ROME – After a 57-year stretch of loyalty to the same company, papal travel is set to change this fall with the closure of Italy’s national airline Alitalia, which has taken four popes to a total of 171 countries on all continents.
Founded on Sept. 16, 1946, Alitalia is the flag carrier and largest airline in Italy, making it a natural choice for Paul VI, whose 15-year reign set the stage for the pope as a globe-trotting figure.
It was Paul VI’s predecessor, Saint John XXIII, who made history for becoming the first pope of 20th century to leave the Rome area after his election when he visited a prison during Holy Week in 1958, and he later took a train to the Holy House of Mary in Loreto, but Paul VI took papal outings to new heights when he began traveling internationally as a means of both pastoral care and carrying out Vatican diplomacy.
In total, Paul VI took nine international trips with Alitalia, which would transport three other popes to 162 locations in the subsequent years.
Pope Saint John Paul II took a total of 104 international trips with the airline. His successor, Benedict XVI, took 24 trips with Alitalia, while Pope Francis has so far taken 33 with the company, with a 34th trip to Hungary and Slovakia planned for Sept. 12-15.
Though Alitalia has been the pope’s airline since Paul VI’s visit to the Holy Land in 1964, beginning with St. John Paul II it also became custom for the pope to take the flag carrier of whatever country he visited last back to Rome.
In the United States, TWA ferried John Paul at the end of his 1979, 1987, 1995 and 1999 trips to America.
A pope didn’t visit the States again until Pope Benedict XVI did so in 2008, by which time TWA was no longer a going concern. The question then became which American carrier would have the honor of taking Benedict home, and legend has it that the titans of the U.S. Church at the time, including Cardinals Edward Egan of New York, Francis George of Chicago and then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was recently retired at the time, couldn’t agree.
As the story goes, George wanted United to get the nod because it’s based in Chicago while Egan was favorable to either American or Delta, since both have major footprints in New York, and McCarrick was aggressively pushing Continental in light of loyalties dating back to his days in Newark.
In the end, the potentially apocryphal account says, the Vatican was so put off by the squabbling it simply decided Benedict would fly Alitalia both ways. By 2015, however, the wounds apparently had healed, and Pope Francis flew American Airlines back to the Eternal City.
(As a footnote, TWA was once headquartered in Kansas City, and to this day a museum there preserves the special bed the airline installed in the first-class cabin of one of its 727 jets for the Polish pontiff – complete with a specially designed seatbelt to cover the pontiff’s midsection as he slumbered.)
That account has never been confirmed, but as the Italians say, se non e’ vero, e’ ben trovato, loosely meaning, “if it’s not true, it at least sounds good.”
However, despite its popularity among pontiffs, Alitalia has been a political headache for Italy for decades due to what some argue were poor investments and mismanagement, putting them at a near-constant risk of bankruptcy.
With 11,000 employees, the company was put under emergency administration in May 2017 in the hopes of pulling the airline out of definitive crisis; however, with business already struggling and the near halt in air travel since the coronavirus pandemic erupted at the beginning of 2020, Alitalia has finally decided to pull the plug.
As far as papal travel goes, this means Pope Francis’s trip to Hungary and Slovakia next month will be the last papal trip taken with Alitalia, after almost 60 years of loyalty.
Although as of now Alitalia flights are still available for purchase, the company will formally close down this fall and will be reincorporated under a new name: ITA (Italia Trasporto Aereo).
As of as of Oct. 15, 2021, ITA flights will be available for purchase, bringing new management and a new logo, as well as a new sense of corporate hope after Alitalia’s years-long struggle for survival, costing the Italian government some 7.4 billion euros between 1974-2014.
ITA will initially start smaller than Alitalia, dropping to just 60 aircraft instead of 92, and only 5,000 employees instead of 11,000. However, it’s projected that several thousand more former Alitalia workers could be hired by ITA in 2022, depending on how business goes.
The Vatican has not responded to a Crux request for comment on whether the pope plans to travel with ITA in the future, including his upcoming November visit to Glasgow for the COP26 UN climate summit.
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