, NAIROBI, Kenya, Dec 14 – When Pope Francis boarded Alitalia flight AZ 4000 on the morning of November 25, 2015 he was heading to Africa for the first time since becoming the 266th Pope of the Roman Catholic Church; it was a first for me too covering the Pontiff… but not for radio journalist Aura Miguel – it was her 85th trip on a Papal Flight.
I had flown to the Vatican two days earlier with three other Kenyan journalists to accompany the Pope on his inaugural Africa visit that would cover Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic.
After getting the necessary accreditation, a brief on the outlook of the Papal Flight and securing the air tickets from the travel agent – some aspects of the Pope’s trip are much like being on a commercial flight – we were ‘somewhat’ ready for the trip of a lifetime.
We arrived at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport roughly three hours before departure and went through the check-in motions and security screening. As we headed to the bus that would take us to the airside, we handed in our passports (and yellow fever certificates necessary for the CAR part of the trip) in turn we were issued with a press pack; it contained all the speeches the Pope would give when he landed in Kenya (seven hours later), salutations to leaders of the countries in our flight path and description of the gift he would hand over to President Uhuru Kenyatta.
The information gives you a pretty good head-start in terms of planning your story but is issued under very strict embargo rules. I later asked what would happen if one disregarded the rules and learnt that it would simply mean being excluded from accompanying the Pope on such a trip. But more importantly, he deviates from his written speech from time-to-time and it is important to know if he wants the written text to go out as is, or disregarded for the off-the-cuff remarks.
Once on the plane, I realise the seats are not numbered but some are designated with names printed on them – those who get assigned seats complete with cables for sound feeds are cameramen and radio reporters.
Print journalists get free seating.
I got the seat next to Vatican journalist Miguel who works for Portugal-based Radio Renascença.
In the course of our three-nation Africa trip, I asked what it’s like being on the Papal Flight 85 times! and she explains “there’s always the risk of routine. It’s a paradox really; the structure of the trip is always the same.”
She was making reference to the routine meetings with Heads of State on landing in a host country, celebration of mass, meetings with the youth, families and so on.
Every morning we were awake at roughly 4am to get the Pope’s statements for the entire day and that went on for the duration of this five-day Africa trip.
Miguel told me she chooses to be available for the surprises of every trip. “There is not one trip equal to the other because of the circumstances of where the Pope is going; the realities and challenges the church is facing in that context.”