Background on Brazil: Inside the papal plane


During Pope Benedict XVI’s May 9-13 trip to São Paulo and Aparecida, Brazil, I’ll once again be travelling on the papal plane. Because I’m often asked about the experience of travelling with the pope, I’ll offer some background here.

First of all, Americans who conceive of the “papal plane” by way of analogy to Air Force One are on the wrong track, even though the papal plane is sometimes designated by air traffic controllers and headline writers as “Shepherd One.”

In reality, there is no “papal plane,” in the sense of a jet owned by the Vatican and used exclusively for papal travel. Instead, a regular commercial jet owned by Alitalia, the national air carrier of Italy, is set aside the day of the pope’s departure. The pilots and crew are all regular Alitalia employees. The next day, the plane returns to running Alitalia’s normal routes, with its passengers presumably unaware that they’re sitting in what was only recently the “papal plane.”

There’s also no special room on the plane for the pope, no Air Force One-esque office with a couch, desk, TV set, and wet-bar. His lone perk is that he gets a seat by himself in the front row. Behind him are the most senior officials from the Secretariat of State, beginning with Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. (This seating arrangement usually means that when the flight attendants sit down for take-off, they’re directly across from the Holy Father. Watching them try not to stare is a favorite on-board pastime.)

During John Paul’s final years, when he struggled to walk, he would enter the plane from the rear using a special elevated platform, essentially a modified version of the hydraulic compartment used to deliver meals for the flight. Some wags briefly flirted with calling it the “pope-lift,” by way of analogy to the “pope-mobile,” but the term never caught on. To date, Benedict XVI is taking the stairs.

Usually, the pope returns to Italy on the national carrier of the host country, and if he has to fly inside that country, he normally uses the national carrier for those flights as well. Once again, this is a normal commercial aircraft that’s set aside for the pope’s travel on those specific days. This time, however, Benedict XVI will be returning to Rome on Alitalia.

Rome has two airports, and in order to stay even-handed as the Bishop of Rome, the pope normally departs from Fiumicino and returns to Ciampino. (Among other things, this bit of local diplomacy makes life a bit difficult for those travelling with him, since they can’t drive their cars to the airport and leave them in long-term parking.)

In addition to the pope, the Vatican officials who travel with him, and his small security detail, the other occupants of the papal plane are the members of the Vatican press corps. The number of journalists varies, but usually is somewhere between 50 and 75. For the Brazil trip, 70 journalists will be on the plane. (This number is a tiny fraction of the total number of journalists who will cover the trip; local authorities in Brazil are expecting several hundred foreign journalists, in addition to Brazilians.)

An overview of the 53 news organizations represented on the papal plane for the Brazil trip offers something of an “x-ray” of how the pope is covered around the world. (In some cases, more than one journalist on the plane works for the same agency.)

Eighteen of the agencies are Italian, the largest single national grouping. Their presence reflects the fact that the pope is big news in Italy. While the Prime Minister generates a greater number of headlines in the local papers, the Pope is the bigger global story.

Nine of the agencies are American, the second largest group. They are: Fox TV, the New York Times, Time, the National Catholic Reporter, ABC TV, the Associated Press, Catholic News Service, the Los Angeles Times, and Getty Images News Services. Reuters is also widely read in the United States, though it is British-owned. Nevertheless, there are a few American outlets missing from this trip, including CNN, NBC and CBS. It may also be surprising to learn that only five German news agencies are on the plane, even with a German pope. The absence of other news outlets probably reflects both the cost of the trip, and judgments about public interest. For better or for worse, Benedict XVI is not a “mass market” pope in the style of John Paul II.

Five Brazilian agencies are on the plane this time, obviously driven by national interest in the pope’s presence. There are five French agencies, several from Spain and Portugal, and a handful from the rest of Latin America, especially Mexico – the second-largest Catholic country in the world, after Brazil.

It’s not cheap to travel with the pope. For the Brazil trip, each journalist pays €3,331.18 in airfare, which is equivalent to U.S.$4,514.85. That’s roughly what Alitalia charges for a business class ticket from Rome to São Paulo and back, though the journalists don’t ride in the business class section of the plane. When I began taking the papal plane six years ago, there was still a patina of first-class service. We would be invited to a special reception before take-off with coffee, juice and rolls, and aboard the plane we would receive gift bags with cologne, wine, cigarettes and other perks. Under the weight of Alitalia’s financial woes, however, those days are long gone.

