On the Plane

Secretary Rice's Schedule, Plane Leaves Reporters Scrambling

BERLIN, Feb. 21--Traveling with the secretary of state is often a breeze. Reporters never stand in security lines, never go through passport control, never collect their bags and never have to change planes. They are whisked from the plane to the hotel in a high-speed motorcade that never stops for red lights.

But the Bush administration has a plane problem. One of President Bush's two 747 jets is going through a major maintenance overhaul, and two of the four 757 jets are also in maintenance. The president always needs a back-up plane, so he has taken one of the 757s. That just leaves one 757 for high-level officials like Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to share--and both had scheduled overseas trips this week.

Cheney trumps Rice when he goes abroad, so that left Rice with the next biggest jet--an executive 737 jet. It's a nice plane with first-class seats, large bathrooms and a special cabin for the top official. But it also means that Rice has to scale back her entourage from 42 people to just 19.

The first to be dropped were the journalists. Instead of the usual 13 or 14 reporters--representatives of wire services, newspapers, television networks, magazines and radio--the State Department decided to take only three wire-service reporters. That meant any other reporter had to try to follow Rice by commercial flights. A number of State Department personnel had to do the same.

Compared to most Rice trips, when she hop scotches from city to city in a pattern that cannot be easily duplicated on commercial airlines (such stopping in Jerusalem; Luxor, Egypt; and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in a single day), her schedule on this trip in theory was quite workable. She planned three days in Jerusalem and then two days in Berlin, with a quick stop in Amman, Jordan, on the way to Berlin. Reporters planning to follow her would simply fly directly from Jerusalem to Berlin.

But, as any air traveler knows, nothing is ever easy flying commercial. On the way to Israel, many of the reporters faced long delays (such as sitting four hours on a tarmac in New York) and then missed connections in Europe, bringing them hours--in two cases, nearly a day--late to Jerusalem. On the way over, they learned that Rice had snuck in an unannounced trip to Baghdad, meaning they had missed a big story.

Getting to Berlin was another chore. The only direct flight from Tel Aviv to Berlin left at 6 a.m., so the five reporters and four State Department officials following Rice had to leave their hotel in Jerusalem at 3:30 a.m. in order to make the 45-minute drive to Tel Aviv and still have enough time to get through the tough Israeli security. An Israeli security official closely questioned a television correspondent and a producer, even demanding to see their notes when they explained they had been covering the secretary of state's visit.

The newspaper reporters and State Department officials flew coach in the packed jet, while the TV folks had seats in business class.

Once they arrived in Berlin, the band of five reporters--wary of spending $100 on a taxi ride only to be stuck in a traffic jam--decided to take the $4 commuter train from the airport to the downtown airport. They carted their bags to the train station and puzzled over which train to take, finally settling themselves and their luggage in what appeared to be the right train. Suddenly, a conductor appeared, telling the embarrassed reporters that they were sitting in a train that had already ended its run.

-- Glenn Kessler

By washingtonpost.com Editors |  February 21, 2007; 10:54 AM ET  | Trip:  Rice in Middle East and Europe, February 2007
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