Wings and Prayers

Most big airports come equipped with round-the-clock clerics -- but for some reason MIA has lost its religion

When the unthinkable happens -- when a commercial airliner plummets to Earth in a mass of twisted metal and flames -- the emergency-response team dispatched to the crash site includes firefighters, rescue workers, investigators, and priests. Specially trained by the nonprofit National Catholic Conference of Airport Chaplains, the priests are well-versed in grief counseling tailored to what the NCCAC handbook, entitled "Ministry of the Moment," refers to as "immense catastrophic loss of life." Normally, in addition to a first aid kit, each priest carries a canteen of holy water strapped to his waist. Alerted by beeper in the event of a crash, the chaplains fan out to five positions: the crash site, the airport chapel, the local hospital, the airline's employee lounge (where the downed crew's comrades congregate), and the Group Room, where airlines send crash victims' families to wait.

But not in Miami.
"After what happened with the ValuJet crash, I wish we did have a chapel here in Miami," says Lauren Gail, public relations director at Miami International Airport. "Airlines are supposed to take care of the victims' families, but a lot of times they just don't. No one from ValuJet did anything. My staff had to take tissues and water in to the families and provide all the emotional support. My people are trained in PR and communications, not psychology. A lot of my staffers ended up needing grief counseling themselves, the ordeal was so traumatic. We desperately needed airport chaplains for help."

Across the nation, 30 urban airports are equipped with chapels staffed by NCCAC chaplains. (This includes all the so-called hubs except Los Angeles International, whose chapel was damaged in an earthquake.) There once was a chapel at MIA, but it was shut down during the 1980s -- for a reason so weird that only the American Airlines employees who were around at the time can believe it.

Chapels began springing up at airports 50 years ago because pilots and flight attendants demanded them. In order to avoid church-state conflicts that might arise from allowing houses of worship on publicly owned grounds, the sanctuaries are funded by the airlines, which pay rent for them the same way they rent other terminal space -- via landing fees assessed on a per-ton basis -- or through direct donations. In addition to providing support after major disasters, airport chaplains also perform memorial services for deceased crew members and offer more routine interfaith services and stress counseling to the men and women whose jobs require that they hurtle along at 500 mph, six miles up in the air, on a regular basis. Over the years the chaplains have provided one other service: When an airline strike looms, they offer their chapel space and their prayers to unions in need of a place to talk without fear of being eavesdropped upon.

In fact, the NCCAC's training program examines labor issues and conflicts from the control tower to the cockpit, so that priests can act as intermediaries if asked. "We don't take sides. Chaplains consider both labor and management part of our flocks," asserts Father John Jamnicky, director of the O'Hare International Airport-based nonprofit. "If management asked, we'd give them the same space and spiritual counsel we give unions. But they have executive meeting rooms. And corporate attorneys guide them."

Though the official cause of death remains shrouded in bureaucratic hemming and hawing, some say it is that last function, as an informal union hall, that explains the demise of MIA's chapel. What is certain is this: The sanctuary, which had bounced through six locales in Concourse E over the years, ceased to exist sometime in the mid-1980s when American Airlines, its principal donor, decided to stop funding it.

Miami is what airline executives refer to as a "junior base," a place where new hires and younger pilots get their career tickets punched. And, says Debbie Thompson, who was organizing for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants in the 1970s, it is also a union hotbed. This month, as American's pilots vote on their contract, Miami remains the heart of the diehard pro-strike contingent. "Activists from all the American unions met in the chapel and talked about common safety issues, harassment, discrimination," Thompson recalls. "Because priests, instead of waitresses, were passing around the doughnuts and coffee, pilots listened to us more politely than they would have in a cocktail lounge. It was a first for a lot of them -- respecting stewardesses."

According to Thompson and other union activists, American's move to nix MIA's chapel was management's way of sabotaging the spiritual solidarity the space fostered among workers. Through the decade's ensuing strike threats, employees would cobble together ad hoc chapels -- complete with silk flowers and props such as crosses and yarmulkes -- in various conference rooms.

"I don't know the real reason we quit funding a Miami chapel, but the decision would have been made by local supervisors then," comments John Carpenter, American's vice president for governmental affairs, speaking from the airline's Dallas-Fort Worth headquarters. "As a corporation, American can separate a labor from a spiritual issue. I'm Catholic. I look for a chapel whenever I'm in an airport. I respect the work the chaplains are doing. If Miami-based employees make their wishes known to their supervisors enough, eventually it will drift up to the corporate level and a decision can be made for chapel funding."

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