Barnett on Business Travel
LIFE ON THE ROAD
WITH WOLF BLITZER
BY CHRIS BARNETT
April 8, 2004 -- Among serious business travelers in the media, war correspondents and combat photographers probably face the gravest dangers on the road. But network television anchors who get out and head for the action don't all travel like pashas.
Just ask Wolf Blitzer, CNN's lead anchor and most recognizable newsman. For more than 30 years, he's refused to stay tethered to a news desk or a studio set. And while he hasn't dodged bullets in firefights, he's had some close calls.
The closest? In May, 2002, Blitzer and a film crew were riding in an armored car returning from a midnight interview in Ramallah with PLO leader Yasser Arafat when it was abruptly stopped at an Israeli military checkpoint.
"An armored car is hermetically sealed, you can't open the windows, you hear nothing," he recalls. "We couldn't hear the Israeli soldiers yelling into bullhorns, 'Get out of the car with your hands up!' " The journalists stayed put, waiting to be waved on. Eventually, the driver opened the car door and got out. He saved their lives.
"We didn't realize it at the time, but the Israelis thought it was a car carrying dynamite--a car bomb," remembers Blitzer. "The soldiers said, 'Good thing you got out of the car. In another 30 seconds we would have blasted you.' I said to myself, 'Omigod.' "
The worst air turbulence Blitzer has endured in his career was, ironically, on Air Force One. He spent nearly eight years as the network's senior White House correspondent during the Clinton Administration and rode with the press corps in the back of the Presidential 747-200 for almost all of Bill Clinton's overseas trips.
"There were some China and Australia trips that got very, very turbulent. This huge plane is shaking, rocking and bumping and the President of the United States is on board. I'll never, ever forget those flights and I don't think Bill Clinton will either."
Blitzer's sort of an unforgettable guy himself. No TV pretty boy with a lyrical name, the Buffalo, New York, native may have more weekly face time with viewers than any broadcast journalist today. Since December, 2000, he's anchored Wolf Blitzer Reports, a twice-daily, hour-long newscast that covers the day's top news, airs live interviews and offers live debriefs with CNN correspondents worldwide. He also hosts Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer, the only Sunday news show seen in 180 countries and territories. Plus, he writes and files daily reports for CNN.com.
His first business trip was in 1972 as a reporter in the Jerusalem bureau of Reuters, the global news agency. Willy Brandt, then the chancellor of West Germany, became the first German leader to visit Israel since the Holocaust and it was Blitzer's first major assignment. It turned out to be a huge story. Blitzer hit the road in his own car, a tiny Fiat, and drove more than 100 miles from Tel Aviv to Masada, the ancient mountaintop fortress in the Negev desert. Blitzer was one of the journalists who saw Brandt's helicopter touch down, then nearly be blown off the mountaintop. Brandt was thrown free, uninjured, but the snafu created headlines worldwide.
These days, CNN's travel agency makes Blitzer's trip arrangements, but the veteran traveler eyeballs and tweaks every detail of his itinerary. "That can make a huge difference," he says. One example: CNN may book him a 7 p.m. California-bound flight from Washington, where Blitzer is based, to Los Angeles. But "I may know that a 7:30 p.m. departure is a Boeing B-777 that originated in Europe and that it's bigger, more comfortable and newer. The [travel agent] may not ask about the equipment used on the Los Angeles flights, but I do."
Blitzer does not just grab his tickets and go, either. When he's booked on a direct flight, he'll ask if it's a nonstop. "If the person booking my flight is not really experienced, they'll accept direct," says Blitzer, "but that may require a stop in Chicago. Even though it's not a plane change, who wants to waste that extra time? Not me. I have some travel quirks that are important to me."
Such as...? Blitzer studies the seating configuration of different aircraft and avoids, like the plague, most bulkhead seats. Most of them don't offer enough legroom or a drop-down table for working and spreading out papers, he says. He prefers a seat in the third or fourth row. On red-eye flights, he chooses a window seat so he can sleep without a seatmate crawling over him to get out. Otherwise, he prefers the aisle.
Blitzer spends most of his in-flight time scanning briefing papers and prepping for upcoming stories. How does he handle the passenger sitting next to him who wants the Blitzer take on world events, the war, Saddam or Osama? Diplomatically. "I try to make it clear that it is not a good time to talk," he explains. "I try to do it as pleasantly as I can." He says people who ride first class on long-haul flights usually understand the value of personal privacy and the importance of being productive.
Blitzer is not wedded to any airline or a slave to a single frequent-flyer program. He says he's had "a lot of good experiences" on British Airways and "some" international flights with United. On cross-country flights to the West Coast, he splits his loyalty between American and United. He flies Delta to CNN's Atlanta headquarters and the Delta Shuttle from Washington to New York and Boston. "CNN has some kind of deal or discount with them," he explains.
The CNN anchor is especially taken by JetBlue Airways. "I've flown it several times to Fort Lauderdale. I like it a lot because you can watch live television," including CNN. "I wish it had a first class." Surprisingly, Blitzer hasn't heard a peep about Delta's new low-fare carrier, Song, launched last year to compete head-to-head with JetBlue. "Song? Really? I'll check it out."
Blitzer believes the "best-kept secret" on transatlantic flights is Continental Airlines' nonstop service from Newark to Tel Aviv. He flew it four times last year. "Excellent flights in all respects." Before discovering Continental BusinessFirst service, he was an El Al regular. Says Blitzer: "You know you're safe on El Al."
Blitzer has good taste in hotels. He is a close friend of legendary hotelier Stan Bromley, who was vice president and general manager of the Four Seasons in Georgetown for years before opening the acclaimed Four Seasons in San Francisco. "I'm very loyal to Stan and he takes good care of me." Other favorite hostelries: the King David Hotel in Jerusalem; the Radisson in Moscow; Le Meridien in Kuwait City; the Ritz-Carlton hotels in Atlanta's Buckhead district and in Dota, Qatar; the Pierre in New York City; and, for vacationing, the Boca Raton Hotel and Resort in Florida.
Blitzer's learned some hard lessons during his journalistic assignments that apply to any business traveler.
For one thing, he says, always be reachable. (Blitzer carries a Dell Laptop, a Blackberry and a worldcell phone.) Never change your watch to local time. (It helps deal with jet lag and you never worry about the best time to check in with your colleagues and staff back at your office.)
Finally, when visiting potentially dangerous cities or locals, Blitzer says "be very cautious [and] rely on your local people for advice and help. They know the area better than you do."
This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.
Copyright © 2001-2004 by Chris Barnett. All rights reserved.