Madam Speaker, You Could Still Fly to Kabul — Here’s How

Jan 18, 2019

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After a public spat over the ongoing government shutdown, President Donald Trump announced publicly that he canceled a military aircraft for Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to fly to Afghanistan, and let her know that she could fly commercial instead. Pelosi had been scheduled to visit Brussels, Egypt and Afghanistan on official business — a trip she would have conducted on one of the Air Force’s VIP transports. “We will reschedule this seven-day excursion when the Shutdown is over,” said a presidential letter made public by the White House press secretary. “Obviously, if you would like to make your journey by flying commercial, that would be your prerogative,” it added.

Pelosi’s team said they were “prepared to fly commercial” into the war zone, but they ended up canceling the trip on Friday saying the safety of the journey had been compromised.

“In the middle of the night, State Dept’s Diplomatic Security Service provided an updated threat assessment detailing that the President announcing this sensitive travel had significantly increased danger to the delegation & to troops, security, & other officials supporting trip,” Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff, Drew Hammill, wrote on Twitter on Friday. “This morning, we learned that the Administration had leaked the commercial travel plans as well.” (The White House denies that it leaked the team’s travel plans).

But how could a Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, second in line of succession for the presidency, and her delegation fly a commercial airline into a war zone? There actually are several options.

For government officials, there are different parameters for booking commercial travel than for the rest of us civilians. US federal employees are bound by the Fly America Act, which states that they are required “to use U.S. air carrier service for all air travel and cargo transportation services funded by the U.S. government.”

The New York Times also reports that the delegation planned to stop in Brussels before continuing on to Afghanistan to meet with US troops stationed there.

So, looking at US carriers’ routes from Washington to Brussels, it’s just United that flies the route nonstop, from Dulles on a Boeing 777 aircraft. There’s a chance the plane operating the route might have United’s new Polaris seats, which would make the trip much more comfortable. The flight is operated by a 777-200ER; according to the airline’s Polaris tracker, United has 51 of these planes that will be receiving the new seats, but only 13 of them (25%) have it now, so the odds wouldn’t be good.

If the team were flying in economy, they’d possibly have a bit more room if the plane hasn’t been retrofitted, as United would still have its coach cabin configured in a 3-3-3 setup instead of a 3-4-3.

Getting to Brussels is the easy part. Then it gets tricky.

Not many airlines fly into Kabul. The most direct way to the Afghan capital is on Turkish Airlines through Istanbul or Emirates through Dubai. The savvy travelers of the group might also recognize that Turkish, like United, is a member of the Star Alliance, meaning you could theoretically book a ticket all the way from Dulles to Kabul, flying United metal to Brussels, then hopping on a Turkish jet to Istanbul, and then another from there onto Kabul. Alternatively, a ticket to Brussels would suffice, with a separate ticket on Emirates, from Brussels to Dubai and then Dubai to Kabul.

One of TPG‘s resident aviation geeks, community manager Wallace Cotton, also noted: “The only way they avoid a two-stop itinerary or more from DC [to Kabul] is if they flew on Emirates, Air India (or United through Delhi) or Turkish. For US metal, you could snag a fancy new Polaris seat to Frankfurt (from IAD) or Tel Aviv from (JFK), and then Turkish through Istanbul.”

The routes are definitely more complicated than taking a direct military flight.

With reporting by Wallace Cotton.

Featured image by Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call.

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