by Hugh Morris, The Telegraph, February 23, 2018
One might have thought having the blessing of God’s representative on Earth would be enough to make a success of an airline.
But as Alitalia circles the drain, desperate for a buyer to pluck it from oblivion, it appears being the Pope’s favourite airline is not always enough.
The Italian flag carrier has been in administration since May, and not for the first time having been rebranded in 2008 after going bankrupt.
It continues to operate, flying to destinations around the world from its base at Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport in Rome, but its value is falling while it waits for a takeover. EasyJet, Lufthansa, Ryanair and Air France have all been linked.
While it struggles, other carriers are seeing an opportunity to pick up its customer base. Etihad has announced plans for a second daily flight to Rome from Doha, as Alitalia prepares to scrap its service, while Meridiana, an Italian airline owned by Qatar Airways, was this week relaunched as Air Italy.
“Qatar Airways fully supports plans [for Air Italy] to be the flag carrier of Italy,” Akbar Al Baker, chief executive of Qatar Airways, said.
How much does the Pope travel?
Pope Paul VI was the first pontiff to travel by plane, when he made the first papal pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1964.
The task of flying the Pope around the world has always fallen to Alitalia, the pontiff typically travelling with the Italian airline on the outbound leg, then returning to Italy on the flag carrier of the visited country.
Pope John Paul II was the most well travelled pope, clocking up 725,000 air miles, more than all his predecessors combined, while visiting nearly two thirds of the world’s countries.
But the current pope, Pope Francis, is hardly sedentary. Since 2013, he has flown to five continents and 34 different countries, and that’s only counting official visits.
What is Alitalia Flight AZ4000?
When the pope flies on “Shepherd One”, the papal equivalent of Air Force One, it is not actually the same plane, for the Vatican does not own aircraft, it only ever charters them. His Holiness has, however, laid claim to a flight number, AZ4000.
A quick scan of the flight’s records on FlightRadar24 shows the infrequent use of the number, bar Pope Francis’s most recent trips - Chile in January, Myanmar in November and Colombia in September.
When the pope flies these days he is guaranteed a seat or two in business class, while the travelling reporters sit in economy. But in days gone by, papal travel was a little more luxurious.It is also possible to see that the aircraft used to fly the Pope around the world simply returns to normal service afterwards. For example, the 777 that took Pope Francis to Santiago ferried paying customers to Rome from Buenos Aires yesterday.
For example, the double bed used by Pope John Paul on a customised TWA flight in the Seventies is currently on display at the Strawberry Hill Museum in Kansas City.
Where is the Pope off to next – and will he fly Ryanair?
Pope Francis is due in Ireland in August, the first visit of a pontiff to the country since 1979. The trip will cost an estimated €20 million (£17.6m), but costs might be trimmed somewhat if the Vatican takes up the offer of Michael O’Leary who last year suggested the Pope take a seat on a Ryanair flight. After all, the low-cost airline’s biggest market is now Italy.
“He is a Jesuit and he is very clever when it comes to PR so we look forward to flying the holy father in 2018,” Ryanair’s CEO said.
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke, however, put paid to the idea when he reconfirmed the Pope’s preference to fly with Alitalia. But it is possible Pope Francis will return to Rome a flight operated by Aer Lingus, the Irish national carrier.