In-flight amenities: Journalists well-treated on papal plane

By John Thavis Catholic News Service

ABOARD THE PAPAL FLIGHT TO THE U.S. (CNS) -- The food was superb, the Alitalia passenger jet was impeccably outfitted, and Pope Benedict XVI gave reporters something to work with during their 10 hours in the air.

It was much like any other papal flight, but this one was special: The pope was going to America.

The drill began early for Alitalia. Two days before, the exterior of the Boeing 777 was washed and polished, and the interior was reconfigured for Flight AZ4000.

About nine hours before departure, a security sweep was made. About the same time, Alitalia chefs began cooking the meals to be served to the pope and the other 100 passengers.

The seating was hierarchical: The pope had a newly remodeled front section, his 30-member entourage came next, and reporters occupied the coach-class area of the aircraft.

The pope boards without much fanfare and typically spends a few minutes posing for snapshots with the Alitalia crew. The airline rotates pilots and other personnel on papal flights so everyone gets a chance at the honor.

An hour after takeoff, Pope Benedict came back to field reporters' questions. He seemed quite willing to talk, but the Vatican, on this flight, returned to a format of preselected questions, which gave the event a rehearsed feel.

The last time the pope met with journalists, he was on his way to Brazil. On that occasion, he took spontaneous questions, and his remarks on abortion and Catholic politicians stirred a great deal of controversy and confusion.

On this flight, the pope's appearance was over in about 20 minutes. Shortly afterward, the main meal was served. For the record, the menu included ravioli with butter and sage sauce, a choice of turkey with black olives or fish kabob, mixed cheeses, wild strawberry mousse and, of course, wines and coffee.

What the pope was doing at any given moment during the flight was anyone's guess. Chairing a meeting? Praying? Taking a nap? It could have been any of the above.

The Vatican considers the information private, but an Italian reporter recently divulged that the papal quarters on the plane include a worktable, a bed and a kneeler in front of a crucifix.

By all accounts, the pope is a model and undemanding passenger. The Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, recently said the pope has no particular fear of flying. In fact, the pontiff went up in the cockpit on one recent trip to take a look at the instruments.

Journalists are well treated on the plane, with plenty of room, the frequent offering of libations and small courtesies like a full-color map of the pope's air route. The plane's headrest covers, embroidered with the papal crest, make a nice, if unofficial, souvenir.

Of course, all of this comes with a hefty price tag: $3,200 euros (US$5,050) for the Rome-Washington-New York-Rome trip.

Although the plane is full of Vatican officials, including many of the pope's top advisers, they don't make themselves available to the press.

One Vatican department head was willing to talk, though. Cardinal Renato Martino, head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, was at Rome's Leonardo da Vinci Airport waiting for a flight to Romania.

He told reporters that one thing to look for during the pope's United Nations talk April 18 was the disarmament issue. A few days earlier, the pope had sent a long message -- "a small encyclical," the cardinal called it -- to a conference sponsored by the council.

On board, reporters are usually the grateful recipients of advance copies of that day's papal speeches. This time, there were no speeches, because the pope's official arrival ceremony was at the White House the next day.

The only official handouts reporters got were routine papal telegrams sent to the presidents of Italy, France and Canada, the countries the plane was to fly over.

An information packet from the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See was slipped into each seat. It included a book on U.S.-Vatican relations and a lapel pin with the U.S. and Vatican flags.

Copyright (c) 2008 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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