I recently had the pleasure of flying to Africa on South African Airways, a carrier I have used before and find to be pretty satisfactory. Over the years I have travelled a great deal and have seen the inside of well over a thousand planes. There have been a few mishaps (CAPS October, 2012), but never anything like this trip.
I was on my way home after a short, three hour flight to Johannesburg (from West Africa), and had a six hour layover, before boarding my 16 hour flight to New York. Six hours is one of those strange time periods, not enough to leave the airport, but too long to sit in a lounge. I roamed Johannesburg international and visited every store, looking at almost every item they had and buying a few souvenir spoons, pens and whatever my fifty or so Rand would cover.
Glancing at my watch showed I had managed to kill two hours and decided to head for the gate to watch a movie on my IPad. Between the time left in the airport and the 16 hour flight I calculated that I would be able to binge watch 19 episodes of Reign.
Time passed slowly and people were beginning to enter into the gate. Tourists with Jungle Jim hats, unsoiled safari vests and shopping bags filled with souvenirs, were laughing and reminiscing about their African adventure. None seemed pleased at the prospect of sitting sixteen hours in a fuselage, but it was part of the journey. I am not new to long flights and have made well over a dozen 13 hour+ flights, but it will always remain a boring, time wasting episode of any travel adventure.
The clock was ticking, or should I say dragging and I suddenly saw a lady in uniform approach and ask me to get rid of my can of juice. I looked inquisitively at her, not fully understanding what she meant. I had purchased the beverage after security, so I knew it was legal and mentioned that to her. She ignored my comment and repeated herself with an authoritative tone. I pointed out the beverage was not past the 'best before' date, but she failed to share my humour.
I decided it would be in my best interest to comply, and slowly made my way to the trash bin. When I returned to my seat I saw two police with dogs which were busy sniffing people's carry-on luggage. The police (or soldiers) wore camouflage uniforms with heavy Kevlar vests, complimented by automatic side arms and some sort of semi-automatic rifle in the hand which was not holding the dog's leash.
Now I have seen Buddy, the drug sniffing beagle, at Pearson airport many times and find him to be cute and quite diligent about his job. The dogs at Johannesburg International came from a totally different breeder and had one mission... search and destroy. The German shepherd, the size of a grey wolf was smaller than his partner, a long haired cross between a Newfoundland and a Rottweiler. Not only did these dogs appear ready to attack, but they were heading in my direction.
Quickly my mind's eye raced through my backpack. Was there anything that shouldn't be there? Did I neglect to mention anything? What about my pockets? I quickly fumbled through them, but found nothing. The dogs came closer; one was tugging at his master's leash, as if his sole mission today was to pounce on me. What if someone had planted drugs on me? I panicked and felt cold sweat on my neck. The dogs stopped! Their masters gave them a command! They began to sniff my backpack.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity they left. I asked what was wrong, but was totally ignored. Suddenly the low murmur of the crowd was broken by one of about a dozen policemen ordering everyone to line up in two rows, men on one side, and women on the other. I obeyed immediately, for I had no desire to face the wrath of armed lawmen and watched carefully as they frisked everyone, one at a time and took every item out of the carry-ons, inspecting it carefully.
Any liquids, no matter what size were tossed, as were food products, gels and toothpastes. I asked a uniformed official, who seemed to be in charge, what the problem was. "There has been an ISIS threat against the flight," he said, matter of factly. It may have been a routine task for him, but I was stunned. Visions of Callan and Sam rushing to catch terrorists raced through my mind. I looked around expecting to see Jethro Gibbs come to the rescue, but this was not television; this was real life, real drama and real fear.
Nothing was found, or at least if it was it was not shared with me and we were allowed onto the plane. I nestled in my seat, turned on my iPad and covertly glanced around the cabin. I spent the next sixteen hours wondering if the police dogs had missed anything.