No Big Deal: I Booked the Pope on a Plane!

Jo Piazza
Managing Editor
June 6, 2014

President Shimon Peres, Pope Francis and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Photo: Sivan Farag)

It was just a regular day at the EL AL Israel office at the Ben Gurion International AIrport back in February when Adi Hanegby got the call.

Could she make the travel arrangements for the pope?

“I don’t know if nervous is the right word. I was excited,” Ms. Hanegby, a product development manager in El Al Israel’s marketing department told Yahoo Travel. “We know how important the pope is. He is the most important person in the world in terms of how many people follow him. It was a huge job!”

From that moment, it would be up to Ms. Hanegby to lead a team to prepare for Pope Francis, the relatively newly minted septuagenarian rock star of the Vatican, and his delegation to fly on one of El Al’s flights during his May visit to the Holy Land.

He wouldn’t be the first Holy See to fly in the airline. Previous popes have flown El Al on their trips to Israel. But something about Francis is a little different from the popes who came before him. The world is watching Francis in a way they haven’t watched his predecessors. Also, he tweets. You want everything to be perfect with a pope who tweets.

The plan, as told to Ms. Hanegby, was that EL AL Israel Airlines would be responsible for flying His Holiness, 100 Vatican officials, and about 70 international journalists to Rome aboard flight LY514, a Boeing 777, specially outfitted for the pope’s needs and branded with the Vatican’s official logo.

“We wanted to give him a very special and unique Israeli experience,” Ms. Hanegby said. “Everything had to be special. We even hand-picked a very unique crew.”

(Photo: Sivan Farag)

Among them 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, 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.

When the big day finally arrived, Ms. Hanegby, brimming with nervous excitement, was on site to make sure everything ran smoothly.

“I shook his hand and took a picture with him,” Ms. Hanegby said. “It was a moment I will remember the rest of my life.”

(Photo: Sivan Farag)