Papal Planes: The Ultimate Popemobile

We all know the Pope’s iconic PopeMobile, but how does this oh-so-important international figure get around when he’s zipping through the skies to his next destination? There is, of course, the papal plane, but the Pope also takes a variety of local carriers when he travels abroad. Here’s how he’s been doing it since the first papal flight in 1964.

The Papal Plane

Let’s get one big misconception out of the way. The pope does not own a plane. The Vatican just charters an airplane whenever the pope travels and, since the pope is often traveling out of Italy, he flies the Italian national carrier Alitalia quite a lot. When the pope is on the plane, it’s referred to as the papal plane, and sometimes Shepherd One (though that’s not an official call sign). Alitalia has, however, reserved a special flight number for the pope, AZ4000. 

Once the pope is in a foreign country, he flies that country’s national carrier or a major carrier for that nation. For example, when he’s in the United States, for example, he flies American Airlines.  Previously, he flew TWA on return trips from the US.

GPA Photo Archive

The plane is a normal commercial jet and the pope sits in the first row by himself. There’s nothing really crazy luxurious about the journey (though in decades past, airlines would install a special bed for the pope, if he was flying a long distance; that doesn’t typically happen anymore). 

The pope’s entourage of approximately 30 people sits with him. The press fills a good majority of the jet. There are usually about 70 or so people (who, by the way, are required to pay for their flights). Sometimes the two groups mix and mingle, other times not so much, all depending on who the pope is and what he prefers. 

Papal Plane has heavenly benefits for all

Depending on what airline is acting as the papal plane at the moment, passengers receive special service, as the airline typically rolls out the red carpet in celebration of carrying the pope, providing first-rate service for everyone, including the press. 

Not every airline gets the honor of carrying the pope, though. An airline has to possess a strong safety record. Of course, the airline also needs a long-haul aircraft available to ferry the pope around. In some cases, there hasn’t been an aircraft available in a country the pope was visiting. For example, when Pope Francis visited Uganda, and so Alitalia came and picked up the pope and took him back home. 

Airlines other than Alitalia that have flown the current pope include LATAM, Air Baltic, TAP Portugal, Aeromexico, American Airlines, Etihad, LOT Polish Airlines and Sri Lankan, just to name the major players. Back in the day, TWA frequently carried the pope when he was returning to Rome from the US. Given all the frequent flyer miles that Pope Francis has racked up, it just makes sense that he’s also flown on the latest and greatest aircraft, including an Etihad 787 Dreamliner and Air Baltic’s new Airbus A220. 

Looking to mimic Pope Francis’s U.S. flight experience for yourself? 

All you have to do is hop aboard one of American Airlines’s Boeing 777-200 aircraft, particularly aircraft N776AN (you’ll know it’s the one when you see the commemorative plaque at the 2L door). When the pope flew with American, the aircraft was outfitted with the Papal Coat of Arms and the old Flagship First-class seats (it’s since been refurbished with the new American Airlines seats). The seat that Pope Francis used can still be found on display at the C.R. Smith Museum in Fort Worth.