Seriously? The Pope Flies Commercial

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Pope Francis embarks a plane to leave for Turkey at Rome’s Fiumicino international airport, Friday, Nov. 28, 2014. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

American news media love few things more than catchy nicknames. In the pantheon of catchy nicknames, “Shepherd One,” certainly does the trick.

Awaiting the arrival of Pope Francis on American soil this week news anchors across the country, and around the world, could not stop talking about Shepherd One, the plane that carries the pope.

It’s a bit of a misnomer since the pope doesn’t actually own his own plane. Shepherd One isn’t a private plane. Rather, the name actually refers to whatever commercial plane the pope happens to be traveling on at the time.

Related: Is Pope Francis the Patron Saint of Tourism?


The plane with Pope Francis on board arrives at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Unlike Airforce One which is tricked out with suites, amenities and all manner of gadgets, the planes the pope takes are of fairly ordinary stock.

The Vatican will typically charter an Alitalia flight to a country during most of the pope’s foreign visits.

The name Shepherd One certainly invokes grand visions of a fancy papal jet. In reality, when the pope flies on his Alitalia leg of the journey, the commercial plane is little changed from any other flight. The pope just enjoys a row in business class all to himself.

From there the pontiff will switch to a national commercial carrier. For example, Francis will be flying American while he is in the United States.

New Yorker writer Robin Wright recently published her fascinating account of flying across four continents with Pope John Paul II that pulls back the curtain on what it is like to travel with the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.

“We traveled from Rome on Alitalia, then picked up a national airline in each host country for the next leg,” Wright wrote. “The only thing truly papal about each flight was the yellow-and-white Vatican flag that popped out from a cockpit window on landing. We once took a Philippines Airline plane with ‘HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD’ emblazoned on the side, in honor of its new Los Angeles route. That plane got so much press play—for the irony—that the airline had it painted over and replaced it with a huge ‘VIVA IL PAPA’ for our six-day tour.

The Pope was shrewdly deliberate even in his flight plans. We once flew back from Japan to Rome via Alaska to avoid overflying the Soviet Union. During his flights, John Paul always blessed each country and sent messages to its leader.”

Related: Inside the Pope Francis Bus Tour in Buenos Aires


Pope Francis walks down the steps of his plane upon his arrival at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015, where President Barack Obama was to greet him. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

View from the Wing offers a fantastic inside look at what the first and business class amenities look like on the particular plane that Francis in flying on.


Pope Francis meets the journalists aboard the papal airplane on the occasion of his visit to Quito, Ecuador, July 5, 2015. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Local commercial carriers do tend to get very excited for a papal visit on one their planes. Last year Yahoo Travel got an inside look at what it was like for El Al airlines to have the pope on one of their planes.

“We wanted to give him a very special and unique Israeli experience. Everything had to be special. We even hand-picked a very unique crew.” Adi Hanegby, a product development manager in El Al Israel’s marketing department told us.

Among that special team were Captain Yaron Shimoni, a former Israeli Air Force pilot, and Chief Steward Nimrod Demajo, who holds an MBA and is an avid triathlete. In-flight service manager Yigal Levy is a former opera singer. Flight attendant Minerva Mazzawii is an Arab-Christian born in Haifa. She graduated from the Scuola Italiana Carmelita, a school in that city that was founded by six nuns who immigrated to Israel from Italy. She also happens to be a certified personal trainer. Flight attendant Assafo Avavo was born in a small village in Ethiopia and immigrated to Israel when she was 1, as part of Operation Solomon, an emergency program initiated by Israel to evacuate Ethiopian Jews.

“We wanted to show the pope the variety of people who work with El Al,” Ms. Hanegby said.

The airline’s chef, Moshe Segev, even prepared a special Israeli-influenced menu.

In keeping with how social-media savvy this pope has become, El Al asked all of their Facebook fans to assemble their special wishes for Pope Francis. When he arrived on the plane the crew presented him with a bound book of the social-media missives.

This wasn’t a quick turn-around. The whole process took four months to plan the three-hour flight from Tel Aviv to Rome.

“Everyone in the company worked on this, from maintenance to marketing,” Ms. Hanegby said.

The pope travels en mass with a posse of approximately 35 people, including several cardinals and bishops, a handful of priests and employees of the Vatican press office.

Related: 18 Things You Have to Do While You’re in Philly for the Pope


Pope Frances talks to the media on board of an airplane on his way to Rome, after a one-day visit to Sarajevo, Saturday, June 6, 2015. (Luca Zennaro/Pool Photo via AP)

Around 70 journalists are also offered spots on the pope’s plane. The catch here is that the journalist’s organization has to pay for their plane tickets, often at a price equal to a business class plane ticket for economy seats.

Shepherd One may be a mythical object, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t still a treat, and in some cases even a blessing, to take to the skies with such a heavenly figure.

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