Flying the Friendly Skies

It’s the end of my 10-day trip back home to London, and my mother and I are eating cereal and watching breakfast TV.

“Airports are in chaos this morning after police uncovered a massive plot to bomb several planes traveling from Britain to the U.S.,” says the BBC newscaster. “Reports suggest as many as 10 airliners had been targeted. Travelers are warned to expect long delays.”

The news bothers me for two reasons. The first is that I am booked on that morning’s Northwest Airlines Flight 43 from London to the U.S. Aside from the hassle that I know awaits, I feel queasy knowing my plane might have been one of those targeted for termination. The second, I have to admit, is that I feel insulted by the terrorists’ unoriginality. The plot is a virtual mirror of the foiled plan of Ramzi Yousef — best known for car-bombing the World Trade Center in 1993 — to knock out a dozen planes in 1995 with liquid bombs smuggled onboard in everyday carry-on items.

I finish my boiled egg and have to decide whether or not to fly. I reason that security is probably as high as it has been since the London subway bombings of more than a year ago and make up my mind to go.

It’s bedlam when I arrive at Gatwick. Confused travelers are like a human March of the Penguins, glacially moving toward the check-in area. I spot a young airport worker in a fluorescent tabard and ask him for help. He tells me I need to go to Section H, roughly 20 feet away. It takes me 20 minutes to get there.

When I do, there is already a long, long line snaking from the check-in desk, and the atmosphere is tense. Armed police pull aside a Somalian couple and question them. I read magazine stories about Lindsey Lohan and Syd Barrett to distract myself. A young couple trying to get to Alaska lend me their puzzle book. An American man is yelling because someone has cut in front of him. I’ve been in line for three hours, and bombs or no bombs, I am ready to board the fucking plane.

I finally get to the check-in, and the lady behind the desk informs me that only passports, wallets and prescription medications can be taken aboard — in the clear plastic bags provided. I show her my cosmetic bag. She shakes her head. I try my lip liner. No. I contemplate eight hours without lip liner and realize this is far, far worse than I imagined.

I make my way to the gate and, after two body searches, am finally allowed onboard. I am seated next to an Englishman who is kind enough to warn me of his halitosis before I smell it for myself.

The captain tells us we cannot take off until every single item of luggage has been individually searched. Two hours later, we still haven’t moved. The plane is starting to feel like a sauna. Water is being rationed. There’s no food. I am beginning to understand what cabin fever means.

Then, we hear the captain’s voice. “Good news,” he chirps. “All the bags have been checked!” Everyone cheers. “But we can’t take off until we get clearance from the U.S. government and, sorry, folks, I don’t know how long that’s going to take.” Silence. We wait until the FBI is reasonably sure none of us are al Qaeda. Finally, after about three hours sitting in a plane that is starting to smell like a shoe, we take off.

With no books, CDs or lip liner to pass the time, I try to focus on the in-flight movie — would you believe Failure to Launch?

Instead of watching the movie, the passengers on Flight NWA43 start to converse. Bonded by shared hardship and a dull sense of dread, we behave like kin: Life stories are exchanged while waiting for the bathroom; little girls help the crew collect trash; and Mr. Halitosis, bless him, brings me snacks and water every hour or so.

I am almost sad to say goodbye as we land in Minneapolis, where the American authorities are in a strangely compassionate mood. “Welcome home, Miss Ryder,” says the immigration official, smiling sympathetically. “Rough flight, huh?” says the customs officer, shaking his head. “That’s too bad.”

After retrieving and then re-checking my baggage, I sprint through the terminal, barely making it onto the last flight from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. I am the only one onboard whose carry-on is a plastic bag. I collapse into my seat at the back of the plane, and the man next to me asks if everything is okay. After hearing my story, he offers his cell phone so I can call my friends in L.A. His hands are strong and his brown eyes are warm, and he shares his lemonade with me. I fall asleep with my head lightly touching his shoulder.

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