Monday, 9 July 2007

Terror in the skies

I'm not the best of travellers when it comes to flying. I'm a terra firma kind of guy. Which is why living in Paris and working a couple of days in London has been a plausible project thanks to Eurostar.

I couldn't have had this lifestyle before it. The prospect of heading out to Gatwick or Heathrow and then into central Paris from Orly or Charles de Gaulle on a weekly basis would have been too much.

As we all wended our way through baggage checks at Waterloo on Tuesday morning, there seemed to be more of a security presence. Maybe there were just more staff because there are more people travelling.

It seemed as if there was more vigilance following the failed car bomb attacks in central London and at Glasgow airport.

In response the security services are on alert level critical - the highest. Terminal forecourts across Britain have been sealed off from vehicles. And everyone's more tense. Modern Life Is Rubbish, as Blur once bellowed on an album cover.

And yes it is. All the trappings of our sophistication are being rendered unattainable.

To have the chance of travel and the opportunity to expand one's mind, you have to endure miles of traffic jams on the approach roads to airports. The brave who do come in by road then have to drop off passengers at the airport car parks.

Once inside there are going to be even more stringent checks than before. I foresee a world where checks get so exhaustive that no one's allowed to travel.

Oh that's a totalitarian regime. Let's get back to modern life.

There's going to be chaos for the rest of the summer. But this is acceptable pandemonium because it keeps us safe.

Arrests have been made and so far all the hallmarks in Britain are of al-Qaeda . It won't be long before the eco-terorrists follow fashion. With all the worries, people are going to think twice about taking a plane and thus carbon footprints are going to be reduced.

It will then be a greener, cleaner world for the suicide bombers.

It doesn't take much to steer me away from an aircraft. Sadly there are no trains from Paris to Rhode Island. So I'll have to take the strain of the plane.

The girls absolutely adored the last time we went to America as there were individual TV screens for them and they were encouraged to watch the myriad offerings on the children's channel.

In fact the screens are a godsend for me too. It helps keep my mind off the reality of being up in the air.

I always hated it when the pilot announced: "Welcome on board ladies and gentleman, this is your captain. We'll be flying at a height of 30,000 feet. I do hope you enjoy your flight."

Terror - for I am talking about the good old days before military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq - gripped me and that announcement pretty much ruined the flight for me.

Must admit the last time we went to the States I didn't hear the announcement - had probably already entered the vortex of fear.

But there was a panel showing the plane and its progress across the Atlantic. I wondered if — in the case of multiple engine failure — whether it would show the craft diving to its watery doom.

So not quite the usual Eurostar experience. The train was just a bit part player in the psycho drama that was my journey to the States.

It was back to Paris without any problems. The 0534 left on time from Waterloo and got into Paris on schedule at 9.30am

I'd arranged to meet the family up at Charles de Gaulle at 10.30am and as I waited for the RER to take me up to the airport, the mobile phone went.

It was the family still back at the apartment. The taxi driver hadn't been as reliable as the Eurostar.

Apparantly he had been booked for 9am. But hadn't turned up.

I was told to wait at the Gare du Nord.

When they arrived I heard the full story.

The family went down onto the street to wait for the driver. By 9.30 he hadn't arrived so Ann went back to the flat to call the taxi firm.

That's when she heard the driver's message saying that he was going to be late.

The taxi firm then told Ann that the driver had gone on to his next appointment — because there'd been no answer from the landline.

Quite how a driver takes that kind of responsibility beats me. The controller said the firm wouldn't be using him again. Doesn't bother me really as we won't be using that firm again.

We all got to Charles de Gaulle on time and through the various bits of security without any problems.

Once on board the plane we discovered our mistake. We hadn't checked the tickets to make sure we were all sitting together. In fact we were dotted about.

The steward was reluctant to intervene and it was left to me to cut a deal so my two daughters of 8 and 5 could sit together about 20 rows in front of us - that's after organising another swap so I could be next to Ann and the boy.

After take off and a few screams I suggested to the couple in front of us that their flight might be altogether more wondrous if they swapped with our daughters. And they agreed.

So there we were a block party on board American Airlines from Charles de Gaulle into Boston Logan.

I must say that having a 15-month-old child on a trans-Atlantic flight completely took my mind off the fact that I was flying at a height of 40 million feet. I was just too busy keeping him quiet.

Three or so hours into the flight I went to stand at the back of the plane to try and cradle the boy to sleep. Once he was slumbering I laid him out on three free seats. Like a doting dad I snuggled up next to him and we must have been a picture of drooling joy.

There we were bonding in dreamland when a stewardess woke me up to tell me that we were in seats reserved for airline personnel and we'd have to move when they wanted to sit down.

I mumbled that was cool and said she should wake me up when they wanted to sit down.

She came back a couple of times to repeat her message. And each time I said fine.

When the moment came for the staff to return, I was woken up and I moved the boy. As he was still sleeping I squeezed him onto a seat with one of his sisters who had also nodded off. They were a picture of tranquility. I went off to ask for some water.

It was then that the stewardess started screaming at me in French that the seat was wet.

I just looked at her. She was in full air rage mode. She was apoplectic that we, passengers, had despoiled the seats and worse one of the uniform tunics was soggy.

I didn't realise it but I must have looked glazed and confused. She said: "Vous comprenez fran├žais?"

"Yes I understand French," I replied in English. "But I refuse to be spoken to like that in any language."

That seemed to startle her.

I apologised that the baby had wet the seat. I said I would clean up the stain if they could provide me with a sponge and some soap. And as for the tunic, I said I would leave my address and telephone number and pay for it to be cleaned.

Then after kicking up a stink, she bristled: "C'est pas grave."

I thought about taking her name immediately so that I could complain to the customer services department. But since there were another two hours left of the flight and we had another meal service to go I thought it prudent to let it lie.

I didn't want to invoke any group solidarity and end up with some lethal toxin in my marshmallow happy bag.

I just thought I won't be using this firm again. So as I waited for tea to be served 40 million feet up, I looked around in my black haversack for a pen. There in one of the front pockets was my Swiss army knife.

I went cold. This kind of thing should be in the suitcase in the hold. This is the sort of thing that hijackers try to get on board to commandeer planes.

I put the bag down slowly and told Ann of my discovery.

It's the kind of prank journalists do to try to expose airport security. Well I can exclusively reveal that airport security at Charles de Gaulle was lax enough on Tuesday, July 3, 2007, to allow me - a national newspaper journalist - to get on board a flight for America with a Swiss army knife. A potentially lethal weapon.

But all I can say is any terrorist on American Airlines flight 147 would probably have been neutralised by the "stewardess".