August 11, 2006 06:00 PM

The first sign that something was wrong was the lines: So long that you couldn’t tell where they started.

But when I arrived at London’s Heathrow airport at 5 a.m. Thursday for my 7:55 a.m. United Airlines flight to Washington, D.C., the only explanation for the wait was a vague “security alert.” I was traveling for a surprise wedding shower for my twin sister, and after being out until 2 a.m., all I was looking forward to was collapsing in the lounge. More than anything I – and many others in the queue with me – felt frustration, not panic. At daybreak, many of us hadn’t yet read the paper or watched the news.

I asked about self check-in, and a weary-looking United agent shook her head. Then she told me I had to check all my bags, including my handbag, and I could only take my wallet and my passport on board.

I stared at her in disbelief. “But this isn’t meant to be checked,” I said, pulling the strap on my handbag. “It’ll be destroyed on the luggage carousel.”

She shrugged her shoulders and handed me a clear plastic bag. “Security alert,” she said. Since when? She told me she’d left at midnight and everything was fine, but that the new measures were in place when she returned at 4:30 a.m.

What I didn’t know was that 21 suspects had been arrested in connection with a plot to blow up as many as 10 jets heading to the United States, according to British and U.S. authorities. Not a comforting thought – it was only last summer that four bombers killed 52 people in London.

Check-in took nearly two hours as everyone tried to be the exception to the rule, protesting that this camera was too fragile, or that software was proprietary. All our PDAs, iPods and mobile phones were checked in – as well as all our toiletries. The girl in front of me nearly started to cry: “But my boyfriend is meeting my plane and I haven’t seen him in a month and a half. I have to have my makeup!”

Abandoned items at the Los Angeles International Airport

My Vogue magazine got tossed, along with my hair-straightening gel, my favorite Laura Mercier foundation, my vial of Stella McCartney perfume and my contact lens solution.

In the security line – another hour’s wait – my belongings were again scrutinized and two agents patted me down. And I was wearing all my jewelry out of fear of checking it.

At about 8.45 a.m., nearly an hour after my scheduled flight, I arrived at the gate, where we saw on the TV for the first time the announcement, “TERROR PLOT FOILED.” A little more than an hour later, United announced the flight would be taking off and we clapped, cheered and whistled – hardly anyone had believed we would get off the ground that day. “At least there won’t be any fighting over the overhead bins,” I said. By about 10:30 a.m. we were in the air.

Around me, after every inch of the plane – and our persons – had been searched, passengers compared notes on who had managed to get what through security (I was jealous that someone had gotten a book through). We felt more relaxed, and even started a pool on how many hours it would take to retrieve our luggage on the other end (my vote was for two), and business travelers who had to check their laptops joked about how great it was not to work in-flight. Not once did I hear anyone panic about security.

Landing in Dulles, I lost the luggage pool. Our bags were stacked by the carousel almost as soon as we cleared customs, but that might not have been such a good thing: Many valuables were in clear plastic bags, and a small one containing my Blackberry, a gift I’d bought my sister, a watch and a cardigan was gone. As I collected my other bags, another passenger became hysterical when a thief plucked the plastic bag with his wallet and passport straight from his hand and ran.

Finally I retrieved my phone and turned it on. Fourteen voicemail messages – oh, to be loved! – including one from my sister. A friend of hers had panicked about where I was and whether I was okay. My arrival was no longer a surprise for her, but at least I had made it – and I could always borrow some of her makeup.

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