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Oh Baby Baby It's a Wild World - Air-rage here I come... by Steve Hogarth

A few people have commented on our journey to Mexico and the arrest of Cat Stevens (or Yusef Islam, as he has been known for the last 20 years) so I'll share the experience with you...

Tuesday 21st September 2004
Woke up at 7.30 after one of those bad nights of waking up repeatedly and wondering what time it was. Rolled out of bed and downstairs where I showered before making my first crucial coffee of the day. The house was slowly coming to life as Nial first and then Dizzy appeared in the kitchen. Nial went to shower and I drank coffee, kissed good morning to Sofie and tried to gather my thoughts and possessions together. I leave for Mexico City this morning. There's a car collecting me at 8.30. It arrived early at 8.10 so I maintained my old tradition of not actually packing until the car arrived. Threw all my things together and said bye bye to Nial and Sofie who went off to school happily. Dizzy shed a few tears - she's not looking forward to me going away. I'm sure I'd feel the same if the boot were on the other foot - I'll be away for about three weeks, and I guess I'll be the centre of attention more or less throughout. There's much can happen to place a wedge between us, but we've come this far and we've both fought to keep our marriage together despite some colossal pressures. If anything was going to split us up, I think it already would have. As with everything else in life, we've both learned from years of previous experience and, believe me, there's much to learn from living this way.

I left at 8.30 on a bright sunny morning and the taxi made fairly good time, depositing me in Heathrow Terminal 3 around 9.45. I met up with Steve, Pete, Ian and tour manager Quinner (Mark's flying in tomorrow) and we checked into flight UA 919 to Washington DC for the first leg of the journey. Check-in was pretty straightforward, much to my surprise as I was expecting security procedures to be pretty heavy. Security at International Departures was thorough however and a pair of scissors and Swiss Army Knife (which has been in the bottom of my toilet bag for years) were confiscated and checked into lost property so that at least I can claim them back upon my return. I made my way to the gate and we boarded the 747 which took off on time without a hitch. Amazing. The flight was fairly uneventful. I spent most of it chatting to Roderick, our sound engineer and trying to read his Sound-on-Sound magazine over his shoulder. The stewardesses must have been around since the 60's, and are now, well, in their sixties by the look of them. Personally I think the shine had long since faded in terms of their enthusiasm for the job, and it's a shame they didn't retire when they ceased to enjoy it. I'm sure I remember a time when cabin crew were young, glamorous, enthusiastic and had at least the pretence of a sense-of-humour, but those days are gone now as far as many global carriers are concerned, and I think UA must actually have put this lot through some kind of passenger aversion therapy. I felt like I was back at school under the gaze of disapproving teachers. We were due into Washington around 14.45 and thankfully around 14.45 we were told to fasten our seatbelts for landing.. I was looking forward to getting away from the surly uptight stewardesses and stretching my legs. As we landed a voice came over the PA, "Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the purser. I have to inform you that we are not landing at Washington Dulles airport as we have been redirected to Bangor International Airport in Maine."

As I listened to this, I looked out of the side window to see a line of four or five large military aircraft - this place looks like a USAF airbase... The purser continued, "The flight crew are too busy to speak to you right now but I can tell you that this diversion is due to bad weather over Washington and the need to refuel the aircraft." Hmm... well that sounded plainly untrue to me and I began to fear the worst. Jesus... a hijack..? a suspected bomb..? I asked the nearest stewardess what was going on. Why do we need to refuel when our time in the air has been as scheduled? She seemed neither concerned nor interested and told me that she had only been in the job for two years and didn't understand the intricacies of refuelling. I asked her to bring me a stewardess who DID understand the intricacies of refuelling then. The tension I already felt was heightened when the purser came back on to the PA to tell us we were not allowed to use our cellphones at this time. 15 minutes passed before the captain finally deigned to speak to us.

He told us that, "a few people at the back of the aircraft have been asking questions," and he could now tell us that the diversion had been requested by the FBI and security forces and at the moment he was advised that he was forbidden to fly to Washington "in this aircraft with these passengers and this crew at this time." A strange choice of words...

We were told we could now use our cellphones to call home if we should require and that we should remain in our seats with seatbelts fastened until further notice. An hour passed until the captain came back on the PA to tell us that we must now "de-plane" and take our hand baggage with us. On the way through the door of the 747 I was told by a stewardess that two "suits" from the FBI had boarded the plane and already escorted two people from the aircraft. Wow. Let's hope nothing's about to go bang, then...

