Michael Duell was not unhappy about the long flight. No jangling cell phones, no nagging e-mails. Plus, it was New Year's Eve, so no Dick Clark. "I find these flights very relaxing," says the engineer, 45, from Oakton, Va. "I actually get a lot of work done." This particular British Airways flight, arching across the Atlantic from London's Heathrow to Dulles airport outside Washington, was wonderfully unremarkable. Only the people on the ground watching it land would have seen the two F-16 fighter jets gliding behind the plane.
It was not until the end of Flight 223 that Duell noticed anything unusual. "We didn't go to the terminal. We just stopped on the tarmac, maybe a quarter of a mile away. And we just sat." And sat. The crew instructed passengers to keep their phones off and their passports in hand. Anyone who needed to go to the bathroom was escorted by a crew member, who waited at the door. Men in dark jackets milled around outside, and the plane was roped off with yellow police tape. Finally, after an hour and a half, the 247 passengers were shepherded in small groups onto the floodlit tarmac and into mobile lounges. Officials checked their passports and bags, questioning a few passengers more intensely than others, and five hours after landing, Duell met his wife. She had been waiting for him in the terminal, wondering with dozens of others what had become of Flight 223. "British Airways did a fine job," says Duell. "My only issue is that we weren't told anything. There was a dearth of information."
Clarity was not forthcoming. Flight 223 would be canceled the next day and the day after that. A U.S. official told TIME that intelligence suggested terrorists may have wanted to blow up Flight 223 or crash it into a building in Washington. More than a dozen other flights to or from Paris, London, Los Angeles, Washington, Riyadh and Mexico City were scrapped in a week and a half, starting on Christmas Eve. It was a strange period of aviation lottery that may become more commonplace as authorities continue to hunt, with imperfect information, for would-be al-Qaeda hijackers. All told, at least 27 flights were canceled, detained, rerouted or tailed by fighter jets--ready, as a last resort, to shoot down the planes should they deviate from their courses. We may never know whether an attack was prevented. What is clear is that U.S. officials had gathered what they believed to be extremely disturbing intelligence; equally clear is that their ability to confirm such intelligence remains lacking.
A rash of anxiety began working its way through Washington in early December, when a source overseas whom U.S. officials consider well placed indicated that al-Qaeda may have been planning a spectacular hijacking to coincide with Christmas. Then that generalized fear got starkly specific: messages mentioning Air France flight numbers and routes (but not dates) were electronically intercepted by U.S. intelligence. As the initial warnings were corroborated, the Bush Administration decided to raise the nation's terrorism alert to high from elevated--to orange from yellow. The accumulation of intelligence "got everybody as scared as I've seen them," says a Bush Administration official. "Each time in the past, there have been differing views about raising the threat level. This time there was no dissent."