Diplomats in the news for wrong reasons

The silver lining for U.S. diplomats of this week’s WikiLeaks release of secret State Department cables is that there is more buzz about their work than there has been in years. Even though it’s for the wrong reasons, it provides a chance to use the public attention for a serious debate on modern diplomacy.

The general public usually hears about diplomats when there is a spy scandal, or when a diplomat is arrested for selling U.S. entry visas to foreigners — for money or sex. Members of the U.S. Foreign Service often complain that it’s an unknown entity to the very people diplomats represent abroad. My extensive research in the last seven years confirms that concern. Most Americans have no idea what their representatives do every day — and many have no interest in learning about it, either.

Does badmouthing airlines help anyone?

Airlines are consistently among the most criticized companies by both the public and the media. While much of the criticism is deserved, does some of it amount to nothing more than badmouthing that helps no one? Isn’t it time for fliers to learn the air travel system’s ins and outs, and not blame the airlines for all their ills on the road?

In this column, I’ve denounced certain airline practices, such as the fictitious “direct” flights that are simply two flights with the same number but nothing else in common. There is no question the industry has made the system very complex, mostly for financial reasons, and it’s profiting from customers’ lack of knowledge. However, the system is what it is, and there isn’t much we can do to change it to our liking…

Where are my ex-secretaries of state?

I began the week reminiscing about my travels with four secretaries of state, so I thought I’d end it by answering another question I’m frequently asked: What happened to the three secretaries I covered before Hillary Clinton? Starting with the most recent, they are Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright.

I’ve also been asked often about the differences between those former chief U.S. diplomats, especially during travel. I usually point out an obvious similarity among them first: None of them is a white male. In fact, the last secretary to fit that description was Warren Christopher, who left office in January 1997, when Albright ended the centuries-old tradition.

Flying with Obama and earning miles

One of the questions I’ve been asked most frequently in the last decade is whether I’ve earned any frequent-flier miles from my nearly 200 flights with four U.S. secretaries of state. Sadly, the answer is no — and what makes it even sadder is that my press colleagues accompanying the president do get miles and even elite status.

I’ve known many journalists over the years who were top elites purely as a result of White House travel. Some of them didn’t really use their elite benefits because of their very limited commercial flying. There were also a few who didn’t even know they had the coveted status.

So why the differentiation? The above photo will help explain things. I snapped it while waiting for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Beijing a year ago — we flew to Afghanistan that day.

Clinton’s plane is the one of the right — as I wrote last year, it’s the Air Force version of the Boeing 757, also known as C-32. Air Force One — the Boeing 747 on the left — was waiting for President Obama and later took him to Seoul.

The State Department traveling press corps — about a dozen on average — flies on the secretary’s aircraft. Air Force One, however, has enough seats only for a pool of 12, and usually more than 100 reporters go on a foreign presidential trip. There is a rotation for the pool seats on every flight, but most of the time reporters fly on a so-called press plane chartered by the White House, usually from United Airlines.

What you don’t see on the above photo is that, across from the two Air Force planes, to the left of the traffic lane, there was a parked United aircraft, which was of course the press charter.

Everyone on that plane earned United miles, and many of those traveling with the president regularly have 1K status — United’s highest published elite level, requiring 100,000 flown miles per calendar year. Moreover, fliers get first-class mileage credit, which means 150 percent elite-qualifying miles.

Before every trip, different airlines bid for the charter contract, and the White House travel office and the White House Correspondents Association choose the offer they deem best. Although most of the time they select United, for Obama’s trip to Asia last week the winner was Delta Airlines.

The trip took travelers around the world — they flew over the Atlantic en route to India, then went to Indonesia, South Korea and Japan, before returning to Washington via the Pacific. According to the Great Circle Mapper, that’s about 22,000 miles. Delta spokesman Anthony Black declined to say whether the fliers will earn mileage, citing “customer privacy.”

I admit I’ve been a little jealous about all the “missed” miles over the years — almost half a million — but I never wanted to cover the White House because of the domestic politics involved in that beat.

I found another way to earn miles from official trips. After flying almost 100,000 miles with Colin Powell in 2003, I’d had it with non-mileage-earning flights. I still needed to re-qualify for 1K. The following year, I decided that I’d go on the secretary’s plane but would drop off at the last stop and come home commercially. Now I’ve been 1K for a decade.

Some of you might think I was crazy to give up a seat on the secretary’s plane and a hassle-free journey, not having to worry about passport control, customs and sometimes even security screening.

But I thought about it in a different way. I was paying half the price the State Department would charge me — yet, I was getting much better seats as a result of business-class upgrades, mileage credit and better food — yes, even on United.

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Related stories:

My trips with Clinton back in the news

In air with Clinton on first trip abroad

Clinton weathers job’s long flights

Press ready for Obama, Clinton travel

What are your air travel pet peeves?

There are many things about today’s air travel system that annoy the most patient people — passengers and airline employees alike. It’s easy to encounter rudeness on both sides. I’ve learned to block out most of the noise and avoid hassle or stress, but I realized during a trip this week that I have my own pet peeves list.

1. Passengers demanding upgrades from gate agents, because they are on a “full fare” or have elite status — except that their ticket’s booking class is nowhere near Y or B, and they have the lowest status level.
2. Airport lounge gatekeepers wrongly denying you access and insisting they are correct when you confront them with the actual rules. Worse yet, they find a supervisor who agrees with them — as if repeating a mistake twice makes it right.
3. Passengers trying to hide a bag they put on the floor of an exit row, not to be seen by the flight attendant who warned them that luggage is not allowed there…