Wings and Prayers

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."

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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