Flying From London to Washington

Rich Galen

12/28/2009 2:14:07 PM - Rich Galen
You may be wondering what it was like getting on this flight in the wake of yet another Islamic extremist jackass, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, trying to attack a U.S. airplane by lighting himself on fire and/or blowing himself up.

This, like the flight Abdulmutallab tried to blow up on Christmas day, is an international flight on Delta Airlines, originating in the U.K., headed for the United States. Same set of circumstances, different route.

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The flight was scheduled to leave at 9:05 AM so we left St. James via taxi at 6:00 AM. It was a 30 minute trip so we were in the check-in area at about 6:40. We flew business class so the line issue wasn't what it would have been had we been in coach, but procedures were the same.

We were asked the usual questions regarding our luggage: Is it ours; did we pack it; has it been in our control since we packed it; had anyone given us anything to carry for them; and so on.

At the ticket desk we were told that on flights to the U.S. we were permitted only one carry-on instead of the standard two; and that the Mullings Director of Standards & Practices' hand bag counted as one.

Shoes to be worn during the flight were stuffed into my backpack; newspapers were folded into her bag and we were off to security.

Security (which in the US would be the TSA area) was likewise standard. Shoes on the belt; jackets off; computer out. There didn't appear to be any additional attention being paid to what might be in our bags; my backpack - which is hauled out for re-screening about two times out of five - sailed through the x-ray examination.

We were called for boarding at 8:05, an hour before takeoff , instead of the standard 30 minutes. The reason - and I'm not giving away any secrets here - was the individual examination of persons and bags at the departure gate.

Every passenger was asked to remove all outer garments; empty pockets; undergo a thorough pat-down; and then my examiner went through every item in every pouch and pocket in my backpack.

My search took about five minutes. There were four examiners to deal with about 250 people on the flight.

We started boarding an hour early, and the plane finally left an hour late. No one was left at the gate pending the final security check, so if this procedure stands, look for flight schedules to change over the next few months to account for gate delays.

In-flight we were told that for the final hour not only did we have to remain in our seats, but that we couldn't use any electronic devices nor have anything, including magazines and newspapers, in our laps.

In the event, the flight attendants took pillows and blankets and stuffed them into the overheads, but they didn't enforce the no reading materials rule, perhaps on the theory that an hour staring into the seat back in front of you at the end of an 8-hour flight might cause more problems than that rule would resolve.

When you come back to the U.S. from overseas, you have to go through immigration. My favorite thing is when the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) person hands back your passport and says, "Welcome home."

After immigration, you pick up your bags from the belt as if you were leaving the airport, whether you have an onward flight or not. You wheel them past the Customs inspectors and, if they don't think you look like you're trying out for a part on "Locked-Up Abroad" they wave you through.

If you're going on, you have to check them again to your final domestic destination, and go through security as if you had just come in from being dropped off at the curb. This isn't different. It's been this way for a long time, and the procedures to get out of the international arrivals area and into the terminal for our trip from JFK to DCA was, as far as I could see, hadn't changed from any other domestic TSA screening over the past several years.

Boarding the flight from JFK to DCA aboard a Comair commuter flight was no different than any domestic flight I've boarded since 9/11. There was no "one-bag" rule, there was no individual search. and there didn't appear to be any additional security at the gate or on the plane.

If, in the wake of the Abdulmutallab attack, extra security were going to be put on any plane, a flight from New York to Washington would likely be it.

In the end our trip was uneventful. But, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab reminded us yet again: We have to be right every time. The bad guys only have to beat the system once.