overhead bin -- directly on top of
the precious Panama hat.

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The hat man sat still in his seat, frozen momentarily by the grim
ramifications. Suddenly, he leapt to his feet. He cursed the assailant, then
reached beneath the bag to extract what was left of his hat. To his extreme
displeasure, the crown had been completely crushed so that now it was level
to the brim. It looked like a broken Frisbee, like a nest built by druggie
sparrows.

The hat man's jaw came unhinged. He began to tremble. His eyes
filled with something more complex than rage. Without taking a breath, the
hat man spat a fusillade of insults in rapid-fire Spanish. The husband
responded with a foul-mouthed blast of his own. Their shouts attracted the
attention of everyone on board, including first-class passengers who were
poking their heads in the aisle, trying to get a glimpse of the ruckus in the
back of the plane.

I threaded my way through the crowded aisle, hoping to intervene before
things got out of hand. But by the time I reached the two shouting men, the
first punch had already been thrown. The hat man had been leveled by a
vicious right cross.

A collective gasp seemed to suck the air out of the cavernous DC-10 cabin.
All 295 passengers and 10 crew members froze in their places. There was no
sound. The seconds floated by like Goodyear blimps. Like a heavyweight
champion refusing to be beaten by a 10-count, the hat man rose slowly from
the floor. He massaged his chin for a moment, grinned sardonically, then let loose an ear-piercing battle cry: "Hyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyaaaaaaa!"

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That's when all hell broke loose.

To the best of my recollection, the full-scale brawl broke out as the
husband prepared to defend himself against the hat man. When hubby cocked
his arm to throw another punch, his elbow inadvertently whacked the head of
a seated passenger. Infuriated by this unprovoked assault, the man jumped to
his feet and pushed the husband, who then fell atop a fourth man who
proceeded to push the husband upon a fifth. Like the climactic scene in a
Chuck Norris movie, fists were suddenly flying everywhere. Stranger battled stranger in an aircraft skirmish fueled purely by angst and
testosterone.

Not to be outdone by the guys, some of the tougher-looking female passengers
joined in. I ducked beneath a misguided left hook thrown by a
30-year-old woman in a tank top. I glared at my foe, thought briefly about
pummeling her with a series of jabs to the ribs, but then remembered I was
at work and in uniform. Instead of punches, I threw her a nasty look and
retreated to the rear of the aircraft.

Unfortunately, my escape was blocked
by a massive presence in the aisle. It was the drunken fat guy. The one who
had asked for un vaso con hielo. He stood there, wobbling, a sudden sense of
purpose gleaming in his bloodshot eyes.

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Until then, I hadn't appreciated the
mammoth proportions of the man. He stood well over six feet and must have weighed in
at no less than 350 pounds. Amid the shouts and screams of the escalating
brawl, the fat man gathered his considerable voice and yelled something in
Spanish. Something cruel and daunting and suicidal. He charged up the aisle,
slamming into the fray with a fearlessness instilled by the makers of
Bacardi. Had I not slid into a row of seats, he would have bowled me over
like a cricket wicket.

The captain's voice soon came over the P.A. system, announcing the arrival
of security forces. But the escalating clamor made his warning
difficult to hear. Cheering sections had formed on the opposite side of the
airplane. When a favorite brawler connected a punch, one group would yell
"Whoooaaaaa!" while the other group sighed "Ooooooh." From a protected
position near the aft bulkhead, I watched an entire family -- mother, father
and three kids -- applauding and throwing phantom punches, like spectators at
a Tyson fight. I'm certain that in some hidden corner of the aircraft,
someone was placing five-to-one odds on the fat man.

As law enforcement officers stormed the airplane, as punches froze in
mid-arc and pugilists suddenly became pacifists, the fat man moved to the
back of the airplane and looked me dead in the eye.

"Pssssst, pssssst..." he said. "Yo necesito un vaso con hielo. Ahhhh, ha,
ha, ha, ha ..."

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Elliott Neal Hester

Elliott Neal Hester has been a flight attendant for 15 years. He has also written for National Geographic Traveler, Men's Fitness, Glamour, Maxim and Caribbean Travel & Life. Out of the Blue appears every other Friday. E-mail your tale of life in the sky to Hester. For more columns by Hester, visit his column archive.

MORE FROM Elliott Neal Hester

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