How Airport Chapels are Used, and What Chaplains Do

Tyler Cowen points me to God on the Fly? The Professional Mandates of Airport Chaplains (Sociology of Religion, Volume 78, Issue 4, 8 January 2018, Pages 437–455),

This article contributes to Bender et al’s efforts to explore religion “on the edge” by analyzing how religion and spirituality are present in one set of public institutions—airports (2013).

I ask how airport chaplains articulate the professional mandate or basis on which they do their work. Rather than making legal or economic arguments, common in the literature about professional mandates, airport chaplains emphasize the moral demand they perceive for their work. They speak of the need to be present, to see and be attentive to grief, and to serve as a last resort.

As a case, airport chaplains raise questions about Andrew Abbott’s (1988) approach to the professions by defining as “work” actions within airports that other professionals do not. Rather than being in competition with other professional groups for the right to do this “work,” they are working to become a companion profession, one that comes alongside.

I have to admit I’ve never been inside an airport chapel. I walk right past them. I’ve read plenty of articles suggesting that they’re peaceful refuges in crowded airports, a place of peace and quiet to relax religion aside. And I suppose that at least usually the case. But I’ve always felt strange just walking in.

Maybe that dates back to being a child and feeling strange walking into a church, like I was doing something wrong because I’m Jewish. Of course I’ve (arguably) grown up a lot since then. I’ve been a part of Catholic weddings, where other groomsmen took communion, I simply crossed my arms because it seemed disrespectful to engage in the ritual that I didn’t believe in. (I had discussed this in advance with my friend the groom and with the priest performing the service.)

I often think of airport chapels serving mostly transient passengers but of course they also serve airport employees. In fact the first ones in the US were Catholic, in the 1950s, started to serve staff rather than passengers. The very first in the U.S. was at Boston Logan named “Our Lady of the Airways.” The second was at then-Idlewild (now JFK) in New York, “Our Lady of the Skies.”

Airports as mini-cities have myriad amenities (although some amenities are missing, fully stocked drugstores and dry cleaners are surprising absent from most in the States and I was disappointed when the barber shop at DFW learned it would get kicked out after 43 years). There are spiritual needs as well as audio/visual needs.

DFW Barber Shop

The description of an airport chaplain wandering around, with intent, looking for people that need them was interesting — being there is work, and even religious work needs sales or prospecting.

Something else that happens behind the scenes that most of us don’t think about,

Chaplains also play roles around death when dead bodies move through airports and people who work at airports die.

…Chaplains are also frequently the individuals who notify loved ones when someone dies in flight. A few times a month in Atlanta, for example, a passenger becomes seriously ill or dies in flight—typically on an international flight.

Prayer Room, Etihad Residence Lounge New York JFK

Airport police will also sometimes refer problems to the airport chaplain as an alternative to arrest. And I recall a Scott McCartney piece in the Wall Street Journal suggesting that the chaplain can sometimes help with crowd control, people behave better around religious figures.

Interestingly there’s no chapel in my home airport. There’s also no designated chapel space at Las Vegas, Los Angeles, or Philadelphia either. Dallas Fort-Worth has 5.

Have you ever spent time in an airport chapel? What did you go for? Did you interact with the chaplain? I wonder if it’s part of the regular routine for any readers, whether as passengers or airport or airline employees.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I had several hours to kill at Midway one Sunday and went to Mass. I was surprised at how well it was attended. I would recon more people there were employees than travelers but it was a fairly diverse mix. It was a lovely little service.

  2. If I am traveling on a Sunday for work, I will try to arrange my travel so that I can attend Mass at an airport chapel or a church nearby the connecting airport. DTW has a reflection room, but no Catholic services. There is a church a short Uber ride away, though.

    It is a very nice amenity for religious employees and travelers.

  3. I’ve been in the DFW terminal B Branniff themed chapel once. Not much to see and the interdominational aspect makes it less Holy to me personally. I also was in the Chapel at STL years ago. I assume it’s still there but is land side.

  4. I am catholic and I have had excellent experiences attending mass at airport chapels. At O’Hare and Midway, there are masses that fulfill the Sunday obligation on Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings. If it fits with my flight schedule, I will also go to a daily mass which they have at 11:30 a.m. on weekdays. I have also appreciated the ability to go to confession prior to getting on my flight.

    The airport masses generally last only 30 minutes (including on Sundays, which is relatively quick for a Sunday mass). One time, I went to Palm Sunday mass (one of the longest masses of the year) at the Dulles airport chapel. It was the shortest Palm Sunday mass that I had attended (I think it lasted around 45 minutes, using the short version of the readings, etc), but we even received palms at this mass.

    During the Year of Mercy when one could receive an indulgence for going through the Doors of Mercy, I was pleased that the Archbishop of Chicago designated the entrances to the airport chapels as Doors of Mercy, making it easy for travelers at the airport to receive this indulgence.

