Worshipping at 30,000ft

News that may soon have climate-change protestors superglueing themselves to church gates: the Vatican has announced it is setting up its own airline to fly pilgrims to shrines and holy sites. As a way of getting closer to god, it's certainly not the most eco-friendly.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

But that hasn't stopped the idea becoming wildly popular. The first flight, departing at the end of the month from Rome to Lourdes, has already sold out. Other possible routes for the service may include Fatima in Portugal, Santiago di Compostella in Spain and the sanctuary of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico.

In going for a niche market the new airline should have some intriguing competitive advantage over other more established rivals. It will be able to better Ryanair, for example, by actually flying to the airports that its customers want. 

As religious organisations go, the Vatican has always been rather light on its feet commercially. It has an estimated $1bn of working capital, and its conglomerate includes a multi-million pound share portfolio, a bank with billions of pounds on deposit, a $56 million charitable fund, and a city state - Vatican City - with its own Post Office and fire brigade, as well as some of the best-attended museums in the world. Perhaps its decision to start transporting the faithful came after a period jealously eyeing the money being made by other upstarts in the deregulated air travel sector.

The flights will be operated by Italian charter operator Mistral Air, and will include religious guides, as well as interiors decorated with sacred inscriptions and the airline's slogan ‘I'm searching for your face, Lord'. There was a time when a pilgrimage may have involved crawling on one's hands and knees as a sign of penitence. The modern equivalent may well be enduring interminable delays and an in-flight meal. The Vatican has, however, drawn the line at adding Heathrow to the airline's itinerary.

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