Wings and Prayers

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

Off the record, American honchos say that contentious Miami staffers simply ticked off their supervisors. But if management saw the gesture as no more venomous than yanking the candy machine from an employee staff room, they underestimated what the chapels had come to mean, to crews and passengers alike.

Father Jamnicky says that following a major airline disaster, airport priests hear from a steady stream of pilots asking them to pray that if the worst happens, the cockpit recorder will show they maintained their composure. The template for courage they most often cite is the captain of the American Eagle commuter plane that crashed nose-down into a frozen Indiana cornfield in 1994: The pilot's calm, clear voice reports desperate, ingenious maneuvers till the tape's end. (The Federal Aviation Administration blamed the disaster on ice-coated wings during descent for landing.)

Crews find use for airport chapels under less dire circumstances, as well. "Before a flight they're like Olympic athletes getting psyched for a broad jump," says Father Jamnicky. "They know they're doing work that's dangerous, but they really are in a profession with a private code of honor. And that is to maintain their public poise even at the moment of greatest danger."

Capt. Paul Renneisen, a Miami-based American pilot, sports on his crisply pressed uniform the Allied Pilot Association's flame-emblazoned union pin alongside pins for the Strike Preparedness Committee and (in a show of crew solidarity) the Association of Professional Flight Attendants. Three of his children, including ten-year-old Baron, were baptized in airport chapels. "The image the pilots know the public expects from us is steely-eyed, ice water in the veins, analytical intellects, a Clint Eastwood emotional range. So that's pretty much how we act and what we become," Renneisen reflects. "I thought if I even set foot in a chapel, other pilots would question my emotional integrity."

Renneisen says pilots spend most of their preflight time in the operations room, scrutinizing weather data and incident reports. Aloft in the cockpit, there's no chatting, no joking. "I noticed that the airport chapels were the one place captains talked freely, over the free food and coffee," says the 43-year-old, who has run for his union's national office. "Before a strike vote, pilots would go to chapel services for the moment of silent prayer a priest has for the union. Maybe it's partly superstition. But they also go for the words that are said when a plane -- from any airline -- is lost. I miss having a Miami chapel."

Passengers too have been known to make use of airport chapels. Father Raul Martinez, an NCCAC-trained priest who used to work out of MIA, recalls giving comfort to his share of white-knuckle flyers. Particularly memorable, he says, were the drug couriers: Experiencing the aviation equivalent of a foxhole conversion, they'd dash into the chapel for confession, their bellies crammed with cocaine-filled condoms. "I still get Christmas cards from three of them," the priest sighs.

Because airport chaplains swear their first allegiance to God, they sometimes find themselves in disagreement with the corporations that subsidize their church space. Priests have intervened when airlines wanted to dump victims' remains into mass graves without the bother of identification. They've objected when airline lawyers sequestered relatives in separate cubicles instead of allowing them the comfort of each other's company while they wait for grim news. So abysmal was ValuJet's treatment of families immediately after the Miami crash last May that Congress noted the need for a mechanism to perform the functions of an airport chaplain. A bill was introduced proposing that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) create a department to provide grief counseling, transport relatives to the hospital, and prevent airline employees from discarding the personal belongings of the dead. These staffers would perform the functions of an airport priest, but in suits rather than in robes. The NTSB is studying how to implement the idea.

In Miami, meanwhile, the closest thing to a chapel is located across from American baggage carousel 24: a cutting-edge Meditation Room. To enter, one picks up the phone next to the glass door. Several minutes later an airport operations agent arrives and unlocks it. Inside, twenty green chairs face each other along purple walls. A motion sensor over the exit unlocks the door when you're done. (A red phone with a direct line to the terminal facilities department was installed on the wall, according to airport staffer Tony Varona, after the motion sensor conked out and increasingly hysterical meditators found themselves trapped.) No priest, no minister, no rabbi.

When an American Airlines jet originating in Miami crashed in Cali, Colombia, last winter, "everyone worried about how to plan a memorial service without an airport priest," recalls Capt. Luis Ortega, who had trained in American's flight school before joining a Colombian airline. "I come from a Catholic nation, and nothing I've seen there made me a believer," Ortega says. "But when there's a memorial service, I attend." When American Airlines employees finally arranged a ceremony, he flew all the way from Bogota to pay his respects.

That's the bond of people who work with danger. At such services, the airport chaplain traditionally calls for a moment of silent prayer for the downed souls' safe passage. Row on row, the pilots and flight attendants stand at attention, just in case there is a higher power, and just in case it listens.

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