  5. I’ll typically visit an airport or hospital chapel for a small respite, when I need to just sit in quiet and reflect. I choose to not even read scripture on my phone while in there, out of respect to others using the chapel. And @Gary, please never feel out of place because of your religion, there is never a Mormon service in those places and I’m very fine with it

  6. I have been to many airport chapels while jetting around the country although they never seem to have a service when I’m flying. I find them a refreshing place to step inside and reflect on my life choices and areas where I need improvement before getting on a flight. I just like to take advantage of every opportunity to consider my ways and connect with my God. I am almost always alone when I visits no matter how busy the travel volume. I suppose that is a reflection of our modern culture, still I am thankful for the place. If nothing else I’m sure it helps me prepare for the chaos that is modern travel.

  7. I like to visit even if only for a quiet 30 seconds. I know of a few

    IAH – terminal C close to the intersection (ok, I know that’s vague)
    MDW – near the side concourse with the dive bomber (is that A?), 2nd floor
    SEA – never been there but I heard it’s on the second floor above the British Airways ticket counter
    JFK – terminal 4, towards the side near terminal 5
    SAT – end of terminal B (or is it terminal 2), landside

  8. The Jewish chapel at JFK is a fully functional synagogue with regular services 3-6 times a day (depending on the time of year). Having been stuck there for an entire Sabbath once (before my lounge access days) it was the one place that had some kosher snacks and drinks stashed away for emergencies and the Catholic chaplain was even able to arrange for some airline meals to tide me over the day (no charge – at least to me). It is a wonderful place just of solitude just off the hustle and bustle of the Terminal 4 TSA fiasco – and with all the flights heading to Israel – always a place a Jew who wants to say the memorial prayer for a parent can find 9 others to fill a quick quorum.

  9. I was a flight attendant, trainer and supervisor for 40 years – now in ministerial school. I want to be an airport chaplain and I am inspired to read about this!

  10. My cheap-assed mother told me that they were perfect for overnights if connecting flight landed late and next flight was in the morning.

    She’s not wrong.

  11. I am Catholic and I have greatly appreciated the ministry at various airport chapels. I have gone to Catholic mass at MDW, ORD, DUB, YYZ, and IAD. When it fits in my schedule, I like attending daily mass before or after my flight at ORD (I used to at MDW, but now they no longer have weekend masses).

    I have had fun times at airport masses. I once attended Palm Sunday mass at IAD. It was the shortest Palm Sunday mass that I had ever attended, and I appreciated the way that the priest even gave us palms, saying that it was a full service airport. Another time, back when they had more masses before COVID, I attended airport mass at ORD in my tuxedo at 6:30 a.m. I was on my way to be part of a Jewish wedding in the North suburbs. The airport was on the way there, and the 6:30 a.m. time was perfect for my schedule. I also once went to O’Hare for a Holy Thursday mass as they had the mass mid-day and everywhere else that I knew of in Chicago had mass in the evening (I was attending a work-related event that evening).

    I also remember the time when I saw the chapel at MDW most crowded–a group of college students on their way to a FOCUS conference had some flight issue (missed their connection, were delayed, or something), and the group attended the airport mass. This contrasts with another time, when I was the only one attending the mass other than the priest.

    In addition to attending mass, I have gone to confession at the airport as well. Prior to COVID, they even had a fellowship room for fellowship after airport masses. If nothing else, I like to stop by and pay a visit, if it works for my schedule, each time I make it to one of Chicago’s airports, as I appreciate that they have tabernacles with the Blessed Sacrament.

  12. I’ve used airport chapels to offer Muslim prayers. I keep a prayer rug in my carry on. Chapels in DTW and MSP have prayer rugs there

  13. “I’ve been a part of Catholic weddings, where other groomsmen took communion, I simply crossed my arms because it seemed disrespectful to engage in the ritual that I didn’t believe in. (I had discussed this in advance with my friend the groom and with the priest performing the service.)”

    You don’t need to apologize or have a discussion; you are literally not allowed to receive communion if you’re not catholic.

  14. Gary,

    A decent number of people end up traveling for funerals, and this may drive some airport chapel use. I recall seeking but not finding one post security at DEL knowing my best friedn had committed suicide a few hours earlier.

  15. God is ever-present everywhere. A person can start one’s dialogue with God at any time anywhere. But, being in a quiet spot to clear one’s mind and order one’s thoughts facilitates a better conversation. And, remember, you are the apple of His eye.

  16. What began as a space for devout Christians (mostly Roman Catholics) who received communion daily or near-daily has largely been taken over by Muslims with their daily prayers. Most airports in the US are public and can’t make it a Christian-only space.

  17. Boston Logan’s chapel is not tiny small like typical airport chapels. Surprised to learn LAX huge airport with large Catholic population to serve doesn’t have one. The first chapel in a train station was also in Boston. At South Station, once busiest in USA, there was a big chapel that I attended occasionally as a child. It’s long gone.

  18. “You don’t need to apologize or have a discussion; you are literally not allowed to receive communion if you’re not catholic”

    In my 60 years of church going, I’ve never seen anyone carded at the altar in order to receive communion… Also think there is a “rule” if you miss a weekly mass or holy day of obligation you can’t receive until you hit confession.

  19. Grew up in Queens and my Rabbi of blessed memory, Israel Moshowitz, was one of the founders of the tri-faith chapels at JFK.

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