How the pope flies on his international travels

Unlike other leaders and celebrities, the head of the Catholic Church does not have his own aircraft

Pope Francis, flanked by Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti (R) anwers journalists questions in the plane following the take off from Panama City on January 27, 2019 after participating in World Youth Day. (Photo by Alessandra TARANTINO / POOL / AFP)
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Pope Francis is set to visit Iraq next week, a trip that has been planned for several years and one that has great significance in a country that has been home to Christians since the first century AD.

Although the current head of the Catholic Church often makes foreign tours, the Vatican does not have its own plane.

Instead, an effort is made to keep travel costs down, in order to not burden the Italian taxpayers who cover the cost of the country's national airline.

So then, how does the pope travel? Here are some facts you may not know.

FILE PHOTO: The Alitalia headquarters are seen at Fiumicino airport in Rome, Italy, February 5, 2021. REUTERS/Remo Casilli/File Photo
Alitalia's headquarters at Fiumicino Airport in Rome. Italy's flag carrier is used by the pope for most of his foreign trips. Reuters

1. The Vatican charters an aircraft for the pope's travels – the Italian national carrier Alitalia whenever he is flying from Rome. If the pope is travelling within the country he is visiting, he typically uses that country's national carrier.

2. Although the aircraft carrying the pope does not have a special call sign – such as "Air Force One" for the US president – it does have a reserved flight number, AZ4000. During his visit to the US in 2015, people dubbed the pope's plane "Shepherd One".

3. The pope travels with a modest entourage compared to world leaders and many celebrities – about 30 people. Members of the media travelling with the pope are required to pay for the price of a business class seat. This allows them access to the pope but just a seat in economy class. Since everyone in the economy cabin is paying premium prices, this helps to subsidise the cost of the flight.

4. Although the pope flies on commercial airlines, not all are considered suitable. The number one requirement for the papal journey is safety. If the country he is visiting does not have an airline with a good safety record, or aircraft that can manage long-haul trips, Alitalia will often fly to pick up the pope.

5. As far as luxuries go, as the papal flight uses a commercial aircraft not much about the interior is changed. According to Catholic publication Crux Now, which covers the Vatican, the pope gets to sit in the front row of business class, but that is where the special treatment seems to end.

Pope Francis's visit to Iraq - daily agenda