COLOMBO (EconomyNext) – Pope Francis left Sri Lanka after what the Vatican had described as a successful visit, but there were ominous signs and anxious moments as he boarded a Sri Lankan flight.
The pontiff and his entourage flew an ageing A340-300 that is earmarked for replacement. Either the very same aircraft or its twin was grounded at the Charles de Gaulle Airport in September 2011 for missing vital rivets holding up a section of the fuselage.
The pope waved from the aircraft named Magam – Ruhunupura, taking the initials of the former president Mahinda Rajapakse who was often referred to as MR.
An ITN anchor was so emotional he lamented that this would be the Holy Father’s "final blessing" on Sri Lanka.
The civilian air traffic tracking website flightrada24.com did little to reassure pope watchers. A few minutes after being in the air, flight ALK 4111 disappeared from air traffic tracking website as the aircraft was over the Bay of Bengal. After an anxious wait of six hours and 20 minutes, Manila confirmed that the Sri Lankan aircraft landed safely.
Before he left, the send-off and the sight of pious Catholics kneeling and kissing the pope’s hand clearly left an impression on airport ground handling staff, although the airport chairman and the head of Sri Lankan airlines were conspicuous by their absence.
When President Maithripala Sirisena had said his good byes to the pope and walked the red carpet back to the VVIP terminal, Sri Lankan staff wearing luminous jackets pushed each other to shake the new president by the hand. Some even knelt and kissed President Sirisena’s hand, pope style.
For airport and Sri Lankan staff, a presidential blessing may be more useful than a papal blessing to keep their jobs, considering the mass sackings already ordered by the new administration.
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