We were led into a bleak hall where several lines had formed to pass through immigration and into the good ol' USA.. The unfortunate chap in front of me was questioned at length, delaying the queue I was in as all the others seemed to move along smoothly (you know the feeling). Turns out his only crime was to be holding a Pakistani passport, but that was enough to warrant him being taken into a side room from which I never saw him emerge. I had bought a little digital camera on the flight over, so I was trying to snap some kind of visual record of what was going on. I was tapped on the shoulder by the guy behind me who said I risked arrest if I was caught taking photographs in the immigration hall. I told him I thought this was the land of the free. "Not any more," he said, ruefully.

I was fingerprinted and asked a few routine questions by a female immigration officer who was actually very pleasant, especially so when compared to UA's bitter old air stewardesses. After immigration I went through to a baggage hall where I picked up my hideous and beautiful pink suitcase before crossing the hall to Customs where an old female Customs officer had a good rummage through my cases. Having done this I was asked to put my pink suitcase on another conveyor where it disappeared into a hole in the wall. Now we were free to wander down into the main lobby of the airport via a down escalator. At the bottom of this stood an attendant who asked me if I had any questions.

"Yes," I said, "Do you know what's EXACTLY going on here?"

"Yes," He said, in a hushed tone "The FBI just took Cat Stevens and his daughter off your flight... but I haven't told you!"

Bloody Hell! All this for a singer/ songwriter who has claimed to be a pacifist for his entire life. A good job Lennon wasn't on the plane - they'd have taken him out and shot him! (if some other American nutter hadn't already done it.)

This was quite a story and would be particularly so back in England where Cat was a big star in the 60's and 70's so I called Lucy and Lord B (our publicist) to let them know what had happened. "Leave it to us," they said... I hung up the phone, conscious of the fact that I'd just broken a pretty big news story. Strangely, we now had to retrieve our checked-in baggage AGAIN from a conveyor on this level so there was more hanging around until the hideous pink bag showed up. This enabled us all to go and form ANOTHER queue across the hall and begin checking in all over again. The pink bag was checked in afresh but not before being examined by yet another security guy who swabbed the handle before placing the swab in a machine - checking for trace elements of explosives, no doubt. Aah, them singer/ songwriters can go off bang at any moment.. (I was beginning to feel like I might explode myself, however, this was only just the beginning...). Having checked my pink bag back in, we were pointed back up the stairs to a gate where (see if you can guess..?) our hand baggage was put through a scanner along with the contents of our pockets etc, etc...

So now we were all back at a departure gate where we waited yet another hour before being allowed back on the plane. If this makes tedious reading, it made bloody tedious doing! Back on the plane we waited a further hour while the captain explained that the staff at Bangor Maine were not equipped to load 747's so it would take a long time to load the bags into the hold but that they were, "doing a great jarb". He then informed us that, for similar reasons, the plane was unable to re stock food or drinks and that the staff would only be able to give us limited supplies of water during our onward flight to Washington and nothing else. He thanked us all on behalf of America, himself, his crew, his children and his grand-children for our patience and understanding. This was a bizarre statement, but "bizarre" was beginning to be lost on me as a concept. I think he was trying to imply that by being patient (we had a choice?) and subjecting ourselves to a 7 hour diversion (and much arsing about while our bags were repeatedly examined by various different people and machines) we had somehow saved him and his entire family tree from annihilation at the hands of a mad Moslem intent on bloody mass murder. It was good to know that the man entrusted to fly our 747 was such an easy going rational guy... So now we were all super-heroes too... Well that's nice.

After a private pause to contemplate whether the runway was long enough to take off, I crossed my fingers and, at last, we thundered down the runway clearing the perimeter fence by what looked like a few feet. The journey to Washington was refreshingly straightforward although a little spartan. After an hour or so, water was passed round sparingly. I tried to look grateful so as to avoid the evil eye of the headmistress.

