The passenger from hell

When a man goes berserk on board, what can a flight attendant do?

By Elliott Neal Hester
Published August 17, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Suddenly weak-kneed and worried, I cowered behind the door in my apartment,
wondering why a cop had buzzed the doorbell. Like the sugar-plums in
Clement Clark Moore's "The Night Before Christmas," a hundred possibilities
danced inside my head. Had I broken the law? Had one of my friends been
injured or assaulted? Had some near-sighted pedestrian confused my license
plate number with that of a hit-and-run vehicle's?


Unable to come up with an
answer, and a little freaked out by the possibilities, I challenged
the voice that had just crackled through my intercom. He wasn't
really a cop, he said. He was an ex-cop -- a private investigator, to be exact. And he
was here, at my apartment, because of an incident on an airplane.

I knew immediately what he was referring to: After landing at Dallas-Fort Worth
International a couple of months before, one of my passengers had been taken
into custody by local police officers. I remember watching as he was
dragged away by a battalion of cops -- fear and confusion supplanting the
malice that had once glinted in his eyes. For two months I had wondered what had
happened to him. Now was my chance to find out.


Through the peephole I eyed a tall, gray-haired gentleman dressed in casual
clothes and carrying a briefcase. When I opened the door, he flashed the
practiced smile of a door-to-door salesman. I welcomed him in anyway,
pointed to a chair and, without offering small talk or liquid refreshment,
sat on the other side of the room and waited to hear his spiel.

"My, my, my," he said, admiring the living room furniture, "nice apartment
you have here." He didn't sound like an ex-cop. He spoke with a soft,
authoritative Southern lilt, like a plantation owner from
19th century Georgia. His "private investigator" credentials made me think
of Barnaby Jones with an upscale pedigree. "My, my, my."

I just stared at him in silence.


"Well ... ahhh," he said, "I'll
get straight to the point. I'm workin' for the lawyer who's representin' a
certain Adam Ratliff. He was a passenger who had a little problem on your
flight from Guatemala last month. You remember, don't you?"


"Well, being that you are the flight attendant who signed the complaint,
we'd kinda like to hear your account of the events that took place that day
on the airplane."


"Your client lost the plot."


"He lost the plot. Went berserk. Lost his frigging mind."

"Oh, OK, I get it. Wait a sec." Barnaby reached into his
briefcase and removed a tiny recording device. "Do you mind if I get this all
on tape?"

"Go right ahead." The soft-spoken P.I. flicked on the recorder and
placed it on my cocktail table.


"OK. Would you mind starting at the very beginning?"

I took a deep breath, tapped into the memory banks and told him the whole
story ...

About an hour after take-off from Guatemala City, we began the dinner
service -- drinks, followed by the ever-present chicken or
beef entrees. Halfway through the service, a loud, somewhat primordial
scream ripped through the cabin.



It sounded as if a large, carnivorous animal had escaped from the cargo hold
and was terrorizing passengers at the rear of the airplane. When I swung
around, I realized I was only half right. A wild-eyed male passenger was
terrorizing passengers at the rear of the plane. His arms flailed, his
head jerked spasmodically -- he looked like the deranged criminal in a
low-budget biker flick.


His screams were directed at a woman who was sitting in a window seat,
across the aisle from him. The terrified woman leaned away, far away, so
that her back was planted firmly against the window. It seemed, for one
absurd moment, that the sheer force of his howling had blown her flat
against the fuselage.



Slowly I walked toward the irate passenger. Every step was measured by the
nervous eyes of 60 coach-class passengers who would have gladly bailed out
if parachutes, rather than peanuts, had been provided on the flight. The
problem passenger was in a row by himself, sitting in the middle seat. I
stopped, stared at him and smiled. Dressed in blue jeans and a tattered blue
jean jacket, frizzy hair cascading past his shoulders, he looked up at me
with eyes as wild as Borneo.

"Can I get you something to eat? Sir?"

