By Katya Golubkova and Lidia Kelly
MOSCOW (Reuters) - All eyes were on seat 17A as a planeload of journalists strapped themselves in for an Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Cuba with former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.
Their first disappointment was that Snowden didn't show up. The second was that it was a booze-free flight - all 11 hours and 35 minutes of it.
Moscow-based journalists had scrambled to buy seats, at around $2,000 for a return flight, in the hope of getting a few words from Snowden - or even a first sighting of him since he left Hong Kong on Sunday.
But the cat-and-mouse game continued, with the United States' most wanted man, charged with espionage for exposing the government's secret electronic surveillance programs, outwitting his pursuers yet again as he tried to evade prosecution.
Although airport sources had said Snowden was booked into seat 17A, someone else was sitting there as the plane took off.
"He's not on board," said a flight attendant. A source at Aeroflot said the same thing.
With not much else to do, journalists sent pictures of the empty seat from their mobile phones.
A Twitter feed, @Snowdensseat, was soon set up in the name of seat 17A with messages such as: "Getting a lot of angry looks from journalists around me. Deadlines probably looming. Also, no booze served."
As it happened, the route is one where Aeroflot no longer serves alcohol, after violence from drunk passengers.
Had Snowden ever intended to take the flight? Or had he changed his mind at the last minute to shake the world's media off his tail? No one was quite sure.
An email was soon doing the rounds suggesting Snowden could yet show up on the plane. It contained a link suggesting the Airbus A330-200 may have a crew rest area below the flight deck where he could hide.
Snowden has managed to stay out of view since several sources reported his arrival at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport from Hong Kong on Sunday.
It was not until about four hours after the plane's departure that Julian Assange, founder of the WikiLeaks anti-secrecy group that is assisting Snowden, confirmed that Russia was a stop on his way to Ecuador.
Kremlin officials said they knew of no contact between Snowden and the Russian authorities. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he had no details of Snowden's travel plans.
Reports that he may not have left the transit terminal in more than 24 hours have prompted comparisons with "The Terminal", a film in which U.S. actor Tom Hanks plays a character who gets stuck at a New York airport when he is denied entry to the United States but cannot return home because of a revolution.
Snowden will wish for a better fate: Hanks's character has to wait several months to be freed from his ordeal.
(Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Kevin Liffey)