Flying high

Posted February 19, 2016 at 12:00 am

Media reports, such as the ones coming out of Pope Francis’ Latin American visit, will often refer to the aircraft transporting the pontiff as “Shepherd One.”

Given that the president of the United States traverses the globe in Air Force One, the Shepherd One moniker would appear to have some merit.

However, “Shepherd One” is more of a creation of the United States media and definitely not an official term. Actually, the papal plane does not have any official name. On the outbound leg of any papal trip, the flight is generally referred to as AZ4000 because it is an Alitalia aircraft, the official airline of Italy. Italians, in their own simplicity, call it the “papal flight.”

And unlike the president, the Vatican does not own its own plane. What some might find surprising is the pope flies on a commercial aircraft on all of his trips, though he is not squeezed in the economy section. When an individual is flying a commercial airline, it is entirely possible to sit in the seat that the pope will be sitting in the next day or perhaps sat in the previous day.

Tradition holds that when traveling abroad, the pope flies to his first destination via Alitalia on one of the carrier’s commercial aircrafts. Upon his return, the pope traditionally flies the national airline of the country from which he is departing, such as flying Philippine Airlines when he left the Philippines.

Since the United States does not have an official airline, the pope and his entourage, including the media corps, flew American Airlines during his United States visit in 2015. American deployed a Boeing 777-200 to transport perhaps its most famous celebrity.

Styles differ, but Pope Francis always spends time with reporters while in flight when leaving the Vatican as well as returning home. On the outward leg, he will traditionally welcome the reporters, all of whom pay thousands of dollars to be a part of the traveling corps, and hold a one-hour press conference on the leg home.

No word on the quality of the airline food served the pope, but some carriers, given the rare opportunity to shepherd a pope around a particular country, will often offer to provide a larger aircraft as well as food and beverage that would not traditionally be served to those traveling in coach. For that, the pope should be thankful.