Adventures in the Air: United flight 1429 from Guatemala City to Newark “Liberty” International, October 19, 2014

October 20, 2014 in Guatemala, North America, Travelogue, United States


I’ve been on a lot of flights.

I used to travel for my work, so have seen better than the average person’s share of the inside of an airplane. Several years ago when I was making the quick hop from New York, probably using Newark airport, to Manchester, New Hampshire, we hit a storm. The turbulence shook the plane so violently and in such odd directions that I had to put down my book and the college-aged girl next to me grabbed my hand, white knuckled, fearing for her life. When I assured her it would be fine, something I was busy telling myself, and that they flew planes into hurricanes for research she calmed a bit. Until she voiced an awful thought… “Ok, but does THIS guy fly planes into hurricanes?!” We were diverted to Albany, NY until the storm passed. That was the most memorable flight. Until today.

Today I flew from Guatemala City to Newark on United 1429.

I made the trip from Lago de Atitlan to Antigua yesterday, overnighting there to make it to the airport with plenty of time. I’m proud to say that my Spanish, which I thought was nonexistent, was passable enough to find a hotel when the one I’d expected was sold out, arrange the shuttle to the airport, and have a conversation with the hotel staff that I think was primarily centered around the relative beauty of the women around Guatemala… it was a fairly one-sided conversation, and I think the final point was that the women of Puerto Barrios won the contest because it’s hotter there. So, I was feeling pretty pleased when I was at the airport, waiting for my plane in plenty of time without any problems at all. I even had a nice conversation with a young, red haired, Swedish hippie woman named Andrea who had been living for a month in San Marcos, our town. 

The travel gods smiled on me and I was put in an exit row, aisle seat, and had a great flight crew. It’s the little things. I hate having a flight crew that thinks having a captive audience means they should try to be comedians. If they were good at comedy, they’d likely have a different job. In my experience, that particular annoyance happens on the budget airlines. This crew was not like that. They did their jobs efficiently, getting the essentials of safety taken care of in a timely manner. But, they were very funny individually in conversations with the passengers.

Once, I headed back to use the lavatory and one of the flight attendants, let’s call her Sue, an average sized attractive black woman probably in her late thirties, informed me that she was in line, that she was from New Jersey, and she’d fight me for it if necessary.

One of the other attendants, we’ll call him Allen, who looks a bit like a Latino version of Denzel Washington with a lazy eye and no movie star polish, then joked with me a bit about general life stuff, carrying on from the conversation he’d been having with the first attendant. “I used to watch those comedies,” he said, “like Married With Children, and think they were all made up. Now that I’m older I know how right on they are!”

Later, as drinks were being served, yet another attendant, I’ll dub her Alice, a tall brunette probably in her late forties or early fifties, dropped an empty carton of orange juice while getting a new one out. I picked it up and stuck it in the cart for her, since it was easier from my position than hers. She said, “My hero!” and put me “in charge of the napkins for the row.” When she dropped a piece of ice she shrugged and said “Condensation.” I asked for orange juice, she asked if I’d like that with vodka, on her. Of course! So, with the good humor and spirits of the crew, I was ready to make a good commendation to their employer.

Then, the crazy happened. 

A woman, who happened to be sitting next to Andrea several rows up from me, went nuts.

She started screaming and yelling in Spanish. Things about her father, maybe even something about gestapo. I couldn’t understand it, and it doesn’t really matter. Alice went to her and tried to calm her. Alice called for Allen, who was the Spanish speaker and he tried, unsuccessfully. The woman started pushing on Allen, standing up and pushing her way toward the aisle. Alice pointed at me and motioned for me to come, to which I replied with one of those “Who? Me?!” looks. She replied in the affirmative, so I unbuckled and started to stand, wondering if the “my hero” may have meant a bit too much to her, concluding that I was the largest man on the flight with English as a first language other than the first-class flight attendant (who was the largest, most muscular flight attendant I’ve ever seen) who was at that moment holding a cart across the aisle to block access to the cockpit door, then realizing, as in the classic “Who? Me?” situation, she had been communicating to the man behind me, apparently the crazy woman’s son who hadn’t bothered to get up until called upon. I sat back down, but decided to remain unbuckled.

The man talked to her a bit, but it didn’t help the situation at all. Rather, it gave her a target and the attendants had backed up enough that she got out into the aisle, pushing the man, pushing the attendants when they tried to calm her and hold her back, and flailing around in general. This went on for what seemed like a long time, though it was probably less than a couple minutes. Alice signed to Sue who was in the rear of the plane to bring restraints. Andrea was holding and attempting to comfort a little Guatemalan girl who had been sitting in front of the mad woman, both of them with tears in their eyes.

Suddenly, the woman fainted to the ground in a manner that reminded me of a Benny Hinn healing. She got back up almost immediately and carried on in the same way, to fall to the floor again, this time down for a little while longer. Blankets were brought, but she got up again. Apparently weakened by the exertions, she allowed herself to be moved back to the row of seats where the attendants rotated sitting with her and comforting her.

Things calmed down and people started watching the television screens again. A lot of people decided they needed to empty their bladders at this point, so a long queue formed at the back of the plane.

Suddenly it struck me that this all was very odd.

Perhaps a distraction like this is exactly what would cause the passengers to relax their guard on other things. That this is the first flight I’ve been on with masculine flight attendants, one of whom was huge. That I don’t get given free drinks. Ever. Maybe the crazy woman was a ruse to prepare us for a hostile takeover. I actually had the thought that if I get out of this alive I will give a commendation for the crew, but had doubts as to whether that was going to happen. 

A man, presumably a health care professional, spoke to the man behind me about the woman. Again, in Spanish, so I was only able to pick up bits and pieces. Apparently she had been nervous about flying, or coming to America, or something, and snapped. Perhaps the altitude and pressure changes did something. We’ll never know, and it’s best that way.

Obviously, I’m writing this story, so we landed safely. There was one more outburst during the flight, but it was short-lived. The flight attendants did not choose to physically restrain the woman. They continued to care for her and treat the other passengers well, even though they’d clearly been worn out by the experience. I said to Allen, “Some days, eh?” to which he replied “You got that right, brother,” neither disparaging the woman nor ignoring the realities.

While disembarking I walked past the woman, still in her seat, the man holding her and gently kissing her forehead. I suppose we never know if and when we’re going to crack, but if I do, may it be in the hands of people who will treat me with the strength, dignity, and respect that the crew of United flight 1429 did this unknown woman.