When we arrived it was 10pm local time. We had missed the last flight of the day to Mexico City and we had been booked on the 8.40am flight in the morning which was not direct, but via Chicago – once again, hundreds of miles in the wrong direction. The crowning news of the day, however, was that there was not one single hotel room available anywhere in Washington DC. Apparently there's some hot new exhibition of native American Indians at the Smithsonian Institute (Museum) and the city is packed solid with visitors. This means that our only choice was to sleep in the airport and, after frantic phone calls which failed to secure any hotel rooms at any price, we settled down beneath the white fluorescent lights which (UA staff said) could not be switched off "for security reasons" (ah, America's new answer to every rational query). Small aeroplane-pillows and thin blankets were found in an attempt to fall just short of treating us like farmyard animals, and we lay down one by one on the seats of the airport terminal. I think I managed an hour of fitful sleep before my phone started ringing and the UK's radio and TV news started asking me what was happening. First came BBC Radio 5 live, then after a brief show of interest from "Good Morning America" which waned, Channel 4 news. I was still talking to Channel 4 news when our 8.40 flight to Chicago began boarding. Quinner, our tour manager, attempted to negotiate us an upgrade to business class as a compensation for the delay and the sleepless night, but UA would have none of it. They said that any liability was not theirs, as the diversion had been a security issue. When I got on the plane I saw that I had been given a seat in the middle of a row of three occupied seats. I got back off the plane and threw a minor fit into the face of a Customer Relations supervisor, eventually being offered a row of 3 empty seats at the rear of the plane so that I could sleep. I spent a valuable hours horizontal before disembarking for the connecting flight to Mexico City which was leaving almost immediately. I have to sing live at The National Auditorium (capacity 9,000) tonight (Wednesday), it's being broadcast live on Mexican television and I haven't slept since Monday. No pressure then. We rushed to the gate and made it in time to check in and make our way onto the plane. The checked in baggage had been checked right through this time, so we were kind of resigned to maybe not getting our luggage for a day or two. Made our way onto the plane and settled down to be told that the pilot's seat was faulty and that another one must be found and assembled in it's place. Well, we had to laugh! That was about an hour ago, and there's still no sign of it. As I write, I'm further from Mexico than I was this morning and going nowhere fast. The longest journey of my life was the ludicrous one from Rio to Boston via Heathrow, back in 1996 and at 37 hours, I thought it couldn't be beaten. At the moment I've been travelling for exactly 33 hours and we still have to get down to Mexico City. I get the feeling we're going to break our own record.

The new pilot's seat finally arrived and was installed in around 2 hours. We set off to Mexico, exhausted and resigned to whatever happens next, at 11.45. Soundcheck at The National Auditorium is noon. I think we'll probably miss it.. After we were airborne food was served. I wasn't really hungry but my game plan was to have a couple of beers and lapse into coma so that at least I could chip away at some of the 6 hours jet lag and general exhaustion and perhaps be in with a chance of being in a fit state to sing tonight in Mexico City. When the steward came round with the drinks I asked for two beers. I figured this would save him the hassle of having to serve me twice. This proved a problem. "I'm sorry sir, I can't legally provide you with more than one beer but if you let me know when you have finished this one I will provide you with another." He said in the slightly terse manner I've come to expect from UA's cabin crew. I'm talking about little half-pint cans of Heineken. I sighed and saw little point in debating the issue - it's no-doubt a "security" thing. I sipped at the little can as slowly as possible whilst casting an eye over the in-flight movie "The Alamo" - the usual Hollywood American legend dressed up as heroic fact, with just enough modesty written into it to make it less than utterly cloying. When I had finished the beer I pressed the button to ask the steward for another. He arrived and told me tersely that he was still serving passengers further down the plane and that he would get back to me when he was finished. Jesus, what a country this is! I've been travelling for 37 hours and I'm being ticked off for doing as I was told in the first place. I hung on another ten minutes or so, and then I thought I'd just walk down the plane and ask him for a beer, then he could simply reach into the trolley and give me one. This I did but he refused, became shirty and told me that he didn't like my attitude. I told him I wasn't crazy about his attitude either and asked to speak to his superior. He directed me to the front of the plane where I tried and failed to complain about the situation to another member of the cabin staff. He listened whilst visibly bristling and then said, "You've had your say, now let me have mine..." I was accused of harassment and the so-called superior told me that if I persisted in causing trouble he would have the plane landed at the nearest airport and have me escorted from the aircraft. Now in an extreme state of derision, I resisted the urge to reach out and strangle him, remained calm and asked him how difficult it would have been for his colleague to simply reach down into a trolley and pass me a beer, and how this question constituted harassment of the cabin crew? ...but it was a waste of breath. I was tempted to call his bluff and tell him to go ahead and ground the plane, but that would have put an end to tonight's acoustic show in Mexico and would have also further buggered up the lives of all the passengers on this flight (not to mention getting me banned from ever entering the U.S. again). In the end he said he would bring me a beer when he had finished serving the first class passengers if I could assure him that there would be no "problem". I resented the implication that I was some kind of troublemaker and I told him I failed to understand the question but that, no, there would be "no problem". I was given a second beer some 15 minutes later. Gosh! I'd consumed an entire PINT of lager in an hour! Call in the marines - madman on board! For the rest of the flight I kept my head down and - too stressed to sleep - tried to faithfully reproduce the events of the day here in this diary. The steward in "economy" ($1,400 return from Heathrow) never did bring me a beer.

We FINALLY arrived in Mexico City around 4.00 pm and were met in the arrivals lounge by two friendly and helpful Mexican girls - working for the promoter - who hastened our journey through immigration and customs and we were soon in a minibus with our good friend Andrea Escobar, heading towards the centre of town and the Sheraton hotel where you can order more than one half-pint of beer at a time. It felt good to be back in a civilized country...

Don't think I'll be flying United Airlines again... God bless America... and God help us all.

First posted on the Web UK website in 2004.

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