BA 223: another day, another delay

Fly the friendly skies indeed. To be fair, the officer from the Metropolitan Police's Special Branch was perfectly friendly, but her presence, and that of her colleagues, at Heathrow's Terminal 4, was a clue that Sunday's BA flight 223 was not going to be the usual journey to Washington. "Just a few questions if you don't mind," she said.

A few questions and three subsequent security checks later, all of the 241 passengers were on board, running a little late but expecting to taxi at any moment. It would prove to be wishful thinking.

The pilot spoke over the PA system. Everybody was on board and the plane was ready to leave, he said, but the "US authorities" had to approve the passenger list. There were 22 agencies that had to sign off, he said, his tone betraying just a little incredulity.

We waited. We looked around. We waited further. The plane stayed at the gate. Initial curiosity turned to boredom. A Frenchman almost got into a fight with a couple after he turned around and hit their child who was digging his feet into his back.

It was an all too brief distraction: how many times can one read British Airways' High Life magazine? The pilot came back on. Twenty-one of the US agencies had approved the passenger list, but one had not. People started to look around with a fresh intensity. Just who were the passengers creating such suspicions? Was it the American students in the blue outfits who were part of a marching band? Maybe al-Qa'ida had managed to get to the tuba player.

In truth, everybody was well-behaved. Perhaps they realised that if they started to shout or scream they'd be mistaken as a terrorist, jumped on by a lurking armed sky marshal.

At 6.17pm, three hours and 12 minutes after the plane was due to leave, it finally lurched into the dark skies over London en route for Dulles Airport. What was the look on people's faces? Fear? It was impossible to tell: it was probably simply relief.

When the plane touched down clapping broke out. There was the usual wait in line at immigration.

But this time there was something different. Please step forward sir. Would you place your left index finger on the pad, said the official. Please press harder. Now your right index finger.

Now a quick picture. Please look into the camera. Thank you sir, you're good to go.