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Last Updated: Monday, 27 August 2007, 10:52 GMT 11:52 UK
Vatican flight service launches
By David Willey
BBC News, Rome

Pope Benedict XVI leaves Valencia
The Vatican itself has no airport
A senior Vatican cardinal has inaugurated a low-cost charter flight service which aims to transport Catholic pilgrims to holy sites.

The first flight from Rome to Lourdes in France took off at 1130 (0930 GMT), using a small charter airline owned by the Italian post office.

The airline expects to transport around 150,000 pilgrims in its first year.

Flights will initially go to Catholic shrines in France, Poland, Spain as well as the Middle East.

There are plans to include Mexico in the schedule later on.

Business booming

The Vatican has signed a five-year agreement through its local travel organisation which organises pilgrimages for the Diocese of Rome.

The charter airline, called Mistral Air, normally carries courier cargo, letters and parcels for the Italian post office.

Low cost airlines are doing good business in Italy. Last year the number of passengers they transported increased by 20%.

The Vatican itself has no airline and no airport, just a helipad used by the Pope for local journeys with the Italian air force providing helicopter transport.

But Mistral Air's two charter jets are already painted in the Vatican colours of yellow and white. Moreover, interiors are decorated with sacred inscriptions such as: "I search for your face, Lord."

Pilgrims boarding the Vatican plane

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