Every traveler dreads a sudden flight cancellation. But few travelers have been stuck with the kind of headache that White House reporters were left with this week.
In anticipation of covering President Biden’s trip to Japan and Australia, news organizations shelled out big bucks to charter a plane to carry journalists from Hiroshima to Sydney. But then Biden decided to skip the Australian leg of his trip to return to Washington for continuing negotiations with congressional Republicans over a debt ceiling increase.
The decision stuck media organizations with the tab for a trip that never happened. And some correspondents think it could prompt their bosses to pull back from covering the president on overseas trips, dooming future charter flights.
The now-canceled charter flight, organized by the White House Travel Office, cost $760,000, or about $14,000 for each of the 55 journalists who’d booked seats on it. Journalists will immediately lose their deposits, about $7,700 each, and may be on the hook for the rest, according to a memo sent to reporters on Wednesday by Tamara Keith, the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association.
But a lengthy list of other costs – hotel reservations, ground transportation, a shared press-filing center, among them – may also be unrecoverable. And journalists will lose some or all of the cost of their return flights from Sydney to Washington, as they scramble for last-minute flights from Hiroshima to Washington.
Bottom line: The bill for not going to Australia could run upward of $25,000 per person before any refunds kick in, according to several people involved in efforts to recover the money. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of negotiations over the funds.
In an interview, Keith said her organization is seeking to recover as much of the travel money as possible, though it wasn’t clear how much was possible.
“When the president travels amid a budget crisis or a debt ceiling crisis, his [travel] plans can change,” she said, noting that presidents Obama and Trump also canceled trips during their terms. “These are the risks we undertake with our eyes open. We hope it never happens. But it just did.”
A New York Times spokesman said the newspaper had booked travel on the canceled charter flight, but declined further comment. The Associated Press, NBC News, and The Washington Post are also traveling with Biden; they either declined to comment or did not respond to a request for one. White House officials referred an inquiry to the White House Correspondents’ Association.
Biden’s decision underscores the enormous costs news organizations incur – and sometimes lose – to cover presidential travel. It also highlights a growing concern among reporters: that charters on lengthy foreign trips have become impractically expensive for all but the richest news organizations.
Although charter flights are almost always more expensive than the commercial kind, journalists say they need them on presidential trips to keep up with the man they’re covering. Commercial flights often don’t dovetail with the president’s schedule, meaning reporters risk missing the story if they can’t come and go when Air Force One does.
The growing costs of the flights has reduced the number of reporters covering the president when he goes abroad. One White House reporter – a veteran of many presidential trips – said news organizations are becoming more reluctant to put thousands of dollars at risk to cover a story that might not happen.
The funds lost on the Australian charter, he said, are substantial, “especially at a time of layoffs” within news organizations.
Another predicted that the canceled flight “will kill charters for years to come. We can barely afford these trips now.”
Some news organizations have already cut back on the number of reporters and technicians assigned to presidential travel. Others have been sending different journalists, via commercial flights, to each stop on a presidential itinerary in a relay style, or just forgoing segments of a tour. TV networks, though, prefer to have the same reporter or anchor at each leg of the president’s trip.
Some have stopped sending reporters into the field altogether, relying instead on shared “pool” reports provided by the small band of journalists that travel with the president aboard Air Force One.
In the meantime, Keith in her memo on Wednesday asked White House correspondents to remain patient “as we work through this highly unusual and unfortunate situation.”