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The Heathrow maze: long but not impossible

It takes 4½ hours, and the chocolate is seized, but she makes it through. After a week of the new rules, passengers are adjusting at the British airport.

Published August 19, 2006

LONDON - Heathrow, the world's busiest international airport, isn't anyone's favorite place in the best of times. But it became a nightmare of delays and cancellations, horrendous lines and intrusive security checks after British authorities said they foiled plans by young Muslim men to smuggle explosives aboard U.S.-bound planes.

By Thursday, a week after the alleged plot was revealed, Heathrow had settled into a tightened security regime that is apt to be the norm for weeks, if not months, as shown by this traveler's experience:

Thursday, 7:30 a.m.: Arrive at Terminal 3 for 11:55 a.m. United flight to Washington, D.C. At the entrance, guards give everyone a flier that says "Increased Security at U.K. airports," detailing new carry-on restrictions and warning that only one piece of hand baggage is allowed. There's a metric ruler printed on the edge of the flier so you can measure your carry-on to make sure it meets the new size rules - 35cm by 45cm by 16cm, or about 14 inches by 18 inches by 6 inches.

8 a.m.: Check-in goes surprisingly fast, mainly because a few of us economy-class passengers are redirected to the nearly empty first-class check-in counter.

8:15 a.m.: Now the fun starts. There's a line of at least 200 for the first round of security screening. A sense of camaraderie quickly develops. The woman behind me, an American from Idaho, says this is her third trip to Heathrow in as many days to catch a flight to Sweden. The two previous occasions, she went back to her hotel - at a cost of about $100 in cab fare each time - because she couldn't bear to wait in line three hours.

The woman in front, an Australian flying to Qatar, says she and her husband bought two small pieces of carry-on luggage. They were afraid to check all their possessions after hearing stories about the thousands of suitcases that wound up in Nairobi or disappeared in the chaos. In one case, an Irish couple had to break into their own home late at night - setting off an alarm that brought the police - because their house keys were in their missing luggage.

9:15 a.m.: After an hour, our little group finally gets to the security checkpoints. We deposit shoes, purses, etc., on the scanner belt, then walk through the metal detector. My Aussie and Idaho pals are pulled aside for a more thorough check that includes a pat-down.

9:20 a.m.: Enter the jam-packed departure hall, where a friendly young woman from the World Duty Free store hands out fliers reminding U.S.-bound passengers that they are forbidden to take any liquids aboard, including wine, booze and perfume.

"We don't want people to have a bad feeling if they get to the gate and have to leave their purchases behind," she explains.

Lest anyone walk away empty-handed, the store has posted signs - "Available to all passengers" - on nonforbidden items like cigarettes. It's also selling cheap black bags in which passengers can consolidate everything - passports, wallets and, of course, duty-free purchases - into one handy carry-on.

Outside another store, an employee offers samples of Belgian chocolates, and I take one to eat on the plane.

Given the terrible exchange rate - the U.S. dollar is worth about 50 cents in Britain - my only purchases are several newspapers.

11 a.m.: Arrive at Gate 71, where boarding for United 919 is due to begin in five minutes. Passengers are braced for extra-tight security because of an incident the previous day when a woman on another United flight from London to Washington became hysterical, forcing the pilot to divert to Boston. She was later found to be carrying banned hand lotion.

"Put your purse and papers there," a female security screener orders, pointing to a nearby table, "and hold your hands over your head." She feels every inch of my body, head to toe. Then she instructs me to take off my sandals so she can check for explosives.

Another screener examines my newspapers to make sure nothing is hidden in them. She confiscates the Belgian chocolate, apparently because it has a liquid center.

11:10 a.m.: Reclaim boarding pass - which now has a green-and-white security sticker on it - and watch others going through the rigorous checks. Screeners take one woman's nail polish, another's hand cream.

Every so often, a few passengers bypass the screening line and walk right into the waiting area. "Are you checking everyone?" I ask an official-looking person.

"Oh, no, it's random, we just do 50 percent," she replies.

British authorities say they aren't profiling passengers, but it seems pretty apparent that they are, at least on this flight. The only people who escape the pat-downs appear to be white - usually older and well-dressed. Meanwhile, all those of color - including a woman in traditional African garb and another wearing a head scarf - get thorough searches.

12:05 p.m.: Cabin doors close, and the plane taxis to the runway. Despite the security checks, boarding has gone quickly - mainly because 200 passengers weren't trying to wrestle huge carry-on bags down the aisles or stuff everything they own into the overhead bins.

Even if the circumstances are unfortunate, there's a lot to be said for traveling light.

Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at

[Last modified August 19, 2006, 01:06:52]

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