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7 Things to know about Shepherd One, the Pope’s plane

By AGENCIES November 25th, 2015 3 min read

The president of the United States flies on Air Force One; the Pope flies on Shepherd One. That is the Aviation-approved call sign for the Alitalia jetliner in which Pope Francis will be using during his tour of Africa.

Here are a few facts about Shepherd One:

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.

The papal plane doesn’t really 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 making the Rome to London run.

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 Kenyans 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.

4. Meeting the press – Pope 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 Pope Francis the in-flight entertainment is spectacular.

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

6. 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.

7. The return flight – 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.