To the Rev. Chester R. Cook, it was a slip-up, but the woman in his office at the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta on Monday didn't view it quite that way.
She was on her way to a funeral, Cook said in a telephone interview, "and she thought someone would pick her up, but everyone else was busy with the funeral and she missed the service."
Cook, a United Methodist minister and former businessman, comforted the woman as much as possible, illustrating one role of a modern-day airport chaplain. Hartsfield, as the Atlanta airfield is known, is the nation's busiest hub and keeps three chaplains on call to help those in need. But for reasons that vary from lack of space and demand to fears of legal challenges, fewer airports in the West offer the services of chaplains.
A veteran of 12 years at Hartsfield, Cook said airport chaplains have a three-fold ministry. One is to be "present" for travelers and airport employees. Workers feel more valued when a chaplain is available to them at a workplace, he said. Another is to help travelers with difficulties such as missed connections or lost luggage.
"Sometimes a chaplain can work little miracles just talking to them. A lot of in-the-moment kind of crisis counseling or just listening," he said.
And the third is when a major crisis hits, whether it's an airplane tragedy or one in the workplace. Cook recalls the worksite suicide of an airport fireman, and the role chaplains at Hartsfield played in consoling the deceased's colleagues.
Travel and prayer mixed
Mixing air travel with prayer may seem a natural for those who are nervous when planes take off, but the need for spiritual support crystallizes, perhaps, in times of crisis and tragedy. Following the March 8 disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, en route from Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, to Bejing, China, news reports highlighted prayers for the missing aircraft and its passengers. Tweets with the hashtag #prayforMH370 have been available to more than 1.3 million Twitter users, according to the Hashtracking.com website.
But if travelers at Salt Lake City International Airport — which served 20 million passengers in 2012, making it America's 26th-busiest airport — find themselves in need of spiritual help, they might well be left without a prayer.
Salt Lake International, like many of the West's larger airports, is without on-site chaplains, or even a place where people can withdraw and pray apart from the general hustle and bustle of the transportation center.
The paucity of pastoral help at Salt Lake's airport stands in sharp contrast to larger metropolitan airports in the East, such as New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, Boston's Logan International Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport outside of the nation's capital, each of which have a variety of chaplaincy services available. As The New York Times reported in a recent write-up of Atlanta's airport spiritual support services, "Chapels are common in the Eastern and Central United States, but major airports out West remain without them."
The Rev. Chris Piasta, a Roman Catholic priest who serves at Kennedy Airport and is a spokesman for the International Association of Civil Aviation Chaplains, said that while it's "difficult, if not impossible to measure what we do in dollars," having chaplains on-site at an airport can be important.
He noted that when Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crashed on landing at San Francisco International Airport on July 6, 2013, one of the first questions media asked him was about chaplaincy services there. Piasta replied that there were none, a statement confirmed by airport officials.
Why isn't Salt Lake City on the roll of airport-based worship spaces?
"The reason is we are space constrained," said Barbara Gann, public relations and marketing director for the Salt Lake City Department of Airports. "We don't have available space to dedicate to a service. Haven't had demand. However, we do have people who work in the terminals who are trained (and) should someone request a service, we have a list of chaplains we can connect them with, the same chaplains we would use in a time of emergency."
Gann said that as the airport completes a new terminal under construction, a chapel is a "possibility" provided "we had available space."
Boon for travelers
One local supporter of both chapels and chaplaincy services — often found at area hospitals, regardless of affiliation — says bringing faith to fliers would be a boon for travelers.
"There's always a benefit for people to take time and think about a spiritual focus throughout the day in a busy life," said the Rev. Elias Koucos, rector of the Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church and chairman of the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable. "I would love to see a facility where people could spend time in contemplation or prayer, depending on their desire. There are a lot of chaplaincy services for hospitals, home health (and) hospice care. I think it would be an added benefit for those with a desire as well at the airport."
At the Roman Catholic diocese of Salt Lake City, Monsignor Colin F. Fitzgerald, vicar general, expressed interest in a potential chaplaincy work for travelers. "If there was a facility available at the Salt Lake airport, we would then consider what services could be offered there," he said through a spokeswoman.
Some Western U.S. airports, such as Portland International Airport, say such services might be in less demand because the airport isn't a hub location, according to Steve Johnson, an airport spokesman.
"To date, we have just not heard a great deal of interest expressed by passengers in chaplaincy services," Johnson said in an email. "We think that may be related to the fact that we are an 'origin and destination' airport (where) passengers usually start or end their trip spending less time in our airport than they might at a large 'hub' airport like Atlanta."
However, Johnson added, "We recognize that travelers may need a quiet space when traveling, and to that end, we offer quiet areas in our service centers located throughout the terminal."
Airport chaplains often do more than just lead a worship service. In 2012, Adventist World magazine carried a report about Jose A. Barrientos Jr., a Seventh-day Adventist minister who is a weekly volunteer at Washington Dulles. Barrientos, the magazine reported, "is a pastor, but he also serves as a guide, restaurant critic, and first-rate public relations representative."
Other airports, like Salt Lake City International, view chaplaincy as an emergency-based service. San Diego International Airport spokeswoman Rebecca Bloomfield said, "Information desks are located throughout the terminals and can provide passengers with contacts for local chaplain services. In the event of an emergency, the Airport Authority has plans in place to obtain chaplain services for both passengers and employees."
Even civil liberties issues sometimes intrude. Los Angeles International Airport spokesman Marcus Lowe said establishing a prayer chapel or chaplaincy service might violate legal doctrines outlining the separation of church and state, when asked why the airport lacks such options.
But MaryJean Dolan, a Chicago attorney specializing in church-state issues, said that might not be the case. While defending an in-airport chapel might be "tricky," she said, "under the right circumstances, the spaces are defensible."
As to chaplains themselves, if clergy were "hired by the airport (authority)" such a hiring "might be more easily challenged," Dolan said. However, chaplains who are paid by their sponsoring organization or via private funding such as a charity established for that purpose, would likely not violate separation doctrines, she added.
Dolan said there is "no establishment clause issue until there's some kind of government role."