His eyes crawled from my shoes to the
crown of my freshly shaven head, looking for a reason to launch an attack.
"Nawww," he said. "But I'll have another Jack Daniel's and a beer." On his
tray table there were three empty Jack Daniel's minis and a crumpled can of


"I don't think that's a very good idea," I said. "How about a Coke?"

He glared at me with I'm-gonna-kick-your-ass eyes, eyes that meant
business, eyes that had somehow never been mentioned in the flight attendant
training manual. He was going to jump me, I was sure of it. I could see the
intent as it blossomed in his eyes.

Of the 110,000 flight attendants employed by U.S. airlines, however, he had picked one of a handful who probably shouldn't be messed with. A 6-foot, 195-pound,
street-savvy semi-homeboy gym freak, I felt confident in my ability to
handle this dude. In the split second before he leapt, I planned a three-step
method of defense: 1) step sideways; 2) grab him by the jacket; 3) use his
own momentum to toss his crazy ass into the opposite wall.

It seemed perfectly logical in theory, but two problems immediately came to
mind. First, the frightened woman was still plastered against the wall where
momentum was supposed to send the assailant. Second, all the passengers were
watching. If I hurt the guy, even after 60 witnesses watched him attack me,
I might have problems when we landed in Dallas. Lawsuit. Suspension. Possible
termination. (I know a male flight attendant who was suspended for punching
a passenger who had viciously attacked him. The passenger sued the airline and
the flight attendant. When the flight attendant spoke to the airline about
help with his defense, it told him he was on his own.)


Luckily for both of us, this guy didn't lunge. I stood my ground in the
aisle, ready to do the three-step boogie. He sat on coiled haunches, poised to
spring but not quite willing to make the full commitment. He gave me one
final, I'm-gonna-kill-you look, then turned to the window -- perhaps to study the intricacies of a passing cloud formation.

As soon as I rejoined my serving partner, the irate passenger screamed at a volume that, I would
learn later, was heard all the way to the cockpit.


Now, everybody was scared. A few passengers seated at ground zero departed
for safer seats. The screaming passenger's eyes rattled in his sockets. His
face grew red. Judging by his agitated state, he seemed capable of just
about anything.

Herein lies the problem of potentially violent airline
passengers: At 30,000 feet, you can't call a cop. Nor can you throw a guy out
the door like we did on a nightly basis when I worked as a bartender in New
York (all I had to say was, "Yo, Rico! Eighty-six this moron!" and the customer would suddenly find himself roaming the plains of 14th Street,
howling obscenities at an uncaring moon). But there is no beefy backup on an
airplane, and most of us aren't up for the physical challenge. Why should we
be? We're flight attendants, not Steven Seagal wannabes.

I returned to the back of the plane and, using a calm, non-combative voice, I confronted the passenger again.
"Sir, please try to calm down," I said. "There's no need to get upset and
there's certainly no reason to use profanity."


"Sir, I'm straight."


At this point, I resorted to passenger misconduct solution No. 657. "If a male
passenger exhibits hostile tendencies toward a male flight attendant, a
female flight attendant may be able to intervene and defuse the anger."
I turned to Donna, my diminutive blond colleague. She stepped up to the
plate, dug her cleats into the batter's box and with a bravado that would
make Sammy Sosa proud, took her best shot.

"Sir, please ..." she said, settling her warm, motherly gaze upon him. "Can
you just lower your voice a bit?"


He lashed her with insults too degrading to repeat. But
when Donna had finally had enough, she reached for the interphone and called the cockpit.

"Yeah," she said. Her voice was as flat and expressionless as a veteran cop
calling in her third burglary of the day. "We got a problem passenger...
Coach ... 25F ... Yeah. OK."

A few moments later, the flight engineer came lumbering out of the cockpit.
He was a little on the stocky side, and as he moved down the aisle he tucked
his shirt into his trousers and hitched up his pants more than once.
Contrary to what many passengers think, flight engineers are not pilots.
They are responsible for the mechanical performance of the aircraft, a
demanding job in itself, but they don't actually fly the plane. In
three-person cockpits, therefore, flight engineers are the expendable ones,
the sacrificial lamb sent into the cabin when punches are ready to fly.

As the flight engineer approached, he did not need us to point out the
problem passenger. The guy was flailing and gesticulating like a madman.

"Sir, what seems to be the problem?" the engineer said.


"Sir, you're interfering with the duties of --"

"SHUT THE HELL UP!" he said, cutting off the engineer. "YOU

"OK, buddy. If you don't calm down right now, we're going to have you
arrested in Dallas."

With great emphasis, the passenger raised his middle finger and shook it in
the engineer's face. "FUCK YOOOOOU."

The engineer gave me a look, then lumbered back to the cockpit.
It was at this juncture that I noticed the woman sitting behind the problem
passenger. She was clutching her chest with one hand; her other hand
trembled uncontrollably.

"Excuse me, miss." I said this in a soft voice so she wouldn't jump. "Let me
move you to another seat. I think there's room up front." She nodded her
head like a shellshocked refugee, allowing me to move her to safer territory.
Along the way, she mentioned that the passenger had been reaching in his
pocket periodically and sniffing something.

"He do it four, five times," she said in a sweet Guatemalan accent.
Drugs. Cocaine maybe. More likely it was Special K (a liquid animal
tranquilizer). No wonder he was acting so weird.

I escorted the Guatemalan woman to a seat in the front section of coach.
Next, I informed the lead flight attendant about the exacerbating problem in
the back, obtained the troublemaker's name from the passenger information
list, then went into the cockpit to relay information about possible drug

The captain -- a supremely competent woman whom I've flown with on several
occasions -- turned around and listened to my report.

"That does it," she said sternly. "We'll have the police meet the flight in
Dallas. Just keep an eye on him. If he gets out of hand we'll ... just keep an
eye on him."

"Captain," I said, "he's already out of hand." The captain nodded. Looks
were exchanged. "Just keep an eye on him."

I walked to the back of the airplane, which was all but deserted save for my
colleague Donna and Mr. Adam Ratliff -- aka the problem passenger. He sat there talking to himself. Every few minutes he'd scream.


Less than an hour later, and without further incident, we landed in Dallas-Fort Worth.
As our plane taxied toward the gate, the captain spoke over the public
address system. "Ladies and gentlemen," she said, "we apologize for the
troublesome flight. Authorities will be meeting the aircraft to remove the
passenger who caused the disruption."

As soon as the "fasten seat belt" sign blinked off, all the passengers stood
up -- including Ratliff, who immediately disappeared into the lavatory. A moment later, I heard the mechanized hum of the toilet flushing. Ratliff was probably dumping his drugs.

Sure enough, police officers were waiting on the jet bridge. They converged upon Ratliff as soon as he stepped through the exit door. They searched his carry-on bag. I filled out a complaint. Then they hauled him away.

Still, I had an issue with the captain. Her announcement had alerted Ratliff to
the possibility of a drug search and he'd almost certainly taken advantage
of the opportunity. When the captain emerged from the cockpit, I couldn't
contain my bewilderment. "Excuse me, Captain, but why did you make that
announcement? You knew he probably had drugs. As soon as you
announced that the plane was being met by cops, he went into the lavatory
and dumped his stash."

The captain just looked at me, a blank stare frozen in her eyes. "Oh!" That
was all she said.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

"Well," I said to the private investigator. "That's what happened."

He switched off the tape recorder and sighed. "That must have been some
flight," he said. He nodded his head as if answering his own question, then
gathered his belongings and rose from his seat. "Thanks for your help," he
said. "You really opened my eyes to a few things."

Barnaby closed his briefcase and walked toward my front door. That's when I asked a question -- a question I should have asked at the onset of my
deposition. "You mentioned that you were hired by a lawyer who is
representing Mr. Ratliff. When is his trial?"

"Excuse me?"

"His trial? When is he being prosecuted in court?"


"Yeah, he's being prosecuted for his actions on the airplane, right?"

"Oh, hell no," he said. "Mr. Ratliff is suing your airline. We believe he was
intoxicated before boarding and should never have been allowed on that
airplane. Your airline is at fault."

When the door shut behind him, there was only one thing I could say:


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.

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