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Mission over Syria; Tillerson Arrives in Moscow; United Faces Backlash. Aired 9:30-10a

Aired April 11, 2017 - 09:30   ET



[09:32:34] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: So the Trump administration's policy going forward on intervention in Syria is not clear at this point, but what we do know from the administration is that defeating ISIS in Syria is a priority. U.S. operations over Syria combatting ISIS are ongoing. They have been complicated, though, by rising tension with Russia.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: CNN's Frederik Pleitgen got exclusive access to U.S. flight crew on a mission over Syria. You have to take a look at this.


FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): Faced with new Russian threats, the U.S. military not backing down in the skies over Iraq and Syria. We're on a KC-10 tanker plane refueling the fighters pounding ISIS.

PLEITGEN (on camera): Of course there's some tension since the Russians have announced they don't want to communicate with the U.S. anymore in the skies over Syria. That's why crews like this one take great care when they fly into Syrian air space.

PLEITGEN (voice-over): Stopping the communications significantly increases the risk of mid-air collisions over this crowded air space where U.S. coalition and Russian planes operate very close to one another. Russia made the move after America hit a Syrian airfield with cruise missiles last week in response to a chemical attack on a Syrian village killing around 90 people. Washington blames the Assad regime, Russia's main ally in the civil war there, even as Syria denies being bond the attack. But America doesn't want the turmoil to affect the ongoing effort to destroy ISIS.

PLEITGEN (on camera): Despite the current tensions with Russia, the U.S. says that the fight against ISIS has to continue full steam, especially with American and allied forces on the ground and in harm's way.

PLEITGEN (voice-over): A sentiment echoed by commanders leading the air war against ISIS.

BRIG. GEN. CHARLES CORCORAN, U.S. AIR FORCE: We can't take our eye off the ball. It is - it is ISIS. That's why we're here. So, you know, our national leadership decided to do something about a problem that they saw and - and if we're asked to help out with something like that, we're obviously ready to do it. But, right now, ISIS is the game (ph).

PLEITGEN: So far, the U.S. says there have been no incidents involving Russian planes over Iraq and Syria and they hope, despite Russia's rhetoric, that it stays that way.


HARLOW: Frederik Pleitgen joins us now live from an undisclosed location.

That is incredible, remarkable access that you got.

PLEITGEN: Yes, it certainly was quite remarkable that we were able to get on flight, Poppy. And, you know, one of the things that was really interesting for us was that the situation here among the U.S. Air Force, it is quite tense and it is quite uncertain, as well. In these few days since the Russians have said they don't want to communicate with the U.S. anymore in the skies, especially over Syria, but, quite frankly, in Iraq as well, because the Russians actually fly through that area sometimes also. And right now what the U.S. is say is that, look, they don't know whether or not the procedures that were in place before the system that they had, whether or not that still counts, whether or not that's still in place. But they say that, in the end, for them, right now the main focus has to remain ISIS. And the pilots that we're talking to are saying they call on the Russians to do the same, focus on ISIS, and make sure that the cooperation doesn't hurt the fight against ISIS at all.

[09:35:43] BERMAN: Yes, it's only getting more and more complicated.

Frederik Pleitgen for us at an undisclosed location after that exclusive mission. Thanks so much, Fred.

I want to go live to Moscow right now. We have some live pictures at the airport there. Oh, I believe that is Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arriving as we speak in Moscow for this incredibly high- staking meeting that he's supposed to have with at least the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov. As of now, no scheduled meetings with Vladimir Putin. We had thought that that might happen, but Vladimir Putin basically saying not now. We will have to wait and see if a meeting does take place.

HARLOW: So as we continue to watch the secretary of state's plane here just landing in Moscow for, as John said, an incredibly important meeting at quite a time of heightened tensions, let's go to our senior international correspondent, Matthew Chance.

You know, you wonder what this meeting between Lavrov is going to be like, Lavrov and Tillerson, but even more so if there's any chance that Putin and Tillerson will talk because it's quite a snub, is it not, if the two men do not?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think it will certainly be perceived as a snub because up until now most, if not all, secretaries of state that pass through Moscow, certainly on their first trip from the United States, get an audience with the Russian president. Strictly speaking in terms of protocol, you know, it's the foreign minister that is the equivalent here in Russia, Sergey Lavrov, and that meeting is going ahead. They're going to be meeting tomorrow morning here local time. They're also going to be having a working lunch together. And I expect a joint press conference, as well.

But the Putin meeting, you're right, if it doesn't go ahead, I think it will be seen as a little bit of a snub, a little bit of a slap in the face to the United States, in response to, you know, the snub that the Russians have felt, let it be said, by the United States bombing its main ally in the Middle East. And so that would, I think, be a reciprocal move. They'd see it as that, anyway.

BERMAN: And we're just hearing from the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, Matthew, with some pretty provocative words, suggesting that the United States risks another Iraq war with its actions inside Syria. Also, again, just basically continuing to question the honesty of the United States when it comes to the accusations of chemical weapons.

CHANCE: Yes, I mean this is - this is the version of events that the Russians have been pushing from the outset, that this apparent chemical weapons attack was not a chemical weapons attack at all. Certainly not one carried out by the Syrian government. That this was, they say, a Syrian air force raid on a storage facility that was run by the rebels in southern Idlib where they were manufacturing their own chemical munitions, making land mines, is what the Russians say, and stuffing them through - full of toxic material. And it's the destruction of those weapons that cause the chemical spill and cause that horrifying loss of life. That's the version of events the Russians are pushing. And they say they want an investigation, a multi-national investigation to get to the bottom of this. And, again, they're saying there could be more of what they call provocations like this in the future that may elicit a U.S. response.

BERMAN: All right, Matthew Chance for us in Moscow.

Again, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arriving as we speak in Moscow right now for these urgent meetings. We will wait and see for when we gets off and if he does speak as he deplanes.

HARLOW: Will he speak to Vladimir Putin after saying that the Russians were either incompetent or did not take their obligations seriously to get rid of chemical weapons in Syria? A lot ahead. We'll have more for that - of that for you in just a moment.

But still to come, if you're awake, you know about this story, United Airlines and their ongoing saga. Get your seat locked in the upright position, because this United story is sparking major turbulence.


[09:43:32] BERMAN: All right, live pictures from Moscow. You're looking at the plane carrying the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. He just landed in Moscow for key meetings with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov. This in the wake of the U.S. missile strike in Syria after Syria is believed to have used chemical weapons against its own people. Again, high-stakes meetings right now with Russia, very supportive of the Syrian regime.

HARLOW: And if Secretary Tillerson does not meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, that would really be a first for a U.S. secretary of state, especially on their first trip to Russia in the job. Right now, there is no scheduled meeting between Putin and Tillerson. These are two men who know each other very well because of the business dealings that Tillerson had when he was CEO of Exxon with Russia. He was even awarded the Order of Friendship by Vladimir Putin just a few years ago. So will he meet with Putin to discuss all of these developments?

BERMAN: Right. And again, you know, prior to this meeting, sort of the appetizer is the secretary of state saying that Russia is either incompetent or complicit in the chemical weapons attacks inside Syria. And the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, responding just a few minutes ago, he was giving a speech, he said, that the United States risks repeating the mistakes the U.S. made prior to the Iraq War in 2003. Sort of the pre-text for an invasion on terms that did not turn out to be as claimed. Also, this continued sense from Moscow, the Russian government, suggesting that the United States is presenting evidence that it was a Syrian chemical weapons attack and that evidence might not be sound.

[09:45:05] HARLOW: Indeed. Again, we're waiting for U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as he has just arrived in Moscow after these very pointed comments that he made at the G-7 Summit in Italy. We're going to continue to follow this and monitor this and bring you the latest as we have it.

BERMAN: Yes. And, again, Steven Cohen, a professor from New York University emeritus -


BERMAN: Has said that this is the most tense moment in U.S./Russian relations that he's seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Obviously, you know, a hyperbolic statement, but from a man who's been watching U.S./Russian relations for some time, sees this as very tense, particularly with Russian troops on the ground in Syria and now these U.S. strikes over that same region.

HARLOW: And Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also in those comments at the G-7, not just saying that Russia is either complicit or incompetent, but also saying that they have a very unreliable partner in Assad. And you see the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, walking off of the plane right now. Him saying that "I think it is worth thinking about that Russia has aligned itself with the Assad regime, the Iranians and Hezbollah. Is that a long-term alliance that serves Russian interests?" Again -

BERMAN: Yes, and again, one thing that a lot of people are looking for right now is the clear articulation of what the United States policy will be going forward in Syria.

HARLOW: Right.

BERMAN: Because they've been getting mixed messages from the White House press secretary, from Rex Tillerson himself, the secretary of state. Will he make a more clear statement about how the United States plans on moving forward?

HARLOW: And, you know, his counterpart, Tillerson's counterpart in the U.K., Boris Johnson, declining this trip, canceling this trip last- minute after the G-7 following the air strikes and following Russia's comments. Tillerson going ahead with this trip to meet with his counterpart there in Moscow. What happens after that? Does he have conversations with the Russian president or not? Still to be determined.

BERMAN: And again, remember, Rex Tillerson is a man who has had business in Moscow with Russia before, with some success, when he was the head of Exxon Mobil. This may be a much more complicated mission.

HARLOW: Yes. With a lot of success. Exxon made a ton of money because of their deals with Russia. Now, though, this is diplomacy. This is an entirely different terrain. This is not about money. This is about foreign policy and the go-forward path for the United States and Syria and the U.S./Russia relationship overall.

We're going to take a quick break. We'll be back with much more right after this.


[09:51:53] BERMAN: All right, major turbulence for United Airlines stock this morning, down more than 3 percent in just 20 minutes after the opening bell. And that drop, of course, comes on the heels of this video which is now literally being seen around the world. More than 100 million views of this. Take a look.




BERMAN: I mean, honestly, this is tough to watch. It's the passenger being bloodied as he's being dragged off of a flight because he refused to give up his seat after this United Airlines flight, what, from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked.

HARLOW: You know, United is now facing a boycott. They're facing a lot more.


HARLOW: Issues with China and some major business deal there's because of this. The company's CEO has come out in a message to his employees, said, "while I deeply regret the situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right."

BERMAN: Yikes. Above and beyond.

HARLOW: He - he also said about that passenger who was dragged off that the passenger, quote, "refused to leave and became more and more disruptive and belligerent."

Joining us now to discuss, our aviation correspondent, our host of "Quest Means Business," Richard Quest, and our travel writer and "Forbes" contributor, Laura Bagley Bloom.

Nice to have you both here.


HARLOW: Richard Quest, to you. This is your wheelhouse. You know the airlines inside and out. What do you make of it?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, there's nothing good that can be said about it from anybody's point of view. It is an unmitigated disaster from United's point of view. The Chicago authorities who dragged the man off the plane are also facing severe criticism. Whichever way you look at it, it is calamitous.

However, that said, Poppy, you have to start dissecting in a relatively cool fashion who was at fault and where, all right? The fault here in United's case was really, a, that they didn't realize that they had too many passengers for the plane, and, b, that they didn't use economics to push the amount of compensation to the point where somebody was going to give up their seat. They only got to $1,000. They could have gone as high as $1,350. The gate agent should have been in touch with the systems operation center over in the Willis Tower and said, look, this is the situation I've got. I've got to get these four passengers on the plane, otherwise we're canceling a flight tomorrow in Louisville. What do you want me to do? What do we do here?

And that's really the situation. I mean it's very easy post facto to sit and say, this should have been - that should have been - this was awful, just regretful, the pictures are horrible. But now go back to this time yesterday and say, what should they have done?

BERMAN: Yes, I mean, it is easy to say it's horrible because those pictures really genuinely are horrible. And Richard is talking about the idea that they could have upped the price. I mean, look, how many millions of dollars of bad publicity have they received over the last 12 hours? They could have spent a lot more. And they keep seeming to step in it, right? The CEO of United saying that its employees went above and beyond.

[09:55:09] BLOOM: I mean it's really shocking. I think they've handled it terribly from start to finish. It could have ended up so differently. It didn't have to be this way. And I think if they - as Richard said, if they would have gone higher with the compensation, people probably would have taken it. HARLOW: This - people need to know, this happened to you this weekend.

You were supposed to go to Florida on Delta with your kids. You ended up not taking a flight but getting paid $11,000 by Delta to give up your seats?

QUEST: Right, but I don't -


BERMAN: Hand on, Richard.

BLOOM: Yes. I was the lucky one. And I will say, it was interesting to watch sort of the economics of it because people weren't offering up their seats as the price kept going higher and higher. And then once they hit a certain amount, everybody started raising their hands saying yes. And $1,300 seemed to be the magic number. But for my husband and daughter and I, we were there on Friday. The flight was indefinitely postponed.

HARLOW: Right.

BLOOM: And they were offering, you know, to give money to volunteers. And we said, sure. We made $4,000 Friday, about $4,000 Saturday, and then they paid us in advance for giving up our flight on Sunday.

HARLOW: Oh, my goodness.

BLOOM: And so, in total, we walked away with $11,000 and they refunded our tickets.

BERMAN: And, Richard, every time this happens, you know, we're struck by the fact that these airlines can overbook their flights. How is it that they justify selling more tickets than they have seats? They do it every day?

QUEST: Oh, John Berman, really. For goodness sakes, it's the backbone of the system. And of course they oversell the seats because a lot of people book seats and either don't show up, cancel, and therefore if they did not overbook by a certain percentage, we would all end up paying more for our seats.

And, by the way, the number of people who are denied boarding is (INAUDIBLE) small as a percentage of total passengers. So, yes, it's, again, in the cool light of day, you can sit here and hurrah and hump and make enough noise about it, but the reality is, that overbooking of seats is what makes the system work to a certain extent for the large network carriers.

HARLOW: Thirty seconds, what do we need to hear from the CEO?

QUEST: I'm very, very sorry. It should not have happened. But I still stand behind my staff. Remember, Oscar Munoz (ph) has a morale problem at United. Standing behind his staff is probably more important for that CEO at the moment.

HARLOW: Richard Quest, thank you so much. Laura Begley Bloom, we appreciate it. Congrats on your $11,000 boost to your salary.

BERMAN: Yes, the money. Use it well.

All right, wow, Richard Quest, you know, lashing out at me for suggesting that airlines should not overbook.

HARLOW: Don't you know how the business works, John Berman?

BERMAN: I do, but it doesn't seem very fair that they should get to do this. It's like selling too many tickets for a baseball game.

HARLOW: Didn't your mom ever tell you life ain't fair?

BERMAN: I know. I know. Richard Quest says the same thing.

All right, a very important meeting about to take place in Moscow. The U.S. secretary of state just arrived there moments ago. He'll be meeting with his Russian counterpart, this on the heels of the U.S. missile strikes inside Syria. Huge amounts of tensions as Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader, just made some proactive statements. Don't go anywhere.


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