Despite the cost and declines in VIP treatment, more journalists always apply for the plane than can be accommodated. For any given trip, there could be roughly 120 to 150 applications, more if the trip is judged to be of special news interest. Each time the list is posted, speculation circulates about why certain journalists made it and others didn’t. Sometimes, people interpret omission from the plane as a sign of Vatican disapproval, and over the years there probably have been such cases.

For the most part, however, the calculus is simpler. There’s a stable core of news outlets that travel with the pope every time, and hence their applications are quasi-automatically approved. By my count, roughly 50-55 of the 70 journalists on this flight fall into that category. The Vatican Press Office will also ensure that a handful of journalists from the host country make into onto the papal plane, as well as others from the region. In this case, that leaves perhaps 10 “open” slots which depend upon the discretion of the Press Office.

There are only a handful of specifically “Catholic” news outlets on the plane, including the Catholic News Service, the news agency of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops; the National Catholic Reporter; L’Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference; KNA, the German Catholic news agency; and a handful of Catholic TV and radio outlets. In general, the Vatican Press Office has something of a “preferential option” for major secular news agencies, because they offer the largest audience for the pope’s message. In addition, the cost of the trip is prohibitive for most Catholic outlets.

Of course, travelling on the papal plane is not the only way to cover a papal trip. Large news agencies usually deploy several people, either based wherever the pope is going, or who travel from nearby bureaus. They do most of the fact-gathering, monitoring of local press reports, and “person in the street” interviews, while the correspondent on the plane keeps his or her eyes on the pope.

Smaller outlets, however, which can send only one reporter, face a difficult judgment call: to take the plane, or not to take the plane. There are good journalistic arguments on both sides.

If you don’t take the papal plane, you’re free to go early, getting a sense of the place, and/or to stay late, doing follow-up coverage. While the pope is on the ground, you’re not part of the Vatican “bubble” and have more freedom to pick and choose who you want to interview, what you want to see, and so on. In addition, you can usually do it substantially cheaper. (If you’re willing to fly economy, you could get a Rome to São Paulo round-trip ticket on Alitalia for €1,300. More to the point, you could skip Rome altogether and fly directly from wherever you happen to be).

On the other hand, the advantages of being part of the papal party are considerable. First of all, the Vatican takes care of local accreditation, an expedited visa process, and arranges transportation and lodging. The Vatican also handles internal movements within the country. For example, this time they’ve arranged a chartered plane to get the press corps back to São Paulo from the Marian sanctuary of Aparecida. Logistically, therefore, it’s often much easier to move with the pope.

Further, as part of the papal party, one has more ready access to the senior Vatican officials, as well as the pope’s spokesperson, Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi. When a reporter needs a quote or a clarification in a hurry, this proximity can make a real difference. Moreover, reporters on the plane have the chance to be included in pools for the big events on the pope’s schedule, which sometimes puts you in the front row as history is being made.

To be frank, there is also a certain cachet that attaches to being on the papal plane, which can sometimes help create an audience for one’s reporting.

Another consideration, not to be gainsaid, is that travelling on the plane puts one in the company of many of the best Vatican writers in the world, and the informal exchanges that go on while people are waiting for buses, or having a beer in the hotel bar at the end of a long day, are sometimes worth the price of admission all by themselves.

Finally, there is a somewhat ghoulish consideration. Should the pope have a health crisis during the trip and his plane has to be diverted back to Rome or to some other location, as long as you’re on it, you’ll be wherever the story is. If not, you might be stuck in Aparecida while the drama unfolds someplace else. Naturally, this was an especially strong consideration during the final years of John Paul’s foreign travel.

One last point, which is usually the first question people want to ask about the papal plane: Do reporters get to “hang out” with the pope? In a word, no.

In the early days of John Paul’s papacy, he would come to the back of the plane and spend substantial chunks of time with reporters in the various language groups – Italian, French, English, Spanish, and so on. By the time I began travelling with him, however, this had been restricted to taking a couple of generalized questions on our outbound flight, and perhaps sitting with each journalist for a quick picture on the way back.

Under Benedict XVI, the new system is that Lombardi collects questions from reporters in advance, then condenses them into perhaps three prepared questions he poses to the pope, who delivers responses over an audio system installed in the plane. The pope then retreats to his section, while we remain in the back. To date, we have not been summoned to the front on the return flight to have our pictures taken with the pope.

Word is that on the Brazil trip, however, the outbound session with the press will be a longer and more free-form affair, owing in part to the fact that it's a longer flight.

On the other hand, we do often have the chance to chat with officials from the Secretariat of State, security personnel, and other figures such as the pope’s doctor and his spokesperson. It’s not quite as charming as spending time with the pope himself, of course, but it can be informative.

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