National Edition

Travelers in West wing it without airport chaplains

Published: Wednesday, March 12 2014 6:55 p.m. MDT

Travelers wait in the security line at Salt Lake City International Airport in Salt Lake City Tuesday, March 4, 2014. Like many of the West's larger airports, Salt Lake's airport is without on-site chaplains, or even a place where people can withdraw and pray. The paucity of pastoral help 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.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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?

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