ABC’s Stephanie Smith reports: Forty journalists covering President Bush’s trip to Asia received a most unwelcome reception as their chartered Northwest plane arrived at the Beiing airport at 2:11am local time early Friday morning.
As the plane taxied to its gate, just hours before the start of the 2008 Summer Olymipcs, the journalists scurried to collect their belongings, an announcement was made by the White House administrators that there would be a delay in exiting the plane.
Delays are a common occurrence on overseas White House press flights, but this one was particularly unusual due to the length of the delay: just shy of three hours. The chartered press plane was arriving in Beijing about five hours after the President Bush’s own plane.
The journalists and 13 Northwest flightcrewmembers watched as about ten Chinese and U.S. Officials could be seen through the 747′s windows in heavy conversation inside the terminal.
Thirty minutes into the standoff a Northwest flight crewmember announced that the bar would be open. Later, snacks were brought out and passed around. Not a good sign, the journalists knew.
Weary and frustrated, journalists watched and waited, as one hour passed, then two with no resolution in sight.
"We’re getting screwed," comlpained CBS veteran White House reporter Mark Knoller, two hours into the detention as he munched on a wedge of grapefruit.
Perhaps the delay has something to do with the president’s critical speech on China’s human rights record given earlier today in Bangkok, Thailand, several journalists wondered?
"I think so," speculated Knoller, "but I have no way to prove it."
As the flight crew begain to roll in-house movies to the unhappy travelers, Senior Production Manager of the U.S. TV Pool, Steve Schrock put on his headset and began watching the classic thriller "Silence of the Lambs."
"I’m just trying to make the best of a bad situation," he said. "It’s a good movie. It won an Oscar."
Two and a half hours into the crisis, customs officials began handing out passports and customs forms.
"We’re working through logistical issues," wryly noted Gordon Johndroe, the White House National Security spokesperson, also on the plane.
Speculation abounded. The concensus was, the Chinese government went back on a previous agreement to allow the journalists in without a delay. For some reason, Chinese security decided to insist all luggage and camera equipment be screened, which caused the long delay.
As disoriented passengers made their way down the ramp to the empty terminal, a welcoming committee of smiling Chinese lined the corridors–some dressed in blue and white shirts with "Beijing 2008" emblazoned on the back.
A quick detour through passport control, where an electronic board asked for a push-evaluation of service — one of four choices being "service took too long." Not a smart option. This journalist pushed "excellent service."
Three and a half hours after Northwest Airlines flight 9989 landed, the press exited the airport, heading to buses that would drive 45 minutes to the hotel. Dawn was breaking. The sky was hazy and the air was as thick as pea soup.
"Quite the welcome," said ABC’s Correspondent David Kerley. Ditto that.