Terror in the air aboard flight 903

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The Independent Online
IT WAS one of the oddities of the post-war decades that America, though in every other respect a laboratory for modern monsters, was backward in a single contemporary horror: terrorism. This innocence was slightly blighted by the destruction of Pan Am flight 103, but, though grievously affecting Americans, this breach occurred in Europe, and it was not until the attack on the World Trade Center in February this year that the nation really awoke to the concept of bombs in its own back yard.

The country seems, however, already to have returned to its nave slumber. This is the story of how, if I had been a terrorist rather than a journalist, I could have blown United Airlines flight 903 from New York to Los Angeles out of the sky last Thursday.

I am travelling round the United States with a BBC documentary crew. Last Thursday, after finishing recording in New York, we went to Kennedy airport to check in for a flight to LA. Even before what happened, I was thinking about the question of America and terrorism. The alleged bombers of the World Trade Center were in court in New York that week, and the newspapers also contained reports about the latest moves to put on trial those accused of destroying flight 103. America, I reflected, had joined the fear club, of which British citizens had long been members, and had better learn the rules.

At the United terminal, we checked in our baggage for the hold. Television crews travel heavy; we stowed 16 pieces for a team of five. A lot of this, it may be relevant to mention, was pretty industrial-looking stuff: steel crates, cables, sinister cylinders, the tricks of the trade. We bought sleazy American celebrity magazines, drank coffee and went to the gate. I am a dementedly cautious traveller, so headed for the plane at the first announcement, just after the families with small children and the elderly. My four colleagues dawdled. The cameraman and the sound recordist were working on overtime forms; the producer and the PA had been paged to take a phone call about our LA arrangements. It is their belief that no 'last remaining passengers' call was made.

On board, I got lost in a gossipy piece about the death of River Phoenix, from which I was jolted by the intercom announcement: 'Cabin crew, secure doors for take-off', an aeroplane's last ground-bound manoeuvre. There were about 200 passengers on the 747, but my BBC colleagues were not among them. We were away from the gate, the engine noise escalating as the plane taxied. I pressed a button in the seat panel which had on it a stick drawing of a woman.

'This had better be an emergency,' said the stewardess, arriving.

'Well, yes, it sort of is,' I said, strong American accents always forcing me towards a compensatory David Niven-like langour. 'I'm travelling in a party of five and I'm the only one on the flight. . . .'

'Uh-oh,' said the stewardess. 'I'll get back to you. . . .'

A minute later, she returned, patted me on the shoulder and said: 'We'll get your friends on the next flight out. . . .'

'That isn't really the point,' I said. 'They had boarding passes. You should have known they weren't on board. . . .'

I was speaking very low, to avoid alarming the other passengers, although, in retrospect, my whispering probably merely confirmed their suspicion that I was a hijacker.

'We'll get your buddies on the next flight,' the stewardess repeated.

'They had boarding passes,' I reiterated. 'Also, they have 16 pieces of luggage in the hold. . . .' This was my trump card, and her eyes widened.

''That isn't supposed to happen,' I followed up. A nervous flier, I have a familiarity with aviation law unusual in someone without a pilot's licence. It was my understanding that, since the bombing of flight 103, the bags of no-show passengers had to be removed. 'Uh-oh, I'll get back to you,' said the stewardess. She returned with the senior stewardess, who knelt on the empty seat in front of me, leaned in close and said: 'OK, the captain wants to know who you are. . . .'

I suspect that many of us have imagined our lives as movies, but it had never occurred to me until then that my own might be Airport VI. I said that I was with the BBC. Unfortunately, I had no documentation to prove this, as my main employment is elsewhere; indeed, here. I showed my newspaper security pass, but, to most Americans, the Independent could very well be an underground group of desperadoes. 'You certainly sound like the BBC,' said the stewardess. This seemed to me a rather cavalier piece of counter-terrorism.

The senior stewardess retreated, and returned to say that the captain had decided to go ahead. I quoted again what I thought to be aviation law with regard to unaccompanied luggage. She said this applied only to international flights. This is odd for, if true, it means that the American administration now cares more about foreigners than its own citizens: a dramatic reversal of the country's historical mentality. Perhaps what it really means is that America still believes itself immune from terrorism.

'The captain has judged the security risk, and has decided to trust you,' said the stewardess. 'But that isn't the point. You only know that there are four missing passengers and 16 unaccompanied bags because I told you. I could have blown up this plane. . . .'

The disagreement had raised our voices, and the cabin was now aware of the scandal. I was arguing the philosophical point that my colleagues and I could have been terrorists. But it was soon clear that, to the other passengers, this was not a hypothesis. 'Listen, he's from England,' said one. 'I know England. They have the IRA]'

I reassured them that it was highly unlikely that the IRA would target Americans as this would amount to blowing off the hand that fed it. The point I was making was that we could have been one of the nation's enemies. 'Hey]' shouted a middle-aged Californian woman. 'I don't care if this plane crashes. I'm flying home to a divorce]'

On the flight, the cabin crew were so attentive with the drinks trolley that it seemed that United's main counter-terrorism measure was to incapacitate the suspect with Cabernet Sauvignon.

'Well, you were telling the truth,' admitted one of my accusers when we hit the ground in LA in one piece. Well, yes, but I think America had better soon face up to the fact that we might have been liars.