Kerry’s plane grounded… again

Globe-trotting top US diplomat John Kerry was left hoofing it back on a commercial flight from Vienna Thursday, after his ageing Air Force plane broke down for the fourth time this year.

Kerry's plane grounded... again
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry in July 2014. Photo: US State Department

After marathon talks on Iran's nuclear programme in the Austrian capital Wednesday, Kerry's party of more than 40 State Department staff and journalists were checking out of their hotel rooms before dawn Thursday when the news came that his Boeing 757 needed repairs — again.

The problem turned out to be a leaking fuel tank, which left the plane smelling strongly of aviation fuel and kept it in Vienna overnight.

Since taking up his post in February 2013, Kerry has flown some 566,000 miles (911,000 kilometres) around the globe and visited 55 countries — many of them multiple times — spending some 249 days on the road.

He's well on his way to overtaking his predecessor Hillary Clinton who flew just short of a million miles in her four years in office, visiting a record 112 countries.

But despite a normally well-planned, slick logistical operation to move Kerry and his posse of staff, security agents and the travelling press as he jumps from country to country, he has been beset this year by a frustrating number of glitches.

Kerry was not worried about having to fly commercial home, his spokeswoman Jen Psaki said and he had been "quick to point out that if the hardest thing that happens in a given day is that you have to fly commercial — your life is pretty good."

But it did mean he was out of the loop for the nine-hour flight, lacking the secure communications which enable him to keep in touch with world leaders and the White House even while in the air.

"The world we live in we do high stakes diplomacy via phone and secure phone. None of that is possible when any secretary of state is flying on a commercial plane without secure communications with hundreds of people," Psaki said.

And the new breakdown is a further embarrassment to American power.

In August, Kerry was forced to take a commercial nine-hour flight back to Washington from Hawaii when the plane suffered electrical problems.

Earlier this year, a new transponder had to be flown from the United States to Switzerland when in the middle of international talks on the Syrian conflict in January his aircraft was grounded.

And in London in March, a similar mechanical problem was hastily fixed.

Kerry had been in Vienna for talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and EU foreign policy chief Cathy Ashton on Iran's nuclear programme.

Zarif chuckled when he heard Kerry's plane was grounded due to apparent mechanical issues. "So it is not just our planes," he told the online news site al-Monitor.

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Lufthansa, Austrian airlines cancel all Iran flights

Lufthansa is was cancelling all flights to and from Tehran until January 20, following indications that Iran mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane earlier this week.

Lufthansa, Austrian airlines cancel all Iran flights
Image: Picture Alliance

The German group, which also owns Austrian Airlines, said on Friday the flight ban was “due to the unclear security situation for the airspace around Tehran airport”. 

All 176 people on board died when the Ukrainian International Airlines plane went down near Tehran on Wednesday, shortly after Iran launched missiles at US forces in Iraq over the killing of a top Iranian general.

American, British and Canadian officials say intelligence sources indicate Iran shot down the plane, perhaps unintentionally, but this has been denied by Tehran.

Several airlines had already announced they would avoid Iranian and Iraqi airspace as tensions in the region soared.

A Lufthansa flight between Frankfurt and Tehran on Thursday turned back an hour after takeoff because of security concerns.

Austrian Airlines meanwhile said late Thursday that its flight to Tehran that day was ordered to return to Vienna after a stopover in Sofia.