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Fun facts and more about life aboard the papal plane

As the plane carrying Pope Francis to Washington, DC, nears Andrews Air Force Base on Sept. 22, American TV likely will be full of breathless references to “Shepherd One” being on approach, “Shepherd One” touching down, and, eventually, the pontiff descending the steps of “Shepherd One.”

It’s not often that a mere two words manage to convey three complete misconceptions, but the phrase “Shepherd One” pulls off the hat trick.

1. The plane isn’t really called “Shepherd One.” People in the United States call it that, but the phrase is a media conceit rather than an actual call sign.

Formally speaking, the papal plane doesn’t have a name. Its designation is usually just Alitalia flight AZ 4000 on the outbound leg, and beyond that Italians simply call it the volo papale, or “papal flight.”

2. The pope doesn’t own a plane. The term “Shepherd One” suggests that the pope actually owns a plane, which he doesn’t. Even the term “papal plane” is something of a myth, since the pontiff does not have his own personal aircraft.

The Vatican always charters a plane for the three or four foreign trips a pope usually makes every year, often using a different aircraft for each leg of the journey. These are regular commercial planes that were in use making the Rome to London run, or something like it, the day before the trip and will be again once it’s over.

The tradition is for the pope to take the Italian national airline, Alitalia, to wherever he’s going, and then fly the national carrier of that country on his return. When Francis travelled to Sri Lanka and the Philippines in January, for instance, he took Alitalia to get there and Philippine Airlines to get back to Rome.

On this trip, Francis will take Alitalia as far as Washington and then American Airlines the rest of the way.

(As a footnote, the dirty little secret of papal travel is that the press corps actually subsidizes the pope’s movements, since the roughly 70 reporters on the plane are asked to pay business class airfare in order to fly in coach. Since the 30 members of the pope’s entourage who fly in business aren’t paying anything, this means the cost of the charter is borne almost entirely by the people in steerage.)

(This time, the Alitalia fare from the Rome-Cuba-Washington part of the trip is roughly $3,200 while the Washington-NewYork-Philadelphia-Rome part on American Airlines is $2,300, for a grand total of $5,500. That means 70 reporters are contributing $385,000 to the cost of the trip.)

3. The plane is nothing like Air Force One. Calling the plane “Shepherd One” suggests an analogy with Air Force One, summoning images to mind for Americans of conference rooms with large round tables, a presidential suite, red hotline phones, communications rooms with technicians tracking satellite telemetry, and so on.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, the papal plane is a normal commercial jet, and usually the only real perk enjoyed by the pontiff is that he gets to sit in the first row of business class by himself.

Years ago, for especially long journeys, airlines would pull out the first couple rows of seats in business class in order to install a bed for the pope. Today there’s a museum in Kansas City where one can still see the bed used by St. John Paul II in 1979 when he flew TWA, complete with a seatbelt. (Bishop Fulton Sheen jokingly said the airline’s initials on that occasion stood for “Traveling With Angels.”)

Now, however, given that most carriers already have seats in first and business class that turn into fully-flat beds, there’s generally no need to modify the normal configuration of the plane.

None of this probably will convince TV hosts narrating the pope’s arrival to lay off the “Shepherd One” references, because the term is just too tempting for American ears, but don’t be fooled: a papal version of Air Force One it’s not.

Here are a few other fun facts about papal travel.

Meeting the press

When Pope Paul VI flew to Jordan and Israel in January 1964, he became the first reigning pontiff in history to travel by airplane. One year later, Paul VI visited New York, which means Francis’ American debut falls on the 50th anniversary of the first papal appearance ever in the States.

Since then, each pope has had his own approach to speaking to the reporters who travel with him.

In the early years of his papacy, St. John Paul II would come back to the economy section and talk to reporters in language groups, spending a few minutes with the Italians, a few with English-speakers, and so on. It was all off-the-cuff, and all on-the-record.

Later, however, when age and illness made that impossible, the custom became for reporters to be called up one-by-one and have a minute or so to sit next to John Paul, usually just for a quick hello.

With Benedict XVI, he would conduct a sort-of press conference at the beginning of the trip. They were highly choreographed affairs, with the Vatican spokesman collecting questions 48 hours in advance by e-mail and picking a few to ask the pontiff. Sometimes reporters would be called upon to put the questions, and sometimes the spokesman would just do it himself.

Even so, those sessions did sometimes make headlines.

When Benedict went to Cameroon in 2009, for instance, he sparked a firestorm by claiming that distributing condoms in Africa makes the problem of HIV/AIDS worse. (The line drew a formal censure from the Belgian parliament, and prompted the Spanish government to airlift a special batch of condoms to Africa in protest.)

Francis has adopted the custom of moving around to say hello to reporters on the outbound leg of the flight, then holding a full-blown, no-holds-barred news conference on the way back. Those sessions have produced numerous memorable soundbites, including “Who am I to judge?” about gay people on the way back from Brazil in 2013, and the pontiff’s insistence that Catholics aren’t required to “breed like rabbits” returning from Manila in January.

Indeed, the pontiff’s penchant for stirring the pot has led to the wry observation that while the seats on the papal plane are generally uncomfortable and the food mediocre, at least with Francis the in-flight entertainment is spectacular.

The entourage

Generally speaking, the pope travels with an entourage made up of roughly 30 people.

Known is Italian as the seguito, literally the “following,” the papal party is typically composed of the Cardinal Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin; one or two other cardinals and bishops; 10 priests, most of them officials of the Secretariat of State; and 20 laity, most employees of the Vatican Press Office as well as plainclothes agents of the Vatican security service and the Swiss Guard.

Given that there are basically 70 journalists on the plane, each papal flight is composed of around 100 passengers plus the flight crew.

For reporters, the best moments on long flights often come when members of the entourage come to the back of the plane to use the bathroom, and can be pulled aside to take a question, provide background on something, or simply offer some insight into what the pope’s doing up front.

Bell to bell

Reporters who travel aboard the papal plane are required to take the entire trip from bell to bell, rather than being able to drop out along the way. If someone decides on their own to skip the return leg, for instance, it’s virtually a guarantee they’ll never be allowed to fly with the pope again.

Several years ago, I asked special permission to fly back from a trip on my own, since I had been asked to speak the next day in Washington, DC for the American presentation of Benedict XVI’s book Jesus of Nazareth by the papal ambassador, who at the time was Archbishop Pietro Sambi.

The request had to go all the way to the secretary of state, then Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, to get the green light. Even then, it was clear officials on the plane weren’t thrilled with the precedent they feared was being set.

I later asked Sambi why the Vatican was so concerned about how reporters got home, since we’d already paid for the ticket and presumably having one or two fewer passengers on board would make things a little easier.

Sambi’s answer was simplicity itself: “The pope cannot be allowed to fly on an empty plane,” he said. “It might look like the trip was a disappointment.”

The return flight

By now, Alitalia has flown popes so often the carrier has become a bit blasé about the whole thing. It used to be that when reporters boarded a papal flight, Alitalia would provide sacks full of swag – bottles of wine and perfume, cartons of cigarettes, boxes of chocolate, and so on.

Today, the only real memento Alitalia provides is a cloth headrest with the papal seal that most reporters snag from the back of their seats as they disembark.

When the pontiff takes the national carrier of a country on the way back to Rome, however, things are often different. Those carriers rarely get to ferry a pope, so they make a big deal out of it. Often they provide a larger aircraft, so people can spread out, and the food and beverage service is usually first-rate.

In the old days, reporters thus looked forward to the return flight because it meant relaxation time. The story was basically done, so you had several hours to hang out with colleagues, enjoy a good meal, maybe watch a movie, or just catch up on days of missed sleep.

With Francis, however, all that has changed because of the press conference.

Generally, the session begins about a half-hour after takeoff and runs for an hour. He usually speaks in Italian, so English-speaking reporters divvy up his comments afterwards to translate them into English, often having to play and replay the tape several times to get it right.

The remaining time generally is spent hammering out stories or preparing material for broadcast upon landing, so there’s precious little time to catch one’s breath.

Nobody’s complaining, of course, since those airborne news conferences are a precious gift to the media. On the other hand, they do mean that traveling with the pope has become a more demanding affair, which is one more way of confirming that Francis really is a change agent.


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