The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It costs $90,000 to travel to Asia with President Obama. Wait, what?

This is not the plane you would be flying on. ERIC LALMAND/AFP/Getty Images

This post has been updated.

The White House sent the Washington Post a bill this month for $89,000. That, it says, is how much it cost for our reporter, David Nakamura, to get a seat on the Delta-operated 777 that flew the media from D.C. to China, then on to Burma and Australia before returning back to Washington. That's airfare only.

Which to us seems ... high. Granted, the original estimate of $60,000 was predicated on more people joining the flight; when they dropped out, the cost per person increased. But still! So we decided to figure out how much it should have cost.

This is much harder than it sounds. The entire point of being a reporter traveling with the president, of course, is to be with the president. Meaning that your flights need to get you to where the president is doing his various news-y things -- meaning that you don't really have the luxury of showing up a day late or catching a plane at your convenience.

Obama's itinerary for his trip in November went like this:

  • Leave Andrews Air Force Base after midnight on Nov. 9. Arrive in Beijing the next morning at 9 a.m. (all times below are local).
  • Leave Beijing the afternoon of Nov. 12 for Naypyidaw, Burma.
  • Leave Naypyidaw for Rangoon on the morning of the 14th.
  • Leave Rangoon for Brisbane, Australia that evening.
  • Leave Brisbane for DC in the evening of Nov. 16.

Obviously the start and end travel has some flexibility. But everything in between is tricky. Especially since you're traveling at the whim of commercial airlines.

To cut to the chase: If you fly only economy, you can make all five legs of the flight for about $6,000 (according to searches at Google Flights, for the same days of the week next week). "Make" is squishy, but we'll come back to that. If you want to fly in a little more style (Editor's note: And I do) it will cost you about $14,000. Which, if you're not great at math, is a bit less than $90,000. Those flights are mapped below. (See the bottom of this post for individual flight costs.)

But there's another advantage in not flying commercial: You don't have layovers. The cheap flight from DC to Beijing stops in Newark for an hour; the pricey one stops in Chicago for the same time period. (Pro-tip: Never fly through Chicago between July 1 and June 30 of any year, unless you want to be delayed for snow.)

The real problem comes once you get to Asia. There aren't many flights from Naypyidaw to Rangoon. There are fewer from Rangoon to Brisbane. In both cases, the cheapest and most expensive options that are even close to Obama's schedule necessitate routes through Bangkok. In the first stretch, you're in Bangkok for 3 hours. In the second, en route to Brisbane, you're there for 7. In essence, the flight is unworkable for keeping up with the president.

There's another option: A cheaper charter flight. The Post reached out to four different charter flight companies that operate 777s, none of which has yet responded to our questions. One, US Sky Link, has an online estimate tool which let us figure out how much this series of flights (with the same approximate schedule) would cost. And:

That's a low end of $1.27 million and a high end of $2.46 million. For the 51 people originally slated to travel with the president, the $2.46 million number comes out to ... Just over $48,000 a head. For 40 travelers, it's a neat $61,500 -- about what the White House estimated for the larger group. We couldn't ascertain what's included here, or what aircraft would be used, but it sounds like it's within the right ballpark.

There's one more question that remains unanswered. The White House figured that 51 people would cost $60,000 apiece, about $3 million in total cost. But for 40 passengers, the cost was $89,000 -- a total cost of $3.5 million. That's not a trivial increase. So far, it hasn't been explained.

Update: Viv Diprose of the UK-based company PrivateFly thinks that a $3 million estimate is about right. "Availability for large airliners to cater for groups of this size means the pricing can fluctuate," she wrote to the Post in an email, "but using a Boeing Business Jet (which is a 737 conversion) with executive seating for 58, we would expect the total charter cost for the itinerary you laid out to be in the region of $950,000 to $1,200,000 for the flight." That's not what the White House reserved, of course. "For a 777, this would be probably closer to $3,000,000."

The flights we found:
- From DC to Beijing: United ($1313) via Newark or United ($6348) via Chicago
- From Beijing to Naypyitaw: China Southern ($637) or China Southern ($903)
- From Naypyitaw to Rangoon: Bangkok Airways ($319) via Bangkok
- From Rangoon to Brisbane: Thai Air ($1112) via Bangkok
- From Brisbane to DC: Hawaiian ($2713) via Honolulu and LA or United/Hawaiian ($6431) via Honolulu