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Snowden's empty plane seat mocks media pack

By Phil Black, CNN
June 26, 2013 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
  • NSA leaker Edward Snowden was believed to be flying from Moscow to Havana
  • Dozens of journalists boarded the flight he was believed to be traveling on
  • CNN's Phil Black said a row-by-row search after takeoff found no trace of Snowden
  • Journalists huddled around the empty seat where he had been expected to sit, Black said

(CNN) -- Do I stay or do I go? Almost everyone has already boarded the plane, including dozens of journalists. The airport staff, including lots of security guards, are now glaring at me.

This is the flight many people believe will carry Edward Snowden from Moscow to Havana. But there's no sign of Snowden.

My cameraman is already on the plane. He's supposed to message me if there's a confirmed sighting.

The stakes are high. If I get on and Snowden doesn't we're committing to a Moscow-Havana round trip that will take us a long way from the story.

There are too many scenarios and no safe bets. If I don't see him and don't board, he could still join the aircraft on the tarmac later. Another journalist is already tweeting excitedly about a VIP van parked next to the plane.

I'm constantly on the phone with CNN HQ. The bosses make a decision. There's only one way to know for sure. Go for it.

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For a story with so few confirmed facts, sending us on a flight to Havana, despite the uncertain outcome, was considered a valuable insurance policy.

When I step on board I see a frenzy of men with video cameras and flight attendants trying to stop them. But there's no Snowden.

So we wait, nervously glancing between the door and the tarmac. There is an unusually high number of men in police-like uniforms surrounding the plane. A hungry media pack is desperately looking for any sign of the man as the clock ticks down to our departure time.

The door closes. The plane pushes back. But hope is not dead. He could still be whisked out to meet the plane.

That's not what happens. Minutes later the Snowden-less jet is in the air bound for Cuba. The story remains on the ground somewhere in Moscow.

After takeoff, we do a row-by-row search. We look in the galleys, the washrooms. I stick my head in the curtained-off rest area for the flight crew. A grey haired Russian man stares back with confusion in the dark space. "Izvinite." Excuse me. It all confirms what we were already pretty sure of.

Read more: No-show leaves reporters stuck on plane

There's only one area we can't check - the cockpit. It seems unlikely Russian authorities or Aeroflot would allow Snowden to travel in the secure pointy end of the aircraft. But the circumstances of this story fit the general rule I've developed through living in Russia. Anything, no matter how logic defying, is possible. I keep a close eye on the crew coming and going from the cockpit just in case.

Frustrated journalists huddle around seat 17a. Its emptiness mocks us. Some earlier reports said this was where Snowden would be sitting.

A good part of the flight is spent debating theories on Snowden's plans for escape and his chances of success. What role Russia and Ecuador? It's all just speculation with a little logic thrown in. In other words, like so many people around the world right now, we're all just guessing.

But at least we knew he wasn't on the aircraft. Back on earth, my colleagues at CNN had no way of being so certain.

Moments before takeoff, I'd communicated by phone there was no sign of Snowden. But that didn't mean he wasn't on board somewhere. And as we crossed the globe I had no way of passing on the results of our detailed search. Neither Aeroflot nor the Russian government had confirmed or denied if he was on the flight.

So my news organization was still tracking its path across Russia, Northern Europe, the Atlantic, Canada and the eastern states of America. We even flew very close to CNN's world headquarters in Georgia.

Read more: How hunt humiliated U.S.

It was not until the aircraft doors opened at our destination and I first felt the sticky, warm Havana air that I was able to call in again and confirm definitively Snowden had not left Russia on that flight.

Ah Havana. A much dreamed of travel destination for this Australian journalist. Those dreams would remain unfulfilled. I'd arrived with no accreditation or visa. I couldn't legally enter the country.

My Cuban adventure involved one hour in the transit lounge desperately negotiating with officials to allow me back on the same aircraft for the return flight to Moscow.

No rum. No sweet cigar scent. No music. But during my brief time in the soulless transit area there were still many incredibly warm Cuban smiles.

The return flight was even less eventful. Time was spent writing this account and editing the video story of our travels. In total we endured around 30 hours of pretty darn comfortable business class travel for little journalistic result.

It's not the stuff that inspires enormous work satisfaction in my trade. But after arriving back in Moscow and while sitting in this city's horrific traffic, one senior CNN editor thanked me for making the journey. He said the time consuming, sleep depriving, costly act necessary to confirm Snowden wasn't on that flight was highly valuable in our coverage of a story where basic questions remain unanswered.

What will Edward Snowden